Category Archives: Fishing interests

Could we ever reverse the trend of shrinking Chinook salmon?

Much has been said about the decline of Puget Sound Chinook salmon. Often the discussion focuses on how to increase the salmon population, but I believe a good case can be made for increasing the size of these once-mighty “kings.”

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

There are plenty of reasons why we should strive for larger Chinook, not the least of which is the pure joy of seeing — and perhaps catching — a giant salmon. But I’m also thinking about our endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which don’t seem to find Puget Sound very hospitable anymore. As we know, the whales favor Chinook over any other food.

While it might take more energy for a killer whale to chase down a large Chinook versus a smaller one, the payoff in nutrition and energy far outweighs the expenditure, according to Jacques White of Long Live the Kings, who has been thinking about the size issue for some time.

In terms of competition, a giant returning Chinook might be difficult for a harbor seal to handle, and that could give the orcas a special advantage. Still, we are learning that harbor seals create problems for the Chinook population by eating millions of tiny smolts migrating to the ocean before they get a chance to grow up.

Perhaps the major reason that Chinook have declined in size is the troll fishing fleet off the coast of Alaska and Northern Canada, Jacques told me. It is almost simple math. It takes six, seven or eight years to grow the really large Chinook in the ocean. Today’s fishing fleet goes out into the middle of the Chinook-rearing areas up north. The longer the fishing boats stay there, the more likely it is that they will catch a fish that could have grown into a really big one.

Years ago, the fishing boats did not travel so far out to sea, Jacques said. There was no need to travel far when plentiful runs of salmon came right into the shore and swam up the rivers.

“In the old days,” he said, “you didn’t have people risking their necks off Alaska trying to catch fish in all kinds of weather and seas.”

In additional to the trollers, plenty of sport fishermen have taken the opportunity to catch and take home nice trophy fish, putting extra pressure on the biggest members of the fish population. Fishing derbies, past and present, challenged people to catch the biggest Chinook.

Long Live the Kings, a conservation group, once held fishing derbies, Jacques noted. But, after giving it some thought, everyone realized that the effort was counterproductive. “Long Live the Kings is now out of the derby business,” he said.

Gillnets, once common in Puget Sound, entrap fish by snagging their gills. Gillnets tend not to catch the truly giant salmon, because of the mesh size, but they do catch the larger salmon. Often only the smaller ones make it through to spawn — and that breeds another generation of small fish.

Fishing is not the only factor that tends to favor the survival of small fish, but it tends to be a big factor, according to Tom Quinn, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. The issue is complicated, and every salmon run has its own characteristics, he said.

Hatcheries, dams and habitat alterations all tend to favor fish that can compete and survive under new conditions, and often those conditions work better for smaller fish. Changes in the food web may create a nutritional deficit for some salmon stocks, and competition at sea with large numbers of hatchery fish may be a factor. Check out the study in the journal Plos One by researchers for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

With the removal of two dams on the Elwha River, I’m hoping that experts can make sure that the conditions will be right for larger fish — if they can survive to make it home.

Quinn, along with doctoral student Michael Tillotson, recently published a paper showing how fishing seasons alone can alter the genetic makeup of a population along with the behavior of individual fish.

Although these characteristics are not necessarily related to the size of fish, it directly affects the fitness of the population. When people are fishing on wild stocks during open season, a fish has the best chance of survival if it shows up before the fishing season begins or after the fishing season is over. But that is not nature’s way.

Through evolution, the greatest number of fish tend to come back when environmental conditions are optimal for migration, spawning and smolt survival. If fishing seasons are timed for the peak of the run, that will reduce the percentage of fish taking advantage of the best conditions. Over time, the population gets skewed, as more fish come back during times when conditions are less than optimal.

The result is likely a lower survival rate for the overall population. The real crunch could come in the future as a result of climate change. If temperatures or streamflows become more severe, the fish may be in a no-win situation: If they show up at the most optimal time, they are more likely to get caught. if they come early or late, the environment could kill them or ruin their chances of successful spawning.

“We are reducing the ability of fish to find good environmental conditions,” said Michael Tillotson in a UW news release about the new paper. “We’re perhaps also reducing the ability of fish to adapt to climate change.”

Certain behaviors are bred into wild fish over many generations, and some traits are connected to their timing. Whether they feed aggressively or passively can affect their survival. Some salmon will wait for rain; others will wait for the right streamflow or temperature. Some smolts will stay in freshwater for extended periods; others will move quickly to saltwater. It’s not a great idea when fishing seasons, rather than environmental conditions, dictate fish behavior.

The move to mark-selective fishing — which involves removing the adipose fin of all hatchery fish before they are released — can help solve some problems for wild fish, Tom told me. Under selective fishing rules, fishers are allowed to keep the hatchery fish with a missing fin, but they must release the wild ones that still have all their fins. Some of the wild fish die from injury, but most of them survive, he said.

The key to the problem is a better understanding of the genetic makeup of the individual stocks while increasing the effort to maintain a high-level of genetic diversity. That’s an insurance policy that allows the fish to survive changing conditions.

The genes for giant Chinook have not been lost entirely, as I pointed out in Water Ways on Nov. 25. If we want to have larger Chinook, we must protect the individual Chinook that are larger. That could mean reduced ocean fishing, selective fishing for hatchery populations, and requirements to release fish larger than a certain size. Perhaps it would even be possible to selectively breed larger Chinook in a hatchery for a limited time to increase the size of the fish.

It won’t be easy, because these notions involve messing with billions of dollars in the fishing industry, not to mention complicated international relations. I will save discussions about the Pacific Salmon Treaty for another day. I will just say that this treaty is supposed to be between the U.S. and Canada. But negotiations involve tradeoffs among Washington, Canada and Alaska. Even the Endangered Species Act can’t always protect wild Puget Sound Chinook from being caught in Alaska, with the ultimate outcome that fewer fish make it home to spawn.

What would it take to restore the legendary Chinook salmon?

Giant Chinook salmon of 50 pounds or more have not yet faded into legend, as operators of a salmon hatchery in Central British Columbia, Canada, can tell you.

Ted Walkus, a hereditary chief of the Wuikinuxv First Nation, holds a Chinook salmon caught this year for the Percy Walkus Hatchery on the Wannock River in Central British Columbia.
Photo: Percy Walkus Hatchery

The annual spawning effort at the Percy Walkus Hatchery on the Wannock River involves catching Chinook as they move upstream rather than waiting for them to arrive at the hatchery. This year, fishing crews brought home a remarkably large fish that has lived long and prospered. The progeny of this fish will be returned to the river from the hatchery to continue the succession of large Chinook.

These big fish compare to the massive Chinook that once made their way up the Elwha River and other major salmon streams of Puget Sound. Knowing that these big fish still exist provides hope that we might someday see such large salmon on the Elwha, following the recent removal of two dams and ongoing habitat restoration.

Large, powerful Chinook are suited to large, powerful streams. Big chinook can fight their way through swifter currents, jump up larger waterfalls and protect their eggs by laying deeper redds. Experts aren’t sure that the conditions are right for large Chinook to return to the Elwha, but many are hopeful. I explored this idea in a story I wrote for the Kitsap Sun in 2010.

As for the two-year-old Percy Walkus Hatchery, big fish are not uncommon in the Wannock River, as you can see in the hatchery’s Facebook photo gallery. By spawning both large and smaller salmon, the hatchery hopes to rebuild the once-plentiful numbers of Chinook in the system. Involved in the project are the Wuikinuxv First Nation along with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and others.

Ted Walkus, a hereditary chief of the Wuikinuxv and the man featured in the photo on this page, said the largest fish need to remain part of the gene pool for the hatchery and the river. That’s why volunteers go out into the river to take the brood stock. This year, 47 males and 47 females were spawned to produce more than 300,000 fertilized eggs.

“If you catch a 60-pound salmon and you keep it without breeding, that part of the gene pool eventually gets wiped out,” Walkus was quoted as saying in a CBC News report.

For similar reasons, some anglers choose to release their catch alive, if possible, after getting a photo of their big fish. The hope, of course, is that the fish will continue on and spawn naturally. In the hatchery, the genes will be passed on to more salmon when the progeny are released. Unfortunately, I was unable to quickly locate a facility management plan for the Percy Walkus Hatchery to see if anyone has projected the long-term effects of the hatchery.

Chet Gausta, middle, shows off the big fish he caught off Sekiu in 1964. Chet's younger brother Lloyd, left, and his uncle Carl Knutson were with him on the boat.
Photo courtesy of Poulsbo Historical Society/Nesby

Big fish are genetically inclined to stay at sea five, six or seven years rather than returning after four years. They must avoid being caught in fishing nets and on fishing lines during their migration of up to 1,000 miles or more before making it back home to spawn.

Perhaps you’ve seen historical black-and-white photos of giant Chinook salmon taken near the mouth of the Elwha River. Like the giant Chinook of the Wannock River, some of these fish are nearly as long as a grown man is tall. Catching them with rod and reel must be a thrill of a lifetime.

Some of those giants — or at least their genes — may still be around. The largest Chinook caught and officially weighed in Washington state dates back to 1964. The 70-pound monster was caught off Sekiu by Chester “Chet” Gausta of Poulsbo, who I wrote about upon his death in 2012. See Water Ways, Feb. 3, 2012. His photo is the second on this page.

There’s something to be said for releasing salmon over a certain size, and that goes for commercial fishing as well as sport fishing. Gillnets, for example, target larger fish by using mesh of a certain size, say 5 inches. Smaller fish can get through the nets, spawn in streams and produce the next generation — of smaller fish.

The genetic effects of removing the larger fish along with the effects of taking fish during established fishing seasons artificially “selects” (as Darwin would say) for fish that are smaller and sometimes less fit. Some researchers are using the term “unnatural selection” to describe the long-term effects of fishing pressure. I intend to write more about this soon and also discuss some ideas for better managing the harvest to save the best fish for the future.

Orcas and seals compete for a limited number of chinook salmon

It’s always been troubling to me that the Southern Resident killer whales, which frequent Puget Sound, have struggled to maintain their population, while other fish-eating resident orcas seem to be doing much better.

Killer whale chases a chinook salmon
Photo: John Durbin, Holly Fearnbach, Lance Barrett-Lennard

Now several researchers have analyzed the energy needs of all the seals, sea lions and killer whales that eat chinook salmon along the West Coast, from California to Alaska. The study provides a possible explanation, one that is consistent with what many scientists have suspected all along. Here’s how I explained it in a story written for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound:

“Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are waiting at the end of a long food line for a meal of chinook salmon — basically the only food they really want to eat.

“Ahead of them in the line are hundreds of salmon-craving killer whales in Alaska and British Columbia. Even farther ahead are thousands of seals and sea lions that eat young chinook before the fish have a chance to grow to a suitable size for orcas.”

My story contains plenty of numbers to explain what this is all about.

This issue of competition for food is not a simple one to discuss or resolve. But the new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, adds an important perspective when trying to answer the question: “Do we have too few salmon or too many marine mammals?”

From a historical viewpoint, the answer must be that we have too few salmon. But from a management perspective, we might have to conclude that the ecosystem is out of balance and that we have been restoring some marine mammal populations faster than we are restoring the salmon that they eat.

In an intriguing study published in March in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution (PDF 840 kb), a group of West Coast researchers investigated whether it is better to recover populations of prey species first, followed by predator species, or if it is better to recover predator species first, followed by prey species.

Protecting predators first — which is usually the way humans do things — may slow the growth of prey species or even trigger a population decline, the report says. That creates a problem for predators that specialize in that one kind of prey as well as for those that have no access to alternative prey.

It may seem logical to rebuild the prey species first, the authors say. But, with some exceptions, recovering prey species first causes the combined predator and prey populations to peak at high levels that are unsustainable in the overall ecosystem.

“In the real world,” the paper states, “transient dynamics like these that result from eruptions of prey populations can lead to surprising cascades of ecological interactions and complex but often mismatched management responses.”

The authors conclude that the fastest way to restore depressed populations is through synchronous recovery of predators and prey by carefully rebuilding two or more populations at the same time.

Management tactics may include culling predators even before optimal population numbers are reached. Such actions require careful study, as culling may produce unexpected consequences, according to the report.

Other options include protecting multiple species within protected geographic or marine areas or focusing on single species by protecting select habitats or reducing human exploitation.

For Southern Resident killer whales, the question will be whether populations of other marine mammals — particularly harbor seals in Puget Sound —should be controlled. If so, how would people go about doing that?

One related issue that needs more study is the effect that transient killer whales are having on the Salish Sea population of seals and sea lions. As the Southern Residents spend less time searching for chinook salmon in the inland waterway, the seal-eating transients are being spotted more and more by people along the shores of Puget Sound.

Some studies estimate that the transients need an average of one to two seals each day to maintain their energy needs, although we know these whales also eat smaller sea otters and larger California and Steller sea lions, as well as an occasional gray whale.

Are the transients culling the population of harbor seals in Puget Sound or at least limiting their growth? Even before the transients were showing up frequently, biologists were telling us that the overall harbor seal population appeared to be peaking and perhaps declining.

It would be interesting to create a future-looking computer model that could account for populations of salmon and marine mammals under various scenarios — including possible management actions by humans and the ongoing predation by transient killer whales.

If we want to keep things more natural while helping out the Southern Residents, maybe somebody could come up with a strategy to attract and maintain a healthy population of seal-eating transient orcas within the Salish Sea.

Rains bring chum salmon back to their home streams

Salmon appear to be on the move in several local streams, thanks to the recent rains and increased streamflows. Wetter conditions no doubt triggered some of the migratory fish to head back to their spawning grounds.

A pair of chum salmon make it up Dickerson Creek, a tributary of Chico Creek. // Video: Jack Stanfill

It is still a little early in the season for coho and chum salmon to be fully involved in spawning activity, and there is plenty of time for people to get out and observe their amazing migration.

Salmon-watching is often a hit-or-miss situation, although Chico Creek is usually the best bet. After hearing several reports of chum moving upstream, I went out this afternoon to look in several local streams. Unfortunately, I did not get there before the rains stopped. What I saw in Chico Creek and other streams was fish milling about in deep pools, seemingly in no hurry to move upstream. Additional rains and streamflows are likely to get the fish fired up to move in and upstream more quickly.

Jack Stanfill, who lives on Dickerson Creek, a tributary of Chico Creek, said at least two adult chum reached his property today. Several restoration projects along Dickerson Creek probably helped the fish get upstream earlier than we have seen in previous years.

Jon Oleyar, who monitors the salmon migration for the Suquamish Tribe, told me that chum don’t normally get into Dickerson Creek until two weeks after they get into the upper reaches of Chico Creek. “This might be one of the earliest times ever,” Jon said.

As for other streams, the tribal biologist said he has seen early chum in Curley and Blackjack creeks in South Kitsap.

Viewing suggestions for this weekend:

  • Chico Creek: Chico Salmon Park (Facebook) along with a location just above the culvert under Golf Club Hill Road off Chico Way. Also check out the bridge near the 19th Hole Tavern on Erland Point Road and the access at the end of Kittyhawk Drive.
  • Dickerson Creek: Salmon Haven overlook on Taylor Road, off Northlake Way.
  • Curley Creek: Bridge on Southworth Drive near the intersection with Banner Road.
  • Blackjack Creek: A new bridge at Etta Turner Park between Port Orchard Ford and Westbay Center on Bay Street.
  • Gorst Creek: Otto Jarstad Park on Belfair Valley Road, where a new beaver dam has created a sizable pool of water, The dam may be limiting the migration of coho and perhaps blocking most of the chum.

Note for salmon-watchers: This year’s Kitsap Salmon Tours will be held in two weeks, on Saturday, Nov. 4. This year, the popular event has been expanded to seven locations. For details, go to the Kitsap WSU Extension website.

It appears that the chum coming into streams on the Kitsap Peninsula this year are noticeably larger in size than normal, perhaps in the 10- to 10.5-pound range, Jon Oleyar told me. That exceeds the normal 8- to 10-pound size for chum, he said.

Orca Network reported today that some of our Southern Resident killer whales have been foraging this week off the Kitsap Peninsula as well as in other areas not easily identified because of the dark, stormy weather we have had. Let’s hope the orcas can find enough food to stick around awhile.

On Sunday, a small group of whales from L pod showed up in the San Juan Islands for the first time this year. Normally, these whales — L-54 and her offspring along with males L-84 and L-88 — would be seen numerous times during the summer, but this was a highly unusually year. They were seen this week with J pod, which hasn’t been around much either.

On Monday, reports of orcas near Kingston and Edmonds suggested that the whales had moved south. They were later spotted near Seattle and then again near Kingston on Tuesday, when they headed out of Puget Sound by evening.

It is often said that the orcas will go where the salmon are. They are known to prefer chinook when their favorite fish are available, but they will switch to chum after the chinook run is over. It will be interesting to how much time the whales spend in Central and South Puget Sound, where chum are more plentiful.

The total number of chum salmon predicted this year — including those harvested along the way — is expected to be lower than last year. Still, there is hope that the preseason forecast will be exceeded by the actual return. The total predicted for Central and South Puget Sound is 433,000 chum, with 85 percent returning to streams and 15 percent coming back to hatcheries.

Last year, the total predicted run was 526,000 chum, about 21 percent higher than this year. Typically, the number of chum returning in odd-numbered years is lower than in even-numbered years, other things being equal. That’s because odd-numbered years is when the vast majority of pink salmon spawn, resulting in increased competition and lower survival for the young chum. Smaller numbers of juveniles mean fewer adult chum that return four years later during another odd-numbered year, continuing the cycle.

Most of the difference between last year’s and this year’s chum run can be accounted for in the odd- versus even-numbered years, said Aaron Default of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

It is too early in the season to update the preseason forecast based on commercial and tribal fishing that has taken place so far, Aaron said. As usual, fishing seasons are likely to be adjusted up or down when more information becomes available. The main goal is to make sure that enough fish make it back to sustain and potentially increase the salmon population.

Amusing Monday: celebrating the nation’s wild and scenic rivers

The value and enjoyment of rivers throughout the United States will be highlighted over the next year, as the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act approaches its 50th anniversary on Oct. 2, 2018.

Some 12,700 miles of rushing waters are protected on 208 rivers designated in 40 states plus the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. A Wild and Scenic River designation is the strongest protection for rivers in our country, safeguarding clean water, recreation, fish and wildlife, and cultural heritage, according to American Rivers, an environmental group focused on river protection. Check out the webpage “Why do we need wild rivers?”

“Free-flowing rivers create natural riparian areas that foster healthy, abundant, and diverse wildlife and are the centerpieces of rich ecological processes,” according to a news release from the National Parks Service. “Recreationally, free-flowing rivers offer unparalleled inspirational experiences from challenging whitewater to placid fishing. Through the arterial connections of rivers to communities, we all live downstream of a Wild and Scenic River.”

The first video on this page, called “Make Your Splash,” celebrates a family enjoying water recreation. It was produced by the Park Service in conjunction with three other federal agencies and several nonprofit organizations.

To call attention to the importance of wild rivers, American Rivers has launched a program called “5,000 Miles of Wild” with the goal of putting an additional 5,000 miles of wild rivers into protected status.

As part of the effort, the organization is working to collect 5,000 stories from people around the country who have a place in their hearts for special rivers, as explained in “About the campaign.” The second video, “5,000 miles of wild,” promotes the campaign.

I think you will enjoy the personal stories about rivers and the photos submitted to the page “My River Story.”

I would like to see more submissions from people in Washington state, because we have some of the most beautiful and productive rivers in the U.S., and I know there are many personal connections to these special places. Among the Washington folks submitting stories is Paul Cain of Bow, who applauds the efforts of state fish and wildlife officers in an encounter along Samish River in North Puget Sound. Also, Peggy File talks about growing up on the Skagit River, one of the rivers designated wild and scenic.

Former President Jimmy Carter offers a testimonial about taking his own life into his hands on the Chattooga River, which flows from North Carolina into Georgia. The powerful river, he said, “kind of opened my eyes to a relationship between a human being and a wild river that I had never contemplated before.”

As president, Carter said he vetoed about 16 different dam projects throughout the country, because he believed they were counterproductive to the well-being of Americans.

American Rivers has compiled a list of rivers that warrant protection on its page “What is the 5,000 Miles of Wild campaign?” In Washington, protections are proposed for 688 miles of rivers in the North Cascades, including the Nooksack River, and 454 miles of rivers in the Olympic Mountains (Wild Olympics Campaign).

Fiftieth anniversary water bottle, Cafe Press

For existing wild and scenic rivers, take a look at the U.S. map or the map of Washington state. Other information is compiled on a government website called “National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.” The website also has a page with information about the 50th anniversary celebration. One can even purchase a variety of clothing and products showing off the 50th anniversary logo from Cafe Press.

An audio project by American Rivers was composed by intern Annemarie Lewis, who worked this past summer in the Colorado River Basin. She talks about culture, history and science of rivers, as related by a variety of people closely connected to this issue. The project is called “We are rivers: Conversations about the rivers that connect us.”

Speaking of American Rivers projects, I got a kick out of a video completed in 2015 called “50 Favorite Things We Love about Rivers.” See Water Ways, Feb. 23, 2015.

Facing the possibility of extinction for the killer whales of Puget Sound

Southern Resident killer whales, cherished by many Puget Sound residents, are on a course headed for extinction, and they could enter a death spiral in the not-so-distant future.

It is time that people face this harsh reality, Ken Balcomb told me, as we discussed the latest death among the three pods of orcas. A 2-year-old male orca designated J-52 and known as Sonic died tragically about two weeks ago.

Two-year-old J-52, known as Sonic, swims with his mother J-36, or Alki, on Sept. 15. This may have been the last day Sonic was seen alive.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

The young orca was last seen in emaciated condition, barely surfacing and hanging onto life near the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Sept. 15. Ken, director of the Center for Whale Research, said the young whale was attended to by his mother Alki, or J-36, along with a male orca, L-85, known as Mystery — who may have been Sonic’s father, but more about that later.

Extinction, Ken told me, is “very real” — not some ploy to obtain research dollars. The population of endangered Southern Residents has now dropped to 76 — the lowest level since 1984. Most experts agree that a shortage of chinook salmon — the primary prey of the orcas — is the greatest problem facing the whales.

Last week, the Leadership Council — the governing body of the Puget Sound Partnership — discussed what role the partnership should play to “accelerate and amplify efforts” to restore chinook salmon runs and save the orcas. Chinook themselves are listed as a threatened species.

Graph: Center for Biological Diversity

Puget Sound Partnership is charged by the Legislature with coordinating the restoration of Puget Sound, including the recovery of fish and wildlife populations.

The Leadership Council delayed action on a formal resolution (PDF 149 kb) in order to allow its staff time to identify specific actions that could be taken. Although the resolution contains the right language, it is not enough for the council to merely show support for an idea, said Council Chairman Jay Manning.

Sonic was one of the whales born during the much-acclaimed “baby boom” from late 2014 through 2015. With his death, three of the six whales born in J pod during that period have now died. No new calves have been born in any of the Southern Resident pods in nearly a year.

Meanwhile, two orca moms — 23-year-old Polaris (J-28) and 42-year-old Samish (J-14) — died near the end of 2016. Those deaths were followed by the loss of Granny (J-2), the J-pod matriarch said to have lived more than a century. Another death was that of Doublestuf, an 18-year-old male who died last December.

Three orcas were born in L pod during the baby boom, and none of those whales has been reported missing so far.

Ken believes he witnessed the final hours of life for young Sonic, who was lethargic and barely surfacing as the sun set on the evening of Sept. 15. Two adults — Sonic’s mother and Mystery — were the only orcas present, while the rest of J pod foraged about five miles away.

Sonic seen with his mother in June.
Photo: Ken Balcomb, Center for Whale Research

That was the last time anyone saw Sonic, although his mother Alki as well as Mystery were back with J pod during the next observation four days later. Ken reported that Alki seemed distressed, as often happens when a mother loses an offspring.

Ken admits that he is speculating when he says that Mystery may have been Sonic’s father. It makes for a good story, but there could be other reasons why the older male stayed with the mother and calf. Still, researchers are engaged in studies that point to the idea that mature killer whales may actually choose a mate rather than engaging in random encounters. I’m looking forward to the upcoming report.

I must admit that this issue of extinction has been creeping up on me, and it’s not something that anyone wants to face. Food is the big issue, and chinook salmon have been in short supply of late. It will be worth watching as the whales forage on chum salmon, as they are known to do in the fall months.

“This population cannot survive without food year-round,” Ken wrote in a news release. “Individuals metabolize their toxic blubber and body fats when they do not get enough to eat to sustain their bodies and their babies. Your diet doctor can advise you about that.

“All indications (population number, foraging spread, days of occurrence in the Salish Sea, body condition, and live birth rate/neonate survival) are pointing toward a predator population that is prey-limited and nonviable,” he added.

The Center for Biological Diversity, which was involved in the initial lawsuit that led to the endangered listing for the whales, is calling upon the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service to move quickly to protect orca habitat along the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Currently designated critical habitat is limited to Puget Sound, even though the whales are known to roam widely along the coast.

“The death of another killer whale puts this iconic population on a dangerous path toward extinction,” Catherine Kilduff of CBD said in a news release. “If these whales are going to survive, we need to move quickly. Five years from now, it may be too late.”

How fast the whales will go extinct is hard to determine, experts say, but the current population is headed downward at an alarming rate, no matter how one analyzes the problem.

“I would say we are already in a very dangerous situation,” said Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior marine mammal researcher at the Vancouver Aquarium. “If this trajectory continues and we lose two or three more from deaths or unsuccessful birth, we will be in a real spiral,” he told reporter Richard Watts of the Times Colonist in Victoria, B.C.

A five-year status review (PDF 4.3 mb), completed last December by NMFS, takes into account the number of reproductive males and females among the Southern Residents, the reproductive rates, and the ratio of female to male births (more males are being born). As the population declines, the risk of inbreeding — and even more reproductive problems — can result.

Eric Ward of NOAA, who helped write the status report, said the agency often estimates an extinction risk for endangered populations, but the actual number of Southern Residents is too small to produce a reliable number. Too many things can happen to speed up the race toward extinction, but it is clear that the population will continue to decline unless something changes.

As Ken describes it in simple terms, Southern Resident females should be capable of producing an offspring every three years. With 27 reproductive females, we should be seeing nine new babies each year. In reality, the average female produces one offspring every nine years, which is just three per year for all three pods. That is not enough to keep up with the death rate in recent years. To make things worse, reproductive females have been dying long before their time — and before they can help boost the population.

Experts talk about “quasi-extinction,” a future time when the number of Southern Residents reaches perhaps 30 animals, at which point the population is too small to recover no matter what happens. Some say the population is now on the edge of a death spiral, which may require heroic actions to push the population back onto a recovery course.

As described in the five-year status review, prey shortage is not the only problem confronting the Southern Residents. The animals are known to contain high levels of toxic chemicals, which can affect their immune systems and overall health as well as their reproductive rates. Vessel noise can make it harder for them to find fish to eat. On top of those problems is the constant threat of a major oil spill, which could kill enough orcas to take the population down to a nonviable number.

The graph shows the probability that the Southern Resident population will fall below a given number (N) after 100 years. Falling below 30 animals is considered quasi-extinction. The blue line shows recent conditions. Lines to the left show low chinook abundance, and lines to the right show higher abundance.
Graphic: Lacy report, Raincoast Conservation Foundation

Despite the uncertainties, Robert Lacey of Chicago Zoological Society and his associates calculated in 2015 that under recent conditions the Southern Resident population faces a 9 percent chance of falling to the quasi-extinction level within 100 years. Worsening conditions could send that rate into a tailspin. See report for Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

What I found most informative was how the probability of extinction changes dramatically with food supply. (See the second graph on this page.) A 10 percent decline in chinook salmon raises the quasi-extinction risk from 9 percent to 73 percent, and a 20 percent decline raises the risk to more than 99 percent.

On the other hand, if chinook numbers can be increased by 20 percent, the whales would increase their population at a rate that would ensure the population’s survival, all other things being equal. Two additional lines on the graph represent a gradual decline of chinook as a result of climate change over the next 100 years — a condition that also poses dangerous risks to the orca population.

The close links between food supply and reproductive success are explored in a story I wrote last year for the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

At last Wednesday’s Puget Sound Leadership Council meeting, members discussed a letter from the Strait (of Juan de Fuca) Ecosystem Recovery Network (PDF 146 kb) that called on the Puget Sound Partnership to become engaged in salmon recovery efforts outside of Puget Sound — namely the Klamath, Fraser and Columbia/Snake river basins.

“Such collaborative efforts must be done for the benefit of both the SRKW and chinook fish populations, without losing sight of the continuing need to maintain and improve the genetic diversity of these fish populations …” states the letter.

A separate letter from the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council (PDF 395 kb) also asks the Puget Sound Partnership to become more engaged in orca recovery. The group is calling on the partnership to support salmon recovery statewide, “relying on each region to identify strategies to restore robust salmon runs.”

Rein Attemann of Washington Environmental Council said salmon on the Columbia and Snake rivers, as well as he Fraser River in British Columbia, are “vitally important” to the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, and Puget Sound efforts should be coordinated with other programs.

Jim Waddell, a retired civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, spoke forcefully about the need to save chinook salmon and the Southern Residents, starting by tearing down dams on the Snake River.

“We are out of time,” Waddell said. “The Corps of Engineers have it within their power to begin breaching the dams within months…. The orcas cannot survive without those chinook.”

An environmental impact statement on chinook recovery includes the option of breaching the dams, something that could be pushed forward quickly, he said.

“Breaching the Snake River dams is the only possibility of recovery,” Waddell said. “There is nothing left.”

Stephanie Solien, a member of the Leadership Council, said speaking up for orcas in the fashion proposed is not something the council has done before, but “we do have a responsibility to these amazing animals and to the chinook and to the tribes.”

The council should work out a strategy of action before moving forward, she added, but “we better get to moving on it.”

Puget Sound Partnership may confront net pen controversy

Puget Sound Partnership may take a stand on whether fish farms should be allowed to remain in Puget Sound waters.

The partnership is charged by the Legislature to oversee the restoration of the Puget Sound ecosystem. On Wednesday, the partnership’s governing body, the Puget Sound Leadership Council, received an update on last month’s collapse of a net pen containing 305,000 Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island in northern Puget Sound.

About two-thirds of the escaped fish have been accounted for so far, with about 146,000 found dead or alive in the damaged net pen and about 55,000 caught by fishermen. (All but about 5,000 of those were caught by tribal fishers in Puget Sound.)

This video, taken by a private party and released by state agencies, shows the collapse of the Cypress Island net pens on Aug. 19

About 100,000 Atlantic salmon apparently escaped and have not been caught by people, although most of those probably were eaten by predators, experts say. Officials continue their efforts to figure out where any remaining fish have gone, specifically any that swam up into the streams, according to Amy Windrope of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The Atlantic salmon, an exotic species in Puget Sound, don’t appear to be eating anything, let alone young native salmon, Windrope said, and there is not much concern that they will breed with native fish. The greatest concern is that they might somehow disrupt the spawning behavior of native salmon, whose populations are already stressed by adverse conditions in both marine and fresh water.

The Atlantic salmon appeared to be healthy and free of parasites at the time of the release, she said, but they became less and less healthy as starvation set in.

In addition to Windrope, the presentation to the Leadership Council included reports from representatives of the state Department of Natural Resources, which leases the seabed where the pens are located, and the Department of Ecology, which issues permits under water-quality laws.

Puget Sound tribes are about to release a position statement opposing salmon farms in Puget Sound, said Russell Hepfer, a member of the Leadership Council and vice chairman of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Council. He did not elaborate, except to say that the non-native fish don’t belong here.

According to Windrope, the tribes see Atlantic salmon as weeds in the garden of Puget Sound. Such cultural viewpoints should be taken into account in the overall discussion, she added.

Soon after the Cypress Island net pen collapse, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz issued a moratorium blocking further net pen approvals until an investigation is complete.

Maradel Gale, a resident of Bainbridge Island, addressed the Leadership Council at Wednesday’s meeting near Port Gamble, saying the Bainbridge Island City Council has effectively limited the expansion of net pens at the south end of the island and would like to get rid of net pens altogether.

She said Cooke Aquaculture, which owns all the net pens at four locations in Puget Sound, receives the benefits of using the public waterways and placing the ecosystem in peril while taking very little risk upon itself.

Dennis McLerran, a member of the Leadership Council who has worked for various environmental agencies, said Washington state law has long provided a preference for aquaculture over many other shoreline uses. Like it or not, he said, those preference are “baked into state policies” that direct state agencies to support aquaculture, including salmon farms.

“That is where the Leadership Council should have some discussion,” McLerran said. “Are those preferences in state law appropriate?”

The state of Alaska prohibits salmon farms, while California’s complex regulations allow them only under specific conditions related to water supplies, said Kessina Lee of Ecology.

Jay Manning, chairman of the Leadership Council and former director of the Washington Department of Ecology, said the Legislature will no doubt want to hear a complete report on the Cypress Island net-pen collapse, and he urged the agency officials to be fully prepared to answer questions from lawmakers.

“You will be asked, when the Legislature comes back, ‘How big a deal is this?’” Manning said, noting that he has heard from some people that it is a very big deal, while others say it is nothing at all.

Windrope noted that native salmon populations are already struggling, “and this is one more injury to the salmon.” But since the escaped Atlantic salmon don’t appear to be competing for food, the question comes down to whether they are affecting native fish in other ways. That question is not fully answered, she said.

“For DNR, this is a very big concern,” said Dennis Clark, who helps manage aquatic leases for the agency. “We have a contract with a multinational company, and they failed to adhere to it.”

DNR serves as the landlord for the Puget Sound net pen operations, he said. The aquatic leases run out at various times, from 2022 to 2025, and the agency is taking a closer look at the net pen structures to see what should be done from both a scientific and landlord perspective. Commissioner Franz is taking a special interest, he added.

“We are trying very hard to learn from this (incident),” Clark said, “and we understand that we may need to devote more resources.”

Rich Doenges of Ecology said the Atlantic salmon that got away are considered a “pollutant” under Washington state law. While no long-term effects have been seen following previous escapes of Atlantic salmon, there is some risk to native salmon. The key is to quantify that risk and determine if it is low enough to make the operations worthwhile. If necessary, he said, compliance orders can be issued and state water-quality permits can be amended to require additional safety measures.

Seattle attorney Doug Steding, representing Cooke Aquaculture, said he wanted to convey “sorrow and regret” from the company over the potential impacts of the escape.

“We want to make right with respect to this terrible accident,” he said, adding that the company is committed to working with investigators into the cause of the escape and finding ways to make sure that it never happens again.

Steding noted that Cooke recently acquired the Puget Sound facilities and did not own the Cypress Island net pens when the fish were placed in them. The company should have shared more information with the public about plans to upgrade the facilities, he said.

“You have an important task sorting through the difficult science and integrating with the values of the people of Washington,” Steding told the Leadership Council, adding that Cooke hopes to remain a part of the discussion.

With caution, one can avoid the risk of illness when gathering shellfish

If you are planning to gather some shellfish to eat over Labor Day weekend — or anytime for that matter — state health officials urge you to follow the “three Cs” of shellfish — check, chill and cook.

The state’s Shellfish Safety Map shows areas open and closed to harvesting.
Map: Washington State Dept. of Health

At least 10 cases of an intestinal illness called vibriosis have been reported this year to the Washington State Department of Health, all resulting from people picking oysters themselves and eating them raw or undercooked. The disease is caused by a bacteria, Vibrio parahaemolyticus, an organism that occurs naturally and thrives in warm temperatures.

“The shellfish industry follows special control measures during the summer months to keep people who choose to eat raw oysters from getting sick,” said Rick Porso, director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, in a news release. “For those who enjoy collecting and consuming their own shellfish, it’s important that they follow a few simple measures to stay healthy.”

The combination of warm weather, lack of rain and low tides all contribute to the growth of bacteria in oysters growing on the beach.

The state Department of Health uses the “three Cs” as a reminder for recreational shellfish harvesters as well as people who gather shellfish from their own beaches:

  • CHECK: Before heading to the beach, make sure that shellfish in the area are safe to eat. The Shellfish Safety Map, updated daily, will tell you where it is safe to gather shellfish. At the moment, many areas are closed because of paralytic shellfish poison produced by a type of plankton. Unlike Vibrio, PSP cannot be destroyed by cooking.
  • CHILL: Gather shellfish as the tide goes out, so they are not allowed to sit for long in the sun. Put them on ice immediately or get them into a refrigerator.
  • COOK: Cooking at 145 degrees F. for at least 15 seconds should destroy Vibrio bacteria, health officials say. It is not enough to cook them until their shells open.

Symptoms of vibriosis include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. The illness usually runs its course in two to three days. For information see “Vibriosis” on the Department of Health’s website.

Symptoms of paralytic shellfish poisoning usually begin with tingling of the lips and tongue, progressing to numbness in fingers and toes followed by loss of control over arms and legs and difficulty breathing. Nausea and vomiting may occur. PSP can be a life-threatening condition, so victims should seek medical help immediately. For information, see “Paralytic shellfish poison” on the Department of Health’s website.

Besides health advisories, the Shellfish Safety Map mentioned above also includes the water-quality classification, a link to shellfish seasons to determine whether a beach is legally open along with other information,

Collapsed fish pens could shift the debate over Atlantic salmon farms

UPDATE: Aug. 30

Democratic members of Washington state’s congressional delegation are calling on federal agencies to take immediate steps to minimize damage from the net pen collapse and release of Atlantic salmon near Cypress Island. Read the news release.

“Pacific salmon are central to our economy, our culture, and our environment in the Pacific Northwest and are a critical part of marine and estuarine ecosystems in Washington state,” the letter states. “Most concerning is the threat farmed Atlantic salmon pose to the wild Pacific salmon populations stocks in Puget Sound. Farmed salmon tend to be larger and could outcompete wild salmon for critical resources, such as prey and preferred habitat, which is important for spawning. Tribes, fishermen, and state agencies are working to respond to the escapement, but the scale of the release calls for immediate and direct federal response….”

Meanwhile, a public hearing about the expansion of the Port Angeles net pen operation has been cancelled at the request of the owner, Cooke Aquaculture. Read the letter from Steve Gray (PDF 155 kb), Clallam County’s deputy planning director.
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The recent collapse of salmon pens near the San Juan Islands could become a turning point in the war against salmon farming that is being waged by environmental groups in Puget Sound.

Yesterday, Gov. Jay Inslee and Commissioner of Public Lands Hillary Franz announced a moratorium on new state leases or permits for any fish farms using Atlantic salmon. The moratorium will remain in place until state officials can fully review the escape of more than 300,000 Atlantic salmon from net pens near Cypress Island, according to a joint announcement (PDF 107 kb).

The video, by Glenn Farley and Travis Pittman of KING 5 News, was posted Friday.

The owner of the pens, Cooke Aquaculture, has applications pending to move and expand its net pen operation near Port Angeles to an area 1.8 miles offshore in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Cooke, a family-owned company, acquired all of the salmon farms in Puget Sound from Icycle Seafoods last year. The deal was touted as a way to infuse capital and modernize operations on the West Coast.

“The deal will enhance the family’s investments in both the wild fishery and the aquaculture sectors, making them leaders in the U.S. salmon farming sector and a major player in the Alaskan salmon fishery,” said a news release about the acquisition. See the story by Cliff White in “SeafoodSource.”

Perhaps the company did not have time to upgrade its facilities to reduce the risk of the net pens collapsing at Cypress Island and other farming operations. In a news release (PDF 251 kb), Cooke said it had applied for permits to update its Cypress Island site. Still, this latest incident cannot instill confidence in the company nor the salmon farming industry as a whole.

In fact, one could argue that that the company’s extensive “Fish Escape Prevention Plan” (PDF 1.4 mb) and Operations Plan (2.4 mb) should have raised red flags for the company. Cooke cited unusual tides and currents as contributing factors in the pens’ collapse, despite the fact that these tide levels are seen several times each year and stronger currents can be anticipated at times.

Cooke proudly proclaims its commitment to the environment on the company’s home page. But shooting itself in the foot on Cypress Island will leave a bad feeling for many Puget Sound residents. For environmental groups, this event will provide ammunition in their effort to stop the expansion of net pens in Puget Sound and phase out their use entirely.

It is often pointed out that Washington is the only state on the West Coast that allows salmon farming. (See “Our Sound, Our Salmon.” Meanwhile, a serious debate over the pros and cons of industrial-scale aquaculture goes on and on in British Columbia, where more than 100 salmon farms are well established. Take a look at reporter Gordon Hoekstra’s story in the Vancouver Sun.

The war on salmon farms has been waging for years on both sides of the border. While battles ought to be won or lost based on credible information, I’ve seen facts distorted to fit political goals on both sides of the argument.

Now the Cypress Island incident will raise the profile of the debate in Washington state. Let’s hope that the investigation called for by Gov. Inslee and Commissioner Franz will lead to findings that go beyond the question of why the net pens collapsed and look at the overall risks and benefits of keeping these salmon farms around.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, told me in an email that he is working today to sample 50,000 pounds of Atlantic salmon that escaped from the Cypress Island net pens. Experts will be looking for viruses, parasites and stomach contents.

I believe the information about stomach contents will be particularly valuable, because of concerns that the escaped fish could be consuming wild salmonids — including young chinook and steelhead, both of which are listed as threatened species. Obviously, we don’t have enough out-migrating chinook and steelhead as it is. (You may wish to review my recent story about salmon recovery in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.)

Meanwhile, Wild Fish Conservancy, a staunch opponent of salmon farming, has filed notice that it intends to sue Cooke Aquaculture for violations of the Clean Water Act.

“The Conservancy is deeply disheartened by Cooke Aquaculture’s glaring negligence, negligence which has led to an environmental disaster of epic proportion,” states a news release (PDF 115 kb) from the organization. “The needless escape of up to 305,000 Atlantic salmon into Puget Sound represents a dire threat to already imperiled wild fish populations, beloved marine mammal species, and the fragile Puget Sound ecosystem at large, and Wild Fish Conservancy fears impacts to these critical aspects of our region will be felt for years to come.”

The 60-day “letter of intent” (PDF 1.9 mb) from Wild Fish Conservancy outlines a number of alleged violations of federal law resulting from the release of Atlantic salmon and the management of debris. The group says it will seek monetary penalties of up to $52,000 a day, as provided by law, and “injunctive relief to prevent further violations.”

When I asked Kurt what he thought the lawsuit could accomplish, he wrote, “Simply speaking, I believe It’s in the best interest of our sound, our salmon and future generations to pursue all legal avenues to quickly remove Atlantic salmon net pens from Washington’s waters.”

The group — which is part of Our Sound, Our Salmon — is planning an on-the-water protest off the south end of Bainbridge Island on Sept. 16. See “Flotilla: saying no to Atlantic salmon net pens.”

In response to the Cypress Island incident, an “incident command” structure has been set up by the Washington state departments of Natural Resources, Fish and Wildlife, and Ecology, along with the Office of the Governor and Emergency Management Division. The idea is to share information and make joint decisions about the cleanup operation.

“The release of net pen-raised Atlantic salmon into Washington’s waters has created an emergency situation that has state agencies working together to protect the health of our salmon…,” Gov. Inslee said in a statement. “Tribes and others who fish Washington waters deserve a comprehensive response to this incident, including answers to what happened and assurances that it won’t happen again.

“I believe the company must do everything it can to stop any additional escapes and to recover as many fish as possible, including adequate compensation for those working to remove Atlantic salmon from our waters,” he added.

A new website called “Cypress Island Atlantic Salmon Pen Break” will be the distribution point for public information — including “situation updates” from Cook Aquaculture, “Next steps” from DNR, minutes from agency conferences, news releases and other documents.

The Clallam County Hearing Examiner will hold a hearing on Sept. 7 regarding the proposed relocation and expansion of the Port Angeles net pens. Many documents related to that application and Cooke Aquaculture operations can be found on the website titled Clallam County Online Permit System. Click on the permit number for American Gold Seafoods.

Recalling the voice and wisdom of Billy Frank Jr. in a new animated video

It is very nice to hear once again the distinctive voice of the late Billy Frank Jr. in a new animated video called simply “sčədadxʷ” — or “Salmon.”

Billy was the voice for the Nisqually Tribe, for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, for native people everywhere and for the human race, which he believed holds a special relationship with salmon and all of nature’s creatures.

The new video was produced by Salmon Defense, a nonprofit organization created by the 20 Western Washington treaty tribes to foster the welfare of salmon. The short animation was distributed by Northwest Treaty Tribes, the communications arm of the NWIFC.

In the video, the animated Billy is seen floating down a river in an Indian canoe. While passing historical landscapes, Billy talks about Indian culture, the coming of settlers and the relationship between the two societies.

“We don’t walk on this Earth very long,” Billy says in the video. “We got a lot of changes here that is happening in this century, and we have to work together and remind each other about what was the past and our history and be able to live together and survive together.”

Billy’s words are still inspirational, and his passion still comes through. His voice causes me to recall the many talks and speeches I heard him give through the years. His words would flow at a different pace than other speakers who appeared on stage before him. To hear Billy, you would need to slow down and listen, not necessarily to the precise words but rather to the broader, heartfelt meaning behind his words.

His grammar wasn’t perfect. He would sometimes pepper his speech with swear words, especially when expressing frustration in his fairly reserved way. And then he would catch you off guard with a humorous phrase or story of human foibles. To me, Billy’s message was always clear: No matter what our differences, we can save the salmon and make a better life for all humans by working together.

Most remarkable to me — and recognized by many others — was Billy’s warm relationship with everyone who knew him. He treated everyone like a brother or sister, greeting them with a broad smile and a hug or pat on the back. He constantly opened doors to new relationships. It didn’t matter who you were — from the president of the United States down to everyday news reporters like me.

Billy rarely talked about his own personal sacrifices and struggles, but he would remember the specific efforts of others. For example, while I was covering the federal lawsuit dealing with salmon-blocking culverts, Billy thanked me for writing about the issue and for helping people understand the science behind the needs of salmon. See Kitsap Sun, March 21, 2009.

Billy died in May of 2014 at age 83. Read his obituary in Indian Country Today. Also review two pieces I wrote shortly after Billy’s death:

I thought this might be a good time to present two other videos featuring Billy Frank and his family history. If you’ve seen these videos, they might be worthy of another look. The second video on this page is “As Long as the Rivers Run,” a 1971 documentary that chronicles the conflict and civil disobedience leading up to the landmark George Boldt decision. The third video is a special edition of Northwest Indian News called “Remembering Billy Frank Jr.”