Talks begin on salmon seasons, with orcas nearby

The annual North of Falcon process is about to get under way again, beginning with a public meeting in Olympia on Tuesday. During Tuesday’s meeting, state, federal and tribal managers are expected to outline their preseason forecasts of abundance for each salmon species. See meeting announcement in the Kitsap Sun and on the North of Falcon website.

Chinook salmon are the primary prey for Puget Sound's killer whales. Here, J-40 grabs a fish off False Bay, San Juan Island
Photo by Astrid Van Ginneken, Center for Whale Research.

This year, there will be a new elephant in the room … actually, something as large as an elephant — a killer whale. But more about that in a moment.

The process of determining how many salmon of each species are available for harvest and how to divide up the catch has become a complex project involving commuter simulations, policy discussions and demands from fishing constituents. The goal is to make abundant stocks of salmon available for harvest while protecting “weak runs” — particularly those listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Sure, the process has its flaws, but I have not heard of any better ideas for protecting weak runs outside of stopping all fishing for a period of time. So far this year, I haven’t had time to get a head start on what salmon managers are thinking, but I’ll be following the discussions as they move along.

I’ve been thinking about the comments people sometimes post on this blog, blaming all the salmon problems on commercial fishing, tribal fishing or the locations of fishing nets. Because such comments are often based on a lack of knowledge, I was wondering if such folks ever consider attending these meetings to find out how fishing decisions are made. The meetings, which are open to the public, begin with general discussions and get more technically oriented right up to the point when final decisions are made in mid-April.

While the fishing issues are complex by themselves, it is becoming clear that anglers and tribal fishermen may soon need to share their chinook salmon — a highly prized sport and table fish — with another species, the Southern Resident killer whale, an endangered species.

In a letter to salmon managers (PDF 1.5 mb), Will Stelle, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, announced that he would convene a series of workshops to study the relationship between chinook fishing and the survival of the Puget Sound orcas:

“The basic question NMFS must answer is whether Chinook salmon fisheries that affect the abundance of prey available to the killer whales are significantly and negatively affecting the well-being of the Southern Resident population and, if so, how those negative effects might be reduced.

“At the conclusion of the scientific workshop process, NMFS and others will be better able to determine what recovery actions are appropriate and, more specifically, whether and under what conditions additional constraints on salmon fishing may be necessary.”

As recently as 2008, the federal agency concluded that fishing at the levels allowed through the North of Falcon process had no serious effects on the whales. But, according to Stelle, more recent analyses may show otherwise:

“Our conclusions, which are preliminary at this point, strongly suggest that the amount of Chinook available to the whales in comparison to their metabolic requirements is less than what we estimated in the 2008 consultation, particularly during those summer months when the whales spend considerable time foraging in the Salish Sea.

“This change results from several factors, including but not limited to revised estimates of the metabolic requirements of the whales, their selective preference for larger Chinook salmon, and inclusion of a broader range of years to represent expected variations in the abundance of Chinook salmon available to the whales.”

While allocations for killer whales may not be explicit this year, the workshops could result in reduced harvest under the next Puget Sound Chinook Management Plan. For a more detailed discussion of the early analysis, download “Effects of Fisheries on Killer Whales” (PDF 345 kb).

For an outline of the proposed discussions, go to “A Scientific Workshop Process to Evaluate Effects of Salmon Fisheries on Southern Resident Killer Whales (PDF 21 kb).

To read a news story on the topic, reporter Craig Welch touched on the issue in the Feb. 11 edition of the Seattle Times.

3 thoughts on “Talks begin on salmon seasons, with orcas nearby

  1. Chris – thanks once again for keeping the public appraised of everything orca. There was another story in the press not long ago that I thought added an important dimension to the issue of ever increasing competition for diminishing salmon. There was a recent finding that something like 70% of the timber harvests on State lands violated the terms of the permit that were designed to protect the likes of Chinook salmon. Much of the blame was placed on the lack of resources available for enforcement. While the State’s budget continues its downward spiral, I recall that even during the “good o’l days” the National Marine Fisheries Service had something like 5 enforcement officers to cover the entire NW region – from water rights, forestry practices, dam operations, fishing to whale watching. If the government is going to seek further curtailments of sport, commercial and tribal fishing activities they better be sure the activities they claim to be already regulated are. Otherwise, it makes it hard justify further sacrifices. Fisheries can be managed successfully if habitats are protected as Alaska and Canada continue to demonstrate.

  2. “The surprise February visit to Washington from members of J pod came just days after state and tribal leaders learned they may again have to cut back salmon fishing to boost the endangered whales’ survival….”

    Sorry I have to ask but why wouldn’t they migrate to better fishing grounds for survival?

    “There was a recent finding that something like 70% of the timber harvests on State lands violated the terms of the permit that were designed to protect the likes of Chinook salmon.”

    Wouldn’t there be huge fines for anyone violating the terms of the permit making further violating less financially attractive?

    Thank you… Sharon O’Hara

  3. Fred,
    I agree with you on both the need to protect habitat and the need for fisheries enforcement, which is required regardless of harvest levels.

    With tight budgets, one idea I have been promoting for years is to enlist waterfront residents in a system of fisheries observations. All it would take is a website that indicates where various fisheries are open and closed on any given day.

    To make reporting efficient, I would propose “block captains” for each area. These would be people who neighbors would call when illegal activities are suspected. These block captains would gather the information and serve as trusted contacts for enforcement officers.

    It would take a little effort to organize the observation system, but it would help enforcement officers make the best use of their time. Reports and responses could be posted on the same website mentioned above. Ultimately, I believe deterrence would be one of the greatest benefits of the system.

    The success of Orca Network in reporting the presence of whales in Puget Sound demonstrates that this kind of observation system could be effective during fishing season.

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