Orcas hunt for chum salmon in Central Puget Sound

The Southern Resident killer whales have begun their annual travels into Central and South Puget Sound in search of chum salmon.

Southern Resident killer whales passed by Bainbridge Island on Monday.
Photo by Tad Sooter

The shift occurs when chinook salmon have completed their migration and chum are just beginning to come home to their natal streams, as I describe in a story in yesterday’s Kitsap Sun. It is widely assumed that the length of their stay depends on their success in finding the later salmon.

This year was predicted to be a low year for fall chum. But Jay Zischke, marine fisheries manager for the Suquamish Tribe, told me that early commercial and test fisheries suggest that the run is either earlier than usual or larger than the preseason forecast. Even so, it may still be a relatively low year for fall chum.

This is the 15th anniversary of another low chum year, 1997, when 19 members of L pod came all the way into Dyes Inlet to find adequate numbers of chum schooled up in front of Chico and Barker creeks. The whales stayed in the inlet for a month and left just before Thanksgiving. There is still debate about whether they wanted to stay that long.

On the 10th anniversary of the event, I wrote about the story of two young researchers, Kelley Balcomb-Bartok and Jodi Smith, who spent most of that month studying the whales and trying to protect them from a massive number of boaters who wanted a front-boat view of the action. Stories, maps and other information about that event can be found on a website called “The Dyes Inlet Whales — Ten Years Later.”

Frankly, officials at the time were not prepared for the number of boats that showed up, and their enforcement tools were insufficient. Restricting navigation on inland waters seemed way too harsh for a bunch of animals swimming around.

Since then, the Southern Residents have been declared “endangered” under the federal Endangered Species Act, and officials have developed contingency plans to deal with boaters if the whales come back to Dyes Inlet. For example, Kitsap County has enacted an ordinance to allow county officials to restrict speeds and boat travel to protect killer whales. See Section 10.36.235 of the Kitsap County Code.

The nice thing about Dyes Inlet is that nobody needs to chase the whales to get a good view. Nobody even needs a boat. If there were hundreds of boats on the water in 1997, there were thousands of people who watched the whales successfully from the Tracyton and Chico boat ramps and other vantage points.

Each fall when I write about the killer whales coming south, I experience mixed emotions. On one side, I know that some people will see it as encouragement to go out in their boats to find the whales. Wouldn’t it be better to just leave these orcas alone for awhile, not knowing how they have been affected by a summer of whale-watching in the San Juan Islands?

On the other hand, I see no harm from people watching from shore. Often, the view is pretty good, especially with a good pair of binoculars — and your shoreside viewing platform is more stable than a boat. Orca Network’s Facebook page stays fairly up to date with whale sightings, so you may be able to find them from a park or road end or spot them from a ferry.

Again, I would like to discourage folks from going out in a boat to watch the whales in Puget Sound. But if you do, please be aware of the regulations and guidelines regarding whale watching. Check out the “Be Whale Wise” poster and other information.

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