Orcas gain increasing clout during fishing season discussions

Puget Sound’s endangered killer whales are becoming fully integrated into annual planning efforts that divide up the available salmon harvest among user groups — including sport, commercial and tribal fishers.

An orca mother named Calypso (L-94) nurses her young calf Windsong (L-121) in 2015.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries, Vancouver Aquarium under NMFS and FAA permits.

The southern resident killer whales should be given priority for salmon over human fishers, according to a fishing policy adopted for 2019-2023 by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new policy calls for “proper protection to SRKW from reduction to prey availability or from fishery vessel traffic …”

The problem with allocating a specific number of salmon to the orcas is that the whales cannot tell us when or where they would like to take salmon for their own consumption. The result, now in the planning stages, is to limit or close fishing in areas where the orcas are most likely to forage during the fishing seasons.

As revealed yesterday during the annual “North of Falcon” forecast meeting, fewer chinook salmon — the orcas’ primary food — are expected to return to Puget Sound this year compared to last year, but more coho salmon should be available for sport and tribal fishermen. The challenge, according to harvest managers, is to set fishing seasons to take harvestable coho without unduly affecting the wild chinook — a threatened species in Puget Sound.

Yesterday’s meeting marked the kickoff of negotiations between state and tribal co-managers, who are charged with developing a fishing plan by April 15. See the full meeting schedule and other info.

A paper released last month by Fish and Wildlife experts noted that there are “significantly more chinook salmon available in Puget Sound than what is needed to sustain the SRKW population now.” Eliminating Puget Sound fisheries would likely provide less than 1 percent more chinook available for the killer whales, the report says.

Plans this year will include limits on fishing to maintain chinook abundance where the whales are likely to forage, according to planning documents. “This approach ensures that fisheries are responsive to SRKW needs and managed in a way that provides adequate prey for SRKWs.”

A similar approach was started last year, but it was not fully integrated into the planning effort. After the negotiations were complete and the fishing seasons were set, the National Marine Fisheries Service called for additional steps to protect the whales. Fish and Wildlife officials then asked fishermen to honor a voluntary “no-go zone” along the western shoreline of San Juan Island. In September, they followed up by closing fishing throughout the San Juan Islands. Check out Water Ways, Feb. 28, 2018, for pre-planning discussions and May 9, 2018, for later adjustments.

Thanks to a new Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, reductions in chinook fishing in Alaska and Canada are expected to return more Puget Sound chinook to their home waters (Water Ways, Jan. 12). But the goal is to increase the number of wild spawners returning to the streams, as well as feeding the orcas, so it isn’t clear yet how those additional chinook will be handled in computer models that help managers decide when and where fishing takes place.

Overall for Puget Sound, the number of hatchery chinook is expected to be down 6 percent from last year’s forecast, but the actual returns appear to be somewhat higher than forecast. Wild chinook are up slightly from 2018, but they make up just 12 percent of the total chinook run. The wild fish are the ones protected under federal law, because they maintain the gene pool for survival under natural conditions.

Anticipated low returns of chinook to the Stillaguamish River in North Puget Sound and to mid-Hood Canal could constrain fishing opportunities throughout Puget Sound, as salmon managers try to protect enough of those fish for spawning. We often see one constraining stock, but having two this year increases the challenge of protecting both of those wild stocks from fishing impacts, managers say.

In yesterday’s meeting, some anglers raised questions about last year’s decision to limit fishing in Central and South Puget Sound to protect those Hood Canal chinook. Would Hood Canal fish that make their way to the east side of the Kitsap Peninsula really find their way back to the west side? For now, federal authorities responsible for the threatened chinook will continue with that assumption, according to Ron Warren, WDFW’s assistant director in charge of the agency’s Fish Program.

With hatchery coho up 35 percent over last year, sport fishermen might see greater fishing opportunities, although catching those extra coho without further reducing the number of wild chinook spawners will be a challenge, managers say.

Consistent with the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, the Fish and Wildlife Commission is reviewing a plan to increase the number of hatchery chinook to feed the killer whales. About 30 million young chinook would be released into Puget Sound, with another 20 million in the Columbia River, according to a white paper on the proposal. Release areas were chosen so that migration routes of the salmon would correspond with likely foraging areas for the orcas while avoiding areas where the increased hatchery fish would conflict with wild chinook.

Whether those increased hatchery fish would provide increased fishing opportunities for anglers is yet to be determined, officials said, because of the need to protect wild chinook populations.

The picture of salmon returns to streams on the Washington Coast is somewhat similar to Puget Sound. Chinook fisheries are likely to be about the same as last year, while increased coho runs could allow for more fishing, particularly in Grays Harbor. But returns to the Quinault and Quillayute rivers are expected to be down, thus complicating the picture.

The total forecast for Columbia River chinook this year is slightly lower than last year’s forecast of 365,000 fish, but only about 290,900 actually returned — so there are questions about what went wrong with the forecast. Expected returns are only about half of the 10-year average, so fishing on the Columbia could be reduced in several areas to protect fall chinook as well as an anticipated low run of steelhead.

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