Tag Archives: Chinook salmon

Orcas hunting for salmon: Not worth the effort in Puget Sound?

Trying to understand what motivates Puget Sound’s killer whales is difficult enough when the orcas are nearby. But now that they have abandoned their summer home — at least for this year — researchers are not able to easily study their behaviors, their food supply or their individual body conditions.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, was thought to be in good health when he went missing.
Photo: Center for Whale Research

Not so many years ago, we could expect the orcas to show up in the San Juan Islands in May, presumably to feast on spring chinook returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia and to streams in northern Puget Sound. Those chinook have dwindled in number, along with other populations of chinook in the Salish Sea, so it appears that the orcas may not come back at all.

Apparently, they have decided that it isn’t worth their time and effort to set up a summer home in the inland waterway. They have gone to look for food elsewhere, such as off the west coast of Vancouver Island, where it is harder for researchers to tell what they are eating and exactly where they are going.

The whales were out there somewhere this past week when Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research announced that three whales had been missing long enough to declare them deceased. He had been consulting with experts and observers in Canada. See my Water Ways post from Tuesday.

Food is the big issue for the southern resident killer whales. They have been judged to be in overall worse body condition than the northern residents — an entirely separate group that normally stays farther up the coast in British Columbia. Experts are reporting that the northern residents have been venturing south more often than they used to. Perhaps the cultural divide between the two resident groups has begun to weaken.

It’s all in the realm of speculation, of course. Last year, I shared some ruminations about what could have happened if the endangered southern residents had not grown up in a culture of eating chinook salmon. I mentioned some interesting research papers on the topic. See Water Ways, Aug. 30, 2018.

Food is the key. Despite other problems that humans have caused — including toxic chemicals, noise and general disruption — food is at the heart of the matter. When you are hungry and searching for food, you don’t have much time for social interaction — and making babies takes a back seat to survival.

Even when southern resident females do get pregnant, they suffer a high rate of miscarriage, often coming late in pregnancy. Food and stress are related to these problems, according to research by Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology whose work I reported in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound in 2016.

Although the term “starvation” is often tossed around loosely, few if any of the dead whales are actually starving to death from lack of available food. They may have stopped eating when they got sick or for some other reason. Illness can be brought on by a weakened condition in conjunction with reduced immunity caused by toxic chemicals in their food. It’s more complex than “starvation,” as writer Jeff Rice of the Puget Sound Institute points out in a new story posted in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

A low reproductive rate and unexpected deaths continue to drive the population downward. Some deaths can be predicted when the whales loose so much body fat that they reach a condition called “peanut head,” but other deaths come quickly and unexpectedly.

“We had expected two of the three deaths, having chronicled their decline during the past year,” Ken Balcomb said in an email on Friday. “But L84’s death was unexpected. He was a vibrant male who appeared healthy.”

When apparently healthy whales disappear, experts are left wondering what happened. Years ago, this kind of sudden disappearance was more typical of their final departures, because the whales were in better condition. Other factors, such as ship strikes and Navy operations were sometimes suspected, and disease is always a lurking threat.

Finding ways to improve the chinook runs should help the whales, and that effort continues despite some disagreement about how to go about it. But larger forces are also at play, such as long-term shifts in ocean conditions and changes in the climate that reverberate through the entire food web.

Laura Blackmore, executive director of Puget Sound Partnership, issued a statement Thursday that reflects what many Northwest residents may be feeling.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the presumed deaths of three endangered southern resident orcas, L84, K25, and J17,” Laura wrote. “These new losses cut deeply, and we grieve with all those who mourn these symbols of Puget Sound.

“Our orcas are dying because the marine environment they live in is ailing and there are too few salmon for them to eat,” she continued.

“The Puget Sound Partnership stands with Governor Inslee, the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force, and the many tribes, government agencies, organizations, businesses and individuals who are committed to helping recover the orca population. Together, we can help by restoring salmon runs, quieting the waters of Puget Sound, and getting toxic chemicals out of our waterways.”

New government policies and laws are being implemented, she said. Meanwhile, there are some things that we all can do. Here are her suggestions for individual action:

  • Help restore salmon runs. Volunteer on a habitat restoration project. See orca.wa.gov for links to organizations involved in habitat restoration.
  • Quiet the waters of Puget Sound. If you’re a boater, give orcas space. Follow the BeWhaleWise guidelines for whale watching.
  • Keep toxic chemicals out of our waterways. Stop using toxic chemicals in your home or on your landscape; fix vehicle leaks; and have your vehicle oil changed by a professional.
  • Learn about southern resident orcas, and pass the information on to others.
  • Speak up for orcas. Vote. Make sure your local, state, and federal representatives know how important orcas are to you.

Three more orca deaths take census count down to 73 Southern Residents

Four orca deaths and two births over the past year brings the official population of southern resident killer whales to 73 — the lowest number since the annual census was launched in 1976.

L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa, is among three southern resident orcas newly listed as deceased. Here he is seen catching a salmon. // Photo: Center for Whale Research

This evening, the keeper of the census — Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research — sadly announced the deaths of three orcas who have not been seen for several months.

In past years, Ken waited until he and his staff have several opportunities to search for any whales that appear to be missing. But this year the whales have stayed almost entirely away from their traditional hunting grounds in the San Juan Islands, where they once stayed for nearly the full summer.

In an unusual move this year, Ken relied on reliable observers from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans as well as other biologists along the west coast of Vancouver Island. The missing whales were not seen during multiple encounters with the Canadians, Ken told me.

The reason the whales have not spent any time in Puget Sound is fairly obvious, Ken said. Their primary prey, chinook salmon, have not been around either.

We can hope they are getting enough to eat wherever they are.

“They were finding fish up north off Tofino,” Ken said. “They were not big salmon, but there were lots of eight-pounders. They seemed to be getting those.”

Tofino is about 140 miles up the west coast of Vancouver Island from Victoria. At Swiftsure Bank, near entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the whales appeared to be going after sablefish, also known as black cod, according to reports.

“They were eating those and then chasing some salmon,” Ken reported.

It is often speculated that the reason that southern residents specialize in chinook is the amount of calories they get from the fatty fish, compared to the amount of energy they must expend to catch them. This cultural preference was adopted by the whales perhaps thousands of years before chinook populations were decimated by human development.

Ken is under contract to the federal government to deliver a count of the southern residents as of July 1 each year, based on sightings in Puget Sound. He has until October to provide a final report, but the numbers are certain enough now to end the speculation.

“We are saddened to report that three adult killer whales (orca) are missing and presumed dead as of July 1, 2019,” Ken announced this evening in a news release.

“These whales are from the extremely endangered southern resident killer whale population that historically frequents the Salish Sea almost daily in summer months. Due to the scarcity of suitable chinook prey, this population of whales now rarely visits the core waters of its critical habitat: Puget Sound, Georgia Strait and the inland reach of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.”

The three whales he has declared deceased:

  • J-17, a 42-year-old female named Princess Angeline: A matriarch in J pod, Princess Angeline was the mother of Tahlequah (J-35), who carried her dead calf on her head for an unprecedented 17 days. Princess Angeline, named after Chief Seattle’s daughter, was reported in poor health during the winter. She is survived by two daughters, Tahlequah (J-35) and Kiki (J-53); a son, Moby (J-44); a granddaughter, Star (J-46); and a grandson, Notch (J-47).
  • K-25, a 28-year-old male named Scoter: He should have been in the prime of his life, but reports of poor body condition started in the winter. Scoter is survived by two sisters, Spock (K-20) and Deadhead (K-27), and a brother, Cali (K-34).
  • L-84, a 29-year-old male named Nyssa: He was the last of a large family group known as the L9’s.

The first of the four whales to die since July 2018 was Scarlet (J-50), who was the subject of rescue actions last summer and the subject of an ongoing controversy about what should or should not have been done to save her. See Water Ways, Sept. 14, 2018. I also featured Scarlet in a story about intervention with killer whales, Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, Feb. 4, 2019.

The two calves born into the southern resident clans this year were L-124 (gender unknown), born in January to L-77 (Matia), and J-56, an unnamed female born in May to J-31 (Tsuchi).

The current population of 73 southern residents is the lowest since 1976, when Ken first began his orca population survey following capture operations that removed a significant number of orcas for the aquarium trade. His first count was 71, but the actual population may have been higher, since this was so early in the survey. The population recovered to 98 animals in 1995. Since then, the trend has been generally downward with only a few upticks.

Increasing the urgency to restore natural salmon runs is the only hope of saving the killer whales, Ken told me, adding that government officials are off track by increasing hatchery production and allowing more fishing.

“They are not looking at the death spiral,” he told me.

In July 2018, we reported that two deaths and no births had taken place in the previous year, dropping the southern resident population from 77 to 75. Now the official population has dropped again by two, with 73 animals still surviving.

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.

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Sharing info and solving mysteries: International Year of the Salmon

Nearly a decade in the planning phase, it appears that the International Year of the Salmon couldn’t come at a better time for Northwest residents.

More and more people are beginning to recognize the importance of chinook salmon to the long-term survival of our Southern Resident killer whales. Legislation designed to improve the populations of salmon and orcas has gained increased urgency as these iconic creatures continue to decline.

Many countries throughout the Northern Hemisphere have joined together in a campaign to raise public awareness about salmon this year and to increase the support for scientific research and restoration projects that might save endangered salmon from extinction.

One exciting aspect of the International Year of the Salmon, or IYS, is a scientific expedition involving 21 researchers from five countries. This international dream team will depart Sunday from Vancouver, British Columbia, to engage in a month of research into the secrets of salmon survival. I described this long-anticipated endeavor in an article published today in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Salmon treaty designed to boost spawning count and feed the orcas

Allowable fishing for chinook salmon in the waters of Canada and Southeast Alaska will be cut back significantly this year as a result of a revised 10-year Pacific Salmon Treaty between the United States and Canada.

Chinook salmon // Photo: NOAA Fisheries

The goal of the updated treaty is to increase the number of adult chinook returning to Washington and Oregon waters, where they will be available to feed a declining population of endangered orcas while increasing the number of fish spawning in the streams, according to Phil Anderson, a U.S. negotiator on the Pacific Salmon Commission.

Most chinook hatched in Washington and Oregon travel north through Canada and into Alaska, making them vulnerable to fishing when they return. Changes to the treaty should reduce Canadian harvests on those stocks by about 12.5 percent and Alaskan harvests by about 7.5 percent, Phil told me. Those numbers are cutbacks from actual harvests in recent years, he said, so they don’t tell the complete story.

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Increase in harbor porpoises shifts Puget Sound’s food web

Most of us have heard that harbor seals eat Chinook salmon, which are the preferred food for our beloved Southern Resident killer whales, an endangered species whose long-term survival could hinge on getting enough Chinook.

The number of harbor seals in the inland waters of Washington state now totals somewhere around 10,000 or slightly higher, according to the latest estimates by Steve Jeffries, a marine mammal biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Harbor porpoise surfing in a boat wake in Burrows Pass, off Fidalgo Island.
Photo: ©Cindy R. Elliser, Pacific Mammal Research

But did you know that harbor porpoises, which eat many of the same things as harbor seals, now number around 11,000 in the same general area? That’s according to a recent study for the Navy led by research consultant Tom Jefferson.

I have to say that those numbers came as a major surprise to me, and I began to ask questions about what all these porpoises in Puget Sound might be doing to the food web, which involves complex interactions between salmon, seals, porpoises, orcas and many other species.

The result of my inquiry is a story published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

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Focus on chinook salmon creates troubles for Southern Resident orcas

I’ve often wondered how well Puget Sound’s endangered orcas would be doing today if these whales had not grown up within a culture of eating chinook salmon.

Photo: NOAA Fisheries

In Iceland, some killer whales apparently feed on both fish and seals, depending on the time of year, according to researcher Sara Tavares of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The same animals have been seen among large groups of orcas as they pursue schools of herring in the North Atlantic, she writes in her blog, Icelandic Orcas.

The Icelandic whales have a different social structure than the fish-eating Southern Resident killer whales that frequent the Salish Sea. Both groups are also quite different from the marine-mammal-eating transient killer whales that have been visiting Puget Sound more frequently in recent years.

It is now widely accepted that groups of killer whales each have their own culture, passed down from mothers to offspring, with older relatives playing an integral role in the lessons. Culture is simply learned behavior, and the message delivered from the elders to the young is: “This is the way we do it.”

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Getting lost in the tangle of connections called the Puget Sound food web

I’m increasingly amazed at the interwoven nature of the Puget Sound food web. Whenever I become focused on a specific species — Chinook salmon, for example — one of the first questions I ask is: What is this species eating?

I soon learn that the answer depends on the size of the individual doing the eating. Prey for a baby salmon is much different from prey for an adult.

If you really want to learn about why a species is doing well or poorly, you need to look beyond prey availability for your species of interest and find out what the prey are eating as well. Healthy prey must be abundant for any species to do well, so the prey of the prey must also do well.

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The lives of salmon are complex, leading to threats but also hope

Salmon have a tough life. Not only must they escape predators and find enough food to eat — as do all wild animals — but they must also make the physiologically taxing transition from freshwater to saltwater and then back again to start a new generation.

In a four-part series being published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, I explain some of the latest research findings about how chinook, coho and steelhead are struggling to survive in the waters of Puget Sound.

Chinook salmon // Photo: Zureks, Wikimedia commons

The first part is called “Opening the black box: What’s killing Puget Sound’s salmon and steelhead?” It describes the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, a major research effort involving more than 200 scientists in the U.S. and Canada. The effort is coordinated by Long Live the Kings in the U.S. and by the Pacific Salmon Foundation in Canada.

The second part, titled “Size means survival for salmon,” takes a look at salmon and steelhead’s place in the food web from the “bottom up,” as they say. Specifically, what are the fish eating and what is limiting their access to a healthy food supply?

Still to come are discussions about predation (“top down”) in Part 3, and other factors that affect survival, such as disease and chemical exposure, in Part 4.

Our goal for this project has been to describe the important research findings in careful detail without getting lost in complex scientific analysis. I also describe, at the end of Part 1, some new findings regarding potential competition among salmon for food in the Pacific Ocean.

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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.