Comment: To save orcas, agencies should supsend salmon fishing

Reports are showing alarming declines among salmon, a vital food source for state’s killer whales.

By Michael W. Shurgot / For The Herald

Several recent scientific reports on the perilous state of Northwest salmon and Southern Resident killer whales collectively indicate that severely curtailing regional fishing practices, including and especially in Alaska, is now absolutely necessary if our salmon and orcas are to survive.

Collectively, these reports are unequivocal.

First, a report issued on Jan. 22 by Fisheries and Oceans Canada: Canada documented that 30,000 chinook salmon had been destroyed as “bycatch” by hake and walleye pollock fishers during the 2022-23 ground fishing season. Sydney Dixon, a marine specialist with Canada’s Pacific Wild, estimated that the destroyed fish could have fed three or four mature orcas for an entire year.

This waste of this precious natural resource is unconscionable. It also emphasizes a truth that national and state regulatory agencies, such as the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, must face: The fishing industry is often wasteful and destructive, and the dangers of more salmon being dumped overboard as “bycatch” in Pacific Northwest and Alaska waters must be eliminated immediately.

Second, an intriguing map that was part of NOAA’s Jan. 20, 2022 report, “Ocean’s Influence on Salmon Plays Out in Varied Returns to Different Rivers and Regions,” visualizes scientists’ understanding of the migration patters taken by several fish stocks: Puget Sound, Lower Columbia, Snake River/Oregon, and northern B.C. stocks. While these fish originate in vastly different regions, they share the waters and food of the Gulf of Alaska as they mature.

As the 2002 NOAA report details, nearly all Pacific Northwest salmon runs, regardless of their disparate origins, are declining rapidly. Further, in his research project, “Loss of Fecundity in Washington Chinook Population,” published March 1, 2024 at WildSteelheaders.org, Gary Marston writes that in the populations he and his team studied “there were significant reductions in body size across all age classes of female chinook between 2009 and 2017.” Marston concludes: ”[W]ith chinook returning at smaller sizes, and therefore producing fewer eggs and offspring, traditional fishery regimes could easily lead to over-exploiting the populations.”

Given the shared waters of the Gulf of Alaska, the alarming decrease in female chinook size and their reproductive potential and the already severely depleted fish stocks in most West Coast rivers, regulators must now consider ending all commercial salmon fishing in Alaska, especially by trawlers.

Maps are guesses. Fish mingle. All salmon caught in Alaska’s waters are potential food for the starving orcas of the Salish Sea, and the fish that do return are smaller and less productive than they have been historically. Commercial fishing should also be severely curtailed in Washington waters, especially the Strait of Juan de Fuca where many commercial fishers operate. Further, the state Fish and Wildlife departments does not “allocate” Puget Sound fish for killer whales, only for fishers. This must change: Whales first, then fishers.

Finally, new research published April 5 in Communications Earth & Environment by Wild Fish Conservancy projects “a rapid population collapse [of Southern Resident killer whales] in roughly 40 years’ time from maintenance of the status-quo.” The report urges transitioning from ocean-based fishing to river-based locations, a change that would “immediately increase critical wild chinook salmon for (Salish Sea orcas).”

The authors urge swift action. “In a declining population the longer the lag time between knowledge and mitigation, the more draconian the recovery actions can become, with a larger social cost and a higher risk that harm reduction actions may not work.”

As Joe Gaydos, science director of the SeaDoc Society, recently commented, “We are talking about making some big changes in the next couple of generations of killer whales, or we are out of time.”

Michael W. Shurgot is a retired professor of humanities at South Puget Sound Community College. He lives in Seattle.

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