Cull the endangered Orcas…?

This headline from the Seattle Times Local News the other day  (photo credit: Astrid Van Ginneken):

Local orcas’ favorite meal: B.C. chinook

The article states:

During the summers of 2004-08, scientists tracked the J, K and L pods of orcas (also known as killer whales) in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and San Juan Islands, to learn what they were eating and analyze where their food came from. No easy task, the work involved following the orcas in small boats and gathering killer-whale excrement and regurgitation, fish scales and other tissue with a fine mesh net after the whales ate.

Examination of the material, including DNA testing, revealed that the orcas select chinook salmon nearly exclusively for food, despite far more abundant numbers of pink and sockeye in the area at the same time.

“They would literally knock pink salmon out of the way to take a chinook,” said Brad Hanson, biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, and lead author of the paper, published last month in the online journal Endangered Species Research.

Scientists took their examination a step further, to learn by DNA analysis where the fish came from. Of the chinook salmon sampled, 80 to 90 percent were from British Columbia’s Fraser River, and only 6 to 14 percent from Puget Sound-area rivers.

“It certainly has raised the question of providing suitable numbers of chinook available to sustain their current needs, both in the U.S. and Canada,” Ford said.

The full study is available online from the March 2010 edition of the journal Endangered Species Research:

Species and stock identification of prey consumed by endangered southern resident killer whales in their summer range

Some pieces that stood out for me on initial reading:

… in May and June, the Fraser River stocks in the prey samples were dominated by stocks from the upper portion of the watershed. In July and August, stocks from the central portion of the watershed were most common, while in September the predominant Fraser River stocks were from the lower watershed, a pattern consistent with the seasonal distribution of the major Fraser River Chinook salmon stocks as they enter the river mouth

And here’s the telling piece:

If Chinook salmon constitute the bulk of these whales’ diet, then fish managers will need to take this information into account when managing Chinook salmon fisheries and conservation efforts (NMFS 2008a).

The NMFS is the National Marine Fisheries Service of the U.S. I’m not sure if the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans chats with the NMFS…

Currently, on the Fraser River  — and in particular the upper Fraser River stocks that endangered orcas hit in May and June — there is not only a “conservation” concern but an extinction concern. These Chinook are referred to as the Early Spring Chinook or specifically the 4 sub 2 population of Chinook. The “sub 2” referring to the time that these Chinook spend in fresh water as babies before heading to the ocean, the four referring to years old.

Last year on the Thompson River (major tributary to the Fraser), and specifically the Nicola River, were record lows:

    • 26 Chinook returned to the Coldwater River
    • 138 Chinook returned to Spius Creek (which has a hatchery)
    • 461 Chinook returned to the Nicola spawning grounds

Estimates suggest that for any fisheries to occur these populations need:

    • 2000 Chinook returning to Coldwater
    • 2000 to Spius; and
    • 6000 to the Nicola.

This year, the pre-season Integrated Fisheries Management Plan put out by Fisheries and Oceans (of which you can comment on until April 26 <>)  is forecasting “Returns of Spring 4(2) Chinook in 2010 will come primarily from a parent generation of 10,637 spawners in 2006.”

Thus, we can assume that the hope is that the spawners that return this year will be at least equal to the 10,000 that spawned in 2006.

Yet, as DFO states in their 2010 Draft Salmon Outlook (vers. 4 Jan. 18, 2010):

“2009 was the fourth successive year where recruitment failed to replace parental spawning abundance”

In the 2010 Salmon Outlook, Spring 4(2) Chinook has been classified as a “stock of concern given poor survival rates and very poor spawning escapements in recent years.” On a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being the worst — the Spring 4 (2) Chinook are a “1”:

Stock is (or is forecast to be) less than 25% of target or is declining rapidly. Directed fisheries are unlikely and there may be a requirement to avoid indirect catch of the stock.

And so this year these Early Spring Chinook are most likely going to see returns far below the 10,000 required to allow any fisheries.

And yet, sport fisheries for Chinook remain open coastwide in B.C. — including Strait of Georgia, Juan de Fuca and Johnstone Strait.

Now add in the fact that endangered Orcas in the Salish Sea (Strait of Georgia) and Juan de Fuca rely heavily on Fraser Chinook and the US National Marine Fisheries Service has suggested that: “fish managers will need to take this information into account when managing Chinook salmon fisheries and conservation efforts.”

Some folks who suggest seal culling is in order (even though studies suggest salmon comprise a small portion of their diet) — may start suggesting that the orcas have got to go (with studies suggesting that salmon, specifically Fraser Chinook comprise a huge portion of their diet).

Or… Or, maybe we could do a better job of dealing with things that we can actually control… ummm, like ourselves.

Should there really be any fisheries open right now that may catch Early Spring Chinook – when populations have been unable to replace themselves (even one hatchery supported population)?

First Nations up and down the Fraser River are calling for full closures — including their own food fisheries — especially the Nicola Tribal Council as these Early Spring Chinook spawn in their Traditional Territories.

No commercial fisheries are planned that may catch these Early Spring Chinook — and yet, sport fisheries remain open.

Without even getting into the legal requirements of Fisheries and Oceans (and the federal government) to ensure First Nations food, social and ceremonial requirements are met before any fisheries are open — It still must be asked whether sport fisheries should be open?

Why is DFO refusing to close these fisheries despite all the evidence that suggests full closures are essential — not only to ensure continued existence of these Chinook runs, but also supporting endangered Orcas?

These early-timed Chinook can not afford economic and political decisions — nor, can endangered Orcas.

7 thoughts on “Cull the endangered Orcas…?

  1. priscilla judd

    Hi there
    Could you please post the link for the plan that is accepting comments? I’d like to comment.
    Thanks very much
    I love reading your stuff – You are right about a lot of things – I hope you sent a submission to the Cohen Commission – I think it is a political process which is good because if it is – it can deal with all things political (as opposed to scientific stuff).

  2. salmon guy Post author

    thanks again Priscilla, glad you’re enjoying the material. The link for the DFO plans accepting comments are at:

    On that page you’ll see the link to the 2010 Draft Salmon IFMP South Coast (IFMP being the “Integrated Fisheries Management Plan”). Seeing these sort of gets to the heart of the matter. The South Coast IFMP is 264 pages long. Gee, that’s accessible to the general public…

    There’s also the Fraser Sockeye Escapement Strategy, which includes the Fraser River Spawning Sockeye Initiative (FRSSI) of which I have commented on this site and will continue to. It’s a computer simulation model based on very limited data.

    And yes, I certainly plan to submit to the Cohen Commission. Often.
    I applied for “standing”, but was turned down. Not too surprised, however, rather disappointed to see the Salmon Farming Assoc. and Rio Tinto Alcan were granted standing.

    Please do not hesitate to send me an email, or make a comment on here if you have questions on the IFMP. I may have a post or two on here that relate to comments that folks may want to send in.

    Thanks for the continued reading and comments, and keep at your letter writing and blog posts. Great that many folks are becoming really engaged in the salmon discussions. In the end, political decisions are supposed to be made by every-day citizens like you and I, and others… of course that’s not always the case; however the more folks that are active and voicing concerns the harder it is to ignore and simply go with the folks that have the most dollars and loudest lobbying voice.

  3. Ian

    Orcas are too numerous and are actually threatening the natural balance in the seas. There are recorded cases f them ramming boats as well. I don’t know what there natural enemies were but they are getting too bold and numerous.

  4. Dave

    I have been around Orca whales since I was 10 along with many in my family, never ever ever heard of an orca ramming a boat!! Where are these recorded cases??

  5. salmon guy Post author

    Thanks for the continued comments Annie,
    true enough… the sport fishing sector is likely to take some hits in many ways. Declining runs will do that; go ask sporties along the California or Oregon coast. The situation for east coast Vancouver Island salmon stocks has been abysmal for quite some time.

    Plus, the fact that the sport industry has done a wonderful job of avoiding monitoring and enforcement on par with the commercial and First Nation sector. (this coming from one who does no shortage of food/sport fishing).

    However, what the sport industry has going for it is some rather significant economic return in relation to potential impact. As well as return on investment. But like so much else, it’s all about scale…

  6. Mr.Enviro

    The title of this article is VERY offensive.
    Why fool with mother nature, we have by the fish farms on our coast.
    Time to move them on to the land in closed containment facilities to be truly sustainable.

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