Regional Public Journalism
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Endangered Orcas Are Starving. Should We Start Feeding Them?

Holly Fearnbach
The population of endangered southern resident killer whales has dwindled to 76 individuals.

Washington state officials have proposed a new tack to save the Pacific Northwest's critically endangered orca population. Their idea is to boost salmon hatchery production by 10 to 20 million more fish per year to provide more food for the iconic killer whales.

No one wants to see orcas starve, but reliance on fish hatcheries leaves some whale advocacy groups uneasy.

There are just 76 orcas left in the pods that call the inland waters of the Northwest home. That's the lowest number in more than three decades. Numerous factors take the blame for the dwindling population, but one of the biggest according to biologists is lack of prey. Chinook salmon are the preferred food for these orcas.

Sport fisherman Greg King can relate.

"The science is there. They're dying,” he said. “We're on a world stage here right now. The whole world is watching us. Are we going to let these orca whales die and have that blood on our hands? I don't think we want that."

King trooped to the Washington Legislature this month to support spending tax dollars to increase hatchery production of Chinook—also known as king—salmon. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife first proposed this idea and the governor is running with it.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Fish Hatchery Specialist Steven Turner feeds juvenile Chinook salmon at the Hoodsport Hatchery

State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, independently put forward the concept and is getting traction with both parties in the legislature. ?

On one level, the idea is pretty simple: rear more salmon at maybe half a dozen or more existinghatcheries throughout the state with spare capacity and release them.

Some of that could happen at the Hoodsport salmon hatchery on Hood Canal.

"We want to see if we can add to that prey base here from Hoodsport,” State Fish and Wildlife Regional Hatchery Manager Rob Allan said.  

Asked whether he thinks this will work, that enough of the fish will survive to grow big enough to interest the killer whales, Allan said he hopes so.

“All we know is that we release fish, they go out to the salt (water) and then they come back," Allan said. "So then it's up to the whales to go ahead and eat 'em. We think it's going to help."

But potential complications abound. The federal government will need to give the OK because both the Puget Sound orcas and many wild salmon runs they used to feed on are listed as endangered.

"Hatchery fish has been identified as a bit detrimental to recovery of wild stocks,” Allan explained. “They want us to put the reins on it a bit."

That’s because hatchery fish could compete for resources with wild stocks and they might interbreed. So it’ll be a challenge to identify the right salmon stocks, hatchery locations and run timing.

"Where do we emphasize, you know a Chinook or a chum salmon? Where do they need to be when the whales are there?" Allan said. "Also where are we not going to have this impact on wild fish? So it's a real juggling match."

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
WDFW Regional Hatchery Manager Rob Allan looks at Chinook salmon fry at the Hoodsport Hatchery's incubation room.

The federal government's Southern Resident killer whale recovery coordinator said she is in discussions about how to make this work. ?

"We need to come up with creative solutions," said Lynne Barre of NOAA Fisheries. "There is kind of a sense of urgency around the whales with the recent losses."

Environmental groups are the most wary of the orca food pantry concept as it proceeds through the legislature, though not opposed. Darcy Nonemacher handles government affairs for the Washington Environmental Council.

"Given the urgency with orcas and the critical need for food to be available to sustain orca populations, everything is on the table,” Nonemacher said. “At the same time, we do not want have hatcheries done in a way that undermines listed salmon and other species that orcas eat, in particular Chinook salmon."

The president of the Orca Conservancy, another group, said using hatcheries to feed the orcas should only be a "short-term" solution until wild runs rebound.

"Enhancement of wild runs will be more valuable to the endangered Southern Resident killer whales in the long run," said Shari Tarantino from Seattle.

The governor's office says it may take years to figure out if the supplemental feeding strategy works so they've penciled in indefinite funding.

"It is proposed that this production would continue until the population rebounds or other actions are shown to be more effective," said a spokesman for the governor in an email.

One way to measure results would be to collect and dissect orca poop to see what they ate, which is easier said than done.

Environmentalists have long favored breaching dams on the lower Snake River to boost salmon numbers and are now directly linking that to creating food for orcas. However, breaching those federal dams appears to have minimal support in Congress. ?

Separately, the Washington Legislature is debating a bill to reduce noise impacts on orcas by imposing a seven knot vessel speed limit within 400 yards of an endangered resident killer whale. Additionally, the governor and state Senate have proposed to increase spending on marine patrols to enforce such a speed limit and existing rules for boaters to stay at least 200 yards away from whales.

Both the governor's office and legislators are talking about creating a Southern Resident killer whale task force to focus on securing more public and private resources and support for orca recovery efforts. Gov. Jay Inslee included nearly $4 million for various orca recovery initiatives, including increased hatchery production and vessel enforcement, in his 2018 budget requests now pending before the state Legislature. ?

Canada is working on its own orca protection plan with many similar elements. The Southern Resident killer whales routinely cross the maritime border between Washington state and British Columbia. ?

In 2014, WDFW hatcheries released around 145 million juvenile salmon and steelhead, about one-third of which were Chinook. A 10 million increase in king salmon production for the purpose of feeding hungry orcas would equate to a 20 percent increase in annual releases of that species.

Hatchery fish not eaten by the killer whales may provide increased fishing opportunities for humans.

The proposed budget authorization to rear the first 10 million cohort of Chinook salmon to feed the orcas comes in at $1.5 million.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.