Boost in Hatchery Salmon to Feed Endangered Southern Resident Orcas Reported

Southern Resident killer whales
Southern Resident killer whales travel the West Coast, preying on both hatchery and wild salmon returning to rivers. Additional hatchery production could supplement that salmon prey both in Washington and along the Columbia River. Photo: Northwest Fisheries Science Center/NOAA Fisheries.

A new report from NOAA Fisheries says that federal, state and tribal salmon hatcheries in Washington and Oregon have boosted production of juvenile Chinook salmon over the past two years to help endangered southern resident orca whales recover.

The southern resident orcas prey on salmon and other fish, rather than other sea mammals, and have a preference for king salmon.

Federal funds for the project came in association with the Pacific Salmon Treaty, plus state funds from the Washington State Legislature. Hatcheries aim to increase prey for the top marine predators by roughly 4-5% as the young fish mature over the next two to three years.

NOAA Fisheries said the federal funds include $10.4 million last year and this year to restore habitat in the Salish Sea, to improve long-term natural production of king salmon to benefit the orcas and support fisheries in Canada and the U.S.

Treaty-related money adds to other habitat restoration funds from the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, state programs, and other sources, NOAA’s report stated. In total more than $200 million has been allocated to restore salmon on the West Coast over the last three years.

Scott Rumsey, deputy regional administrator for the West Coast Region of NOAA Fisheries, said that while hatcheries are boosting production of prey for the orcas for the short-term NOAA is restoring the long-term capacity of the ecosystem to do the same.

“At the same time, Rumsey said, “managing vessel traffic and noise helps ensure that the whales can effectively hunt and find the additional salmon that are out there.”

Federal fisheries scientists have found that coordinated efforts to recover both southern resident orcas and their prey simultaneously provide the best promise of recovery in the shortest time. They are also collaborating with partners to assess the economic and ecological effects of recovery actions for these southern resident orcas.