Canada to Release Salmon to Help Feed Endangered Killer Whales

A lack of food is the biggest threat to Southern Resident orcas.
(Photo: Tory Kallman/Getty Images)
Jun 27, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A group of anglers on Vancouver Island has received permission from the Canadian government to release 200,000 young chinook salmon into local waters to boost the food supply for critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales.

The South Vancouver Island Anglers Coalition last week announced that Fisheries and Oceans Canada gave the green light to release the fish from the Sooke River, about 15 miles west of Victoria, British Columbia.

The group proposed the idea last year because members were concerned that the Canadian government was not doing enough to increase stocks of chinook, the orcas’ preferred prey. Some chinook populations in the region are listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

The Southern Resident orca population, which was listed as endangered in 2005, has experienced a significant decline in recent years, largely because of pollution and lack of food. A “baby boom” in the last two years brought the number up to 84, though most of those newborns were male.

“For the past 12 years or more, we have seen declining stocks of chinook,” said Christopher Bos, president of the anglers coalition. “There is a problem, and very little is being done to change the abundance of fish. We don’t want to lose this opportunity by doing nothing. These whales are a hungry bunch.”

Using funds raised from foundations and private donors such as the Pacific Whale Watch Association, the group will contract with a government hatchery on Vancouver Island’s Pacific coast to produce 200,000 young fish that will be trucked to the Sooke River and released next spring.

The group originally sought permission to release 500,000 salmon, but the government reduced that number to 200,000.

“We can ramp that up,” Bos said. “Our goal is to do 2 million a year.”

RELATED: What Freedom Looks Like for SeaWorld's Killer Whales

It will take three years for the first batch of salmon to return to the Sooke River as adults.

“They will start appearing in early July and go right through until the third or fourth week of September, when they start to run into the river to spawn,” Bos said. “So there is an almost three-month window when they will be milling around.”

He predicted that 2 to 4 percent of the released fish will return to the river as adults.

During that time, orcas frequent the area before heading out into the Pacific Ocean. “It’s perfect timing with the chinook returning for them to put on weight for the winter months,” Bos said.

While the additional salmon could benefit local fishers, Bos said the motivation is purely to increase the food supply for orcas.

“We’re not going to get more anglers on the water because there are more fish,” he said, adding that recreational fishers are restricted to catching two chinook per day.

Canadian Fisheries spokesperson Dan Bate said in an email, however, that the agency approved the project “to increase access for local recreational fishers, but there may be some positive impacts to local killer whale populations.”

Bate said his agency was concerned about some of the hatchery fish straying into other rivers on their return and interbreeding with native salmon stocks. “Two hundred thousand is a good start to determine technical capacity and ability,” he said. “Once this is assessed, the target release number can be revisited in the future.”

It’s not the first project to raise chinook primarily for killer whale food. Since 1978, Jim Youngren, a real estate developer who lives on Orcas Island, in Washington’s San Juan Islands, has been running his own salmon hatchery to produce food for Southern Residents.

“We’re raising orca chow,” Youngren said, adding that he recently released 800,000 juvenile fish, with up to 1,600 expected to return as adults.

Ken Balcomb, director of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, said he was concerned that hatchery salmon could compete with wild fish to survive.

“Restoration of the wild chinook stocks in the Fraser River system [in British Columbia] is really what’s needed to feed the whales,” Balcomb said. “Bigger river systems could have millions of fish that can potentially feed whales. The Sooke River will give them a little snack once in a while.”

Michael Milstein, public affairs officer with the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, said, “We think it’s just as, if not more, important to focus on habitat for wild salmon. That’s what would really make a difference in terms of long-term sustainability throughout the range of salmon that the whales depend on in the summer.”

But, Milstein added, “we think it’s an interesting experiment. It’s not something we’re pursuing at this point, but we’ll be watching the Canadian experiment to see what they learn from it.”