Saving our region’s salmon is key to helping Puget Sound’s endangered resident killer whales.

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OUR salmon and orcas are at a crossroads. Puget Sound’s resident killer whale population could be headed toward extinction, and saving our region’s salmon — a critical and sharply declining food source for our whales — may be the only way to save these Northwest icons.

A recent Seattle Times article described a possible legal battle over the fate of the southern resident killer whale, Lolita: to keep her in captivity or return her to her native Pacific Northwest waters where her family still live and hunt for salmon.

It should also rekindle a public discussion about our need to improve the health of the environment on which humans, killer whales, and salmon depend. One of the most critical environmental issues we now face in our shared ecosystem is the poor survival of salmon as they travel through the Salish Sea on their way to the Pacific Ocean.

These whales are called “residents” because they spend much of the year in our Salish Sea: the inland marine waters of Washington state and British Columbia that include Puget Sound, straits of Georgia and Juan de Fuca. Like Lolita, our 79 remaining southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. A limited food supply has been identified as one of the primary reasons for their decline, with big and energy-rich chinook salmon making up more than 80 percent of their preferred diet.

Like the resident whales that depend on them, Puget Sound chinook salmon are also listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The spring chinook run from the mighty Fraser River in southern British Columbia is a fraction of what it once was. We’ve invested thousands of hours of volunteer labor and considerable resources in freshwater and estuary habitat recovery in the region. Harvest rates have been significantly reduced, and hatchery management has undergone major changes. Despite efforts, the abundance of our Salish Sea chinook salmon populations, both wild and hatchery, remains well below what it was 30 years ago.

Why? The survival of both wild and hatchery chinook salmon after they enter the saltwater environment was up to 10 times higher in the early 1980s compared with now. Observed changes in the Salish Sea marine ecosystem are thought to be the cause as no such trend has been observed for salmon leaving and returning to our coastal rivers that empty directly to the Pacific Ocean.

A new international effort, the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project, led by the groups Long Live the Kings and the Pacific Salmon Foundation, is under way to unravel the mystery of why salmon entering Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia are dying at alarming rates.

This project brings together 150 scientists, 40 organizations including tribal, First Nations and two countries to understand the problems our chinook and other salmon face so that we can take the right actions to protect them.

Early findings of the project show that predation from seals, toxic materials, disease and lack of food may all be contributing to the poor early survival of our salmon and steelhead.

Understanding and addressing these issues would provide hope that Lolita, if she is returned to her native waters, and the rest of the southern resident killer whales have a sustainable future with us in this unique corner of the world we call home.