Conservation-minded approach to fisheries management supports sustainable salmon for Southern Resident orcas — and people

Southern Resident killer whales and Pacific Northwesterners have at least two things in common — we love our marine environment on the coast and in the Salish Sea, and we love eating salmon.

Southern Resident killer whales are an integral part of the Pacific Northwest. They’re part of who we are, a cornerstone of the environment and hold significant cultural value for Pacific Northwest tribes and our regional natural heritage. These endangered whales face several challenges: a lack of food (Chinook salmon), contaminants in their water and food, and vessel noise and disturbance as they try to hunt and communicate using echolocation. The population currently sits at just 73 individuals.

Alongside state, federal, and tribal governments, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is taking bold actions to support orca and salmon recovery and protect these iconic animals for the future. We also recognize that Washingtonians want to make sound decisions when it comes to where they source their food. While we’re all concerned about declines in certain wild salmon runs, consumers should feel good knowing that Chinook and other salmon species are sustainably managed to limit impacts on the fish available to the Southern Residents.

In fact, NOAA Fisheries’ FishWatch rates U.S. wild-caught Chinook salmon as a smart seafood choice “because they are sustainably managed with careful consideration given to impacts on endangered and threatened species.” The term “wild-caught” includes salmon from both wild stocks as well as those reared in fish hatcheries and then released as juveniles to support local fisheries, tribal treaty rights, and in certain cases, to help provide additional food for Southern Resident killer whales.

Setting sustainable and supportive fishing seasons

The Department uses strict science-based monitoring and oversight when it comes to fisheries management — some of the most stringent in the world. A recent University of Washington study cited effective management — just like the kind you’ll find here in Washington — as one of the main contributors to sustainable seafood stocks.

Through the salmon season setting process, the Department and tribal co-managers work together to ensure that recreational, commercial, and tribal fisheries meet salmon conservation objectives so we can all access these fish into the future.

Hear from commercial fishers about their commitment to preserving salmon for the future. As anglers and commercial fishermen (regardless of gear type) work within that year’s fishery limitations, they can be sure that their catch is protective of SRKWs and the needs of wild Chinook salmon.

The seasons also reflect input and oversight from state and federal partners, including NOAA Fisheries, the Pacific Salmon Commission and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council. Season setting considers ecosystem impacts, and the harvest quotas are centered around multi-species conservation and recovery objectives.

NOAA Fisheries also recently approved an amendment to the fishery management plan for Chinook salmon off the West Coast to leave more salmon for endangered Southern Resident killer whales in low-return years. This comes in response to a Pacific Fishery Management Council recommendation from a work group made up of federal, tribal and state fishery managers.

Because fishing seasons are set to limit impacts on species of greatest conservation need, which has benefits to Southern Residents as well, Chinook fishing tends to be particularly limited in the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and throughout Puget Sound. Depending on harvest quotas for hatchery salmon and how many wild Chinook anglers are allowed to encounter and release in consideration of conservation concerns, these fisheries may only last several weeks per year. This is a significant reduction from historical salmon fishing seasons, which often ran from June through March depending on the marine area.

Barbless hooks are also required for recreational salmon anglers, and in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, anglers must carefully release wild Chinook salmon without bringing them aboard their vessels.

Where we do have Chinook salmon fisheries, anglers and commercial fishers help to reduce the proportion of hatchery fish on the spawning grounds through selective harvest. Selective harvest is important as wild Chinook salmon continue to evolve along with the natural environment and experience less domestication influence from their hatchery counterparts. Commercial fishing seasons also often occur after Southern Resident orcas have had their first choice of the fish, within bays and rivers where the orcas aren’t present.

Raising hatchery Chinook

Washington’s recovery of Chinook salmon is dependent on the contribution of conservation hatchery programs. Likewise, hatchery production is dependent upon demonstrating progress on wild Chinook recovery. Over the years, hatchery science and management has improved, reducing interaction between hatchery and wild stocks and better protecting native genetic stocks and genetic diversity.

Hear from WDFW staff about the state’s work to produce Chinook salmon for Southern Resident killer whales.

Until wild stocks recover, hatchery managers are attempting to maintain a symbiotic relationship between wild fish and hatchery Chinook programs. That’s because hatchery Chinook programs are critically important to Southern Residents and ensure adequate prey for these endangered orcas.

As a result of the 2020 legislative session, WDFW received SRKW recovery funding to produce more food for orca. This funding is helping to put more smolts — or young salmon gearing up to head out to sea — that will grow up to be adult salmon that cross paths with the whales in the future. This investment is a critical, immediate step in ensuring enough available food for Southern Residents.

Restoring habitat

In addition to helping to support sustainable fisheries management and produce more salmon smolts, we’re also helping to restore salmon habitat and open up barriers to migrating fish, which has benefits for Southern Residents as well.

For the last 10 years, state agencies and institutional partners have worked to preserve and restore Puget Sound through strategic initiatives focused on stormwater, habitat, and shellfish. WDFW works with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources to serve as the Habitat Strategic Initiative Lead. Our role in Puget Sound recovery is to implement community-developed strategies that improve the health of the rivers, forests, shorelines, and estuaries that make up Puget Sound.

WDFW’s Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program (ESRP) is a grant program that provides funding and technical assistance to organizations working to restore shoreline and nearshore habitats that are important to salmon and other species in Puget Sound. This includes the Shore Friendly program, which provides stewardship incentives to shoreline landowners to reduce shoreline armoring, such as bulkheads and seawalls.

We also help to inventory barriers and expand access to migrating fish through similar grant-funded programs, such as the Fish Barrier Removal Board and the Family Forest Fish Passage Program.

Salmon: A healthy, sustainable choice

With the understanding of how WDFW and its partners share a commitment to sustainable salmon conservation and fisheries management, opting for locally harvested salmon isn’t just a decision you can feel good about — it’s also good for you. In addition to being a great source of protein, salmon also offers heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, potassium, B12, and other minerals like selenium, zinc, and iodine. Plus, according to the University of Washington’s Sustainable Seafood 101, seafood is one of the most carbon-efficient foods out there. It takes up less space and freshwater than land-based food, such as beef or chicken and also produces fewer greenhouse gases, depending on how far vessels travel.

Whether you’ve harvested it yourself, picked it up from your local seafood monger or bought it dockside, see below for some of our favorite salmon recipes from the Seafood Nutrition Partnership. You can also find Washington-harvested salmon with the help of Local Catch, a network of supported fisheries and small-scale harvesters.

Salmon Sliders with Garlic Lemon Aioli

Get the full recipe from the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.

Salmon Chowder

Get the full recipe from the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.

Blood Orange Baked Salmon

Get the full recipe from the Seafood Nutrition Partnership.

Visit wdfw.wa.gov/LocalWASeafood to learn more about in-season sustainable seafood and where to find it near you. To learn more about WDFW’s progress on orca recovery, visit wdfw.wa.gov/SRKW.

For more information about the extensive salmon season-setting process, visit our blog post, A guide to the salmon season setting process: North of Falcon.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.

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