Salmon fishing boats docked at Fisherman’s Terminal Marina in Seattle (Photo by WDFW staff)

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


Washingtonians and Southern Resident orcas share a unique bond — we have a shared love for the saltwater habitat off the coast and in Puget Sound, and we share a keen appetite for eating salmon.

Southern Resident orcas are an iconic and integral part of the Pacific Northwest. They’re part of who we are, a cornerstone of the environment, and they hold significant cultural value for Pacific Northwest tribes and our regional natural heritage.

Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, Southern Resident orcas face three main threats — lack of food (mainly Chinook salmon); contaminants in their food and surrounding habitat; and vessel noise and disturbance as they forage and communicate using echolocation. The recorded Southern Resident orca population is just 73 individuals.

A view of a resident orca leaping out of the water near a shoreline (Photo by Shawn McCready)

Alongside state, federal, and tribal governments, WDFW is taking bold actions to support Southern Resident orca and salmon to address the various threats to their recovery and protect these iconic animals for the future. In summer 2023, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) designated 11 Southern Resident orcas as vulnerable and issued an emergency rule conferring extra protections for the most vulnerable of this vulnerable population. In January of 2025, new legislation will go into effect to permanently expand protections for the entire population by expanding the mandatory vessel buffer around Southern Resident orcas to 1,000 yards. WDFW has expanded enforcement to ensure both whale watching and private vessels “Be Whale Wise” and follow distance and speed guidelines. You can read more about that work here, and you can read about the state’s broader efforts to recover the Southern Resident orca population here.

While NOAA Fisheries analysis reveals Southern Resident Orca’s primarily target Chinook salmon in the summer, it’s not the only fish they eat. They’re also known to diversify their diet the rest of year to include skates, halibut, and lingcod, as well as steelhead, chum, and coho salmon. Most of the salmon the whales consume in winter and spring come from three large river systems: the Columbia, Sacramento, and rivers entering Puget Sound.

We also recognize that Washingtonians want to make sound decisions when it comes to where they source their seafood.

While we’re all concerned about salmon recovery and declines in salmon, particularly in certain wild salmon runs, consumers should feel good knowing that Chinook and other salmon species are sustainably managed. Their seasons are set to limit impacts on the fish available to the Southern Resident orcas.

Chef Taichi Kitamura owner of Sushi Kappo Tamura in Seattle holds up a fresh salmon fillet (Photo by WDFW staff)

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 orcas.

Setting conservation-minded fishing seasons

When it comes to seafood, Washington’s environmentally conscious consumer base is looking for information on fisheries management to help them make sound, conservation-minded purchases.

As for fisheries management, including those for salmon, WDFW uses a strict science-driven, and highly monitored program — 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.

The annual North of Falcon public salmon season setting process from late winter through spring also considers 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 salmon harvest quotas are centered around multi-species conservation and recovery objectives.

A fishing boat moored at Fisherman’s Terminal Marina in Seattle (Photo by WDFW staff)

It’s important for the public to know that commercial and recreational fishing seasons are designed to minimize how often fishing boats and Southern Resident orca’s cross paths. Because fishing seasons are set to limit impacts on endangered stocks, Chinook fishing tends to be particularly limited in the San Juan Islands, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and throughout Puget Sound. Where we do have Chinook salmon fisheries, they often occur after Southern Resident orcas have had their first choice of the fish, once the fish return to bays and rivers where the orcas aren’t present. To maintain flexibility, seasons are also able to be closed or opened in-season.

Through the salmon season setting process, WDFW and tribal co-managers work together to ensure that fisheries meet salmon conservation objectives so we can all access these fish into the future. This means that as adult salmon return to Washington’s waters to spawn, fisheries managers are focused first and foremost on ensuring that enough wild salmon make it back to the spawning grounds.

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 orcas 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.

Fishing seasons and harvest quotas for hatchery salmon take into account the potential for encountering non-target wild Chinook. In areas like the San Juans fishing seasons are limited compared to historic seasons to prevent encounters of wild salmon and conflicts with Southern Resident orcas, lasting just weeks versus months, and barbless hooks are required ensuring recreational anglers can carefully release wild Chinook salmon without bringing them aboard their vessels.

In addition, 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.

Raising hatchery Chinook salmon

WDFW works hard to preserve the salmon runs most critical to the Southern Residents orcas. We have developed a thoughtful and conservative approach to raising and releasing hatchery salmon to bolster orcas’ access to food in the right places and at the right times, while optimizing commercial fishing opportunity and wild salmon recovery.

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.

Crowding salmon in the adult pond at the Marblemount Hatchery (Photo by WDFW staff)

Until wild stocks recover, hatchery managers are attempting to maintain a symbiotic relationship between wild fish and hatchery Chinook programs.

As a result of the 2020 legislative session, WDFW received funding to increase hatchery production of primarily Chinook salmon to enhance the prey base for Southern Resident orcas. With this funding we are releasing more smolts — or young salmon gearing up to head out to sea — with the goal of increasing the number of adult salmon returning to the primary feeding grounds of Southern Resident orcas. This investment is an immediate step in ensuring enough available food for Southern Resident orcas.

Restoring habitat, a top priority

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

For more than 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.

Equally important is protecting healthy salmon habitat as the population grows in coming years. WDFW works to ensure that construction in and near state waters is conducted in a manner that protects fish and fish habitat.

Fresh salmon is a healthy and sustainable choice when it comes to adding seafood into your diet and can be found almost year-round at grocery and seafood stores (Photo by Nancy Leson)

Salmon: A healthy, sustainable choice

Consumers should feel secure in the knowledge that their choice to eat local seafood and salmon is compatible with the recovery of Southern Resident killer whales and healthy, sustainable ecosystems. When you buy Washington seafood at your local grocery and seafood store, off the dock or at a farmers’ market, you support local fishers and Washington’s economy for years to come.

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 proteins out there. It takes up less space and freshwater than land-based animal proteins, such as beef or chicken, and produces fewer greenhouse gases, depending on how far vessels travel.

Choosing local seafood reduces your carbon footprint as the product has less distance from the sea to the store and requires no air travel which has much higher emissions. Washington salmon are usually available from early May through September.

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.

Visit 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

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.



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.