Making a difference this Orca Action Month

For 16 years now, June has marked the annual Orca Action Month — a month-long celebration of all the ways we can come together to make a difference for endangered orcas. This year’s theme, Stream to Sea: Celebrating the Orca Salmon Connection in 2022, highlights the interconnectedness of local watersheds, rivers and the Salish Sea, and the importance of salmon and their habitat to the survival of Southern Resident killer whales.

Photo by Ken Rea.

Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2005, Southern Residents face three main threats: a lack of food, contaminants in their food, and vessel noise and disturbance as they forage and communicate using echolocation. Center for Whale Research’s March 2022 census recorded the Southern Resident population at just 74 individuals, although researchers are hopeful with the news of a birth in K pod this May.

Alongside state, federal, and tribal governments, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is taking bold actions to salmon and orca recovery and protect these iconic animals for the future. One of the ways we do this is through the work of the Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group (RFEG) Program, which the Washington state Legislature created in 1990.

RFEGs involve local communities, volunteers, and private landowners in the state’s salmon recovery efforts. Through collaborative partnerships with local, state and federal agencies; tribes; local businesses; community members; and landowners, RFEGs help to lead their communities in successful restoration, education, and monitoring projects.

“RFEGs are a key boots-on-the-ground partner in salmon recovery, which supports prey availability for Southern Resident killer whales,” said Julie Watson, Ph.D., WDFW killer whale policy lead. “Getting involved with your local RFEG and volunteering to restore salmon habitat in your community is a great way for people to take action — this Orca Action Month and year-round — to make a difference for the Southern Resident killer whales.”

Over the last 30+ years, Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups in Washington state have completed nearly 1,000 projects to improve fish passage, opened up 1,378 miles of stream, restored 2019 miles of habitat, and completed nearly 4,500 salmon recovery projects.

Read on for some of their recent successes for salmon — and orca — recovery.

North Puget Sound: Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group, Pressentin Park habitat restoration project

Located in Marblemount within a Skagit County owned Park, the Pressentin Park habitat restoration project restores important habitat for young Chinook salmon by reconnecting over one-half mile of historic side channel habitat to the Skagit River.

Not long after connecting the restored channel to the Skagit River, on-the-ground surveys recorded adult Chinook, coho, and hundreds of pink salmon using the new habitat.

The project also includes new interpretive signs that highlight the connections between the environment, local communities, salmon, and endangered orca populations. As part of the restoration effort, the project removed invasive plants in the floodplain and restored over 12 acres along the new channel with 13,000 native trees and shrubs.

Get a bird’s-eye view of the project with this video from the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group:

Olympic Peninsula: North Olympic Salmon Coalition, Kilisut Harbor Bridge project:

The Kilisut Harbor Bridge project restores tidal connection between southern Kilisut Harbor (Scow Bay) and Oak Bay by removing the earthen causeway that contained two culverts. The causeway was replaced with a 440-foot bridge. This work restored natural processes and biological responses to 27 acres of marine intertidal habitat and tidal-fringe salt marsh.

The project benefits many species, including salmon, shorebirds, waterfowl, shellfish, and eelgrass, while also providing transportation between the two islands.

The successful completion of this project reconnected the large numbers of Hood Canal and Puget Sound out-migrating juvenile salmon that converge at Oak Bay with immense foraging opportunities available within Kilisut Harbor. The project also restored and enhanced important staging and foraging habitat for multiple coastal-dependent and migratory birds.

Learn more in this video from our partners at the Washington State Department of Transportation:

Central Washington: Cascade Fisheries Enhancement Group, Minnow Creek

Located near Leavenworth, the Minnow Creek project removed two abandoned road crossings and replaced a culvert on Minnow Creek, providing access to 3.74 miles of high-quality habitat for Upper Columbia summer steelhead, bull trout, and other fish.

Project support came from partners at the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Grant County Public Utility District, Chelan County Public Utility District, Salmon Recovery Funding Board, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Central Washington: Mid-Columbia Fisheries Enhancement Group, Quartz Creek habitat restoration project

Located in Yakima and Kittitas counties, the Quartz Creek habitat restoration project will help place 250 to 300 pieces of large woody debris in the streams of the Little Naches River to help fish habitat. The debris will help to create habitat for fish to rest, slow the flow of the water, and provide additional shade for the fish to enjoy cool water.

The project is expected to bring benefits for salmon as well as steelhead and bull trout.

Join the movement: Get involved in your local Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group!

There’s no better time to get involved in salmon recovery — and in turn — orca recovery. Visit our website to learn more about your local Regional Fisheries Enhancement Group.

Partial funding for the RFEG program comes from a portion of commercial and recreational fishing license fees, which WDFW administers. More information is available on the WDFW website.

To learn more about the steps WDFW and its partners are taking to support orca recovery — and what you can do to help, visit our website.

Visit orcamonth.com for more information about Orca Action Month.

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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.