Saving Salmon to Save Orcas

Photos by David Ellifrit, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries Service

By Alison Studly, Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group Executive Director

Like many of you, we at the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group are deeply concerned about the decline of our iconic Orca whales in our local waters. The Southern Resident Orca whales that inhabit the waters in and around the San Juan Islands during the summer months have reached a dramatically low number with only 75 whales remaining.

These whales were listed on the Endangered Species list in 1973, however the plight of our Orca whales was recently emphasized by a mother mourning the death of her calf as she carried it ceremoniously around Puget Sound for 17 days. This display of affection between a mother and a baby unable to survive has pulled at the heart strings of our community and has many people wondering what can we do to save these magnificent mammals with whom we are so fortunate to share our ecosystem.

While several key factors affect the health of our Orcas, research has demonstrated that our whales are not getting enough to eat, specifically salmon. Orcas that are malnourished are not able to successfully reproduce which has led to the death of several new calves and an alarming reduction in whale numbers.

Southern Resident Orca whales rely on a healthy supply of Chinook salmon which makes up 80% of their diet while they inhabit the waters of the Salish Sea. The Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group is working diligently with many partners to increase the number of salmon, specifically Chinook, that are available to our Orca whales.

The Skagit River is home to over one-half of the remaining wild Chinook in Puget Sound. Therefore ensuring there are healthy populations of Chinook salmon is directly related to ensuring enough food to keep Orca whales healthy.

Recently, we were awarded two grants from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation’s Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program. These two grants specifically target the restoration of Chinook salmon habitat at Pressentin Park (Marblemount) and Britt Slough (Conway) in order to increase the number of Chinook salmon available to Orca whales. These are just two examples of projects dedicated to helping the plight of our Orca whales, however many other projects we do also restore Chinook salmon habitat.

You can help save Orca whales by volunteering with us to plant trees along salmon streams, by volunteering to help maintain nearshore restoration projects, by attending a training workshop to help count salmon returning this fall, or by simply making a donation to help keep these crucial restoration projects going. By helping to restore salmon populations, you can also help restore our endangered Orca whale populations. #OrcasNeedSalmon

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