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Guest Column: Killer Whale Recovery Begins With Salmon Habitat, and That Begins With You

  • Written by Barry Thom, NOAA Regional Administrator, West Coast Region

Consider this Northwest twist on a familiar saying: “Give a killer whale a salmon, and it will eat for a day. Restore the habitat the salmon and whales depend on, and they will live for generations to come.” At NOAA Fisheries we are determined to get more Chinook salmon to the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, and that begins with more and better habitat.


Photo from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)

It is up to everyone to maintain room for these magnificent creatures as our own footprint on the Puget Sound region grows ever bigger. Focusing on salmon habitat is essential.

Snohomish River Estuary, a key area of habitat restoration to increase numbers of Chinook salmon the whales eat. NOAA photo

Improving Salmon Habitat

Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s Orca Task Force emphasized habitat. It highlighted actions such as removing culverts that block salmon migration, protecting shoreline habitat, and building on other efforts throughout the region. We must work together to restore the streams where salmon spawn and grow, and protect the dwindling nearshore habitat that shelters and nourishes juveniles.

Improving fish passage through dams must continue. It is important to get salmon into their prime habitat.

Through partnerships, we’ve made progress in recent years on these goals. Restored habitat in the Skagit River estuary, funded in part by the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund, now supports hundreds of thousands more Chinook salmon smolts. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is constructing fish passage at Mud Mountain Dam, renewing access to miles of habitat in the White River. The Nisqually Tribe led one of Puget Sound’s most ambitious tidal marsh restoration efforts in the Nisqually River Delta—just to name a few.

What You Can Do

Your help is essential, as there is much more to do. Salmon and killer whales are woven into the fabric of the Northwest, making it a place we all want to live. We have to balance our thriving economy and growing communities with the region’s signature species that rely on these same lands and waters.

What can you do?

Focus on habitat—it is critical to recovery for salmon and Southern Residents.

Support local watershed groups that are restoring vital streams where Chinook salmon spawn and estuaries that provide nurseries for young fish.

Maintain your yard in ways that protect and enhance salmon habitat, such as planting native vegetation and using organic gardening methods.

Encourage innovative development that safeguards habitat and cuts toxic runoff.

Other Actions to Increase Prey

It is critical to take action on habitat restoration now, as the benefits of these efforts will take years to realize. In the short-term, we are also working with partners to increase prey for the whales, particularly Chinook salmon.

Reduced fishing pressure in key Southern Resident foraging areas, such as the west side of San Juan Island, is leaving more of those salmon for the whales. New viewing rules in Washington and Canada will reduce vessel traffic and noise. This will make it easier for the whales to find their prey and to rest between foraging and traveling.

Increasing salmon production at fish hatcheries, coupled with targeted reductions in fishing pressure to support salmon recovery, provide more salmon for the Southern Residents. These actions also preserve their natural hunting instincts. For instance, a recent new agreement under the Pacific Salmon Treaty will further reduce harvest by up to 15 percent in Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, and Alaska and provide more habitat restoration and hatchery production.

Being All-In on Southern Resident Recovery

Now is our chance to bring these species back from the brink by demonstrating the ingenuity, creativity, and stewardship for which the Northwest is known.

By protecting and restoring salmon habitat—floodplains, wetlands, seagrass, kelp, and rivers and streams—the salmon, and the whales, can once again thrive as icons of our region.

- By Barry Thom, NOAA Regional Administrator, West Coast Region

Read more about the Southern Resident Killer Whales (J,K, and L pods) on NOAA's blog


  • Karen King Friday, 22 May 2020 10:15 Comment Link Report

    I have to agree with Chris Pinney please breach the dams of the Lower Snake River. Stop waffling; do what needs to be done to ensure the survival of the Southern Resident Orca! It’s a travesty what is happening to them. As an additional measure please leave salmon and herring off your plate.

  • Chris Pinney Monday, 18 May 2020 16:15 Comment Link Report

    Breaching the Snake River dams with simultaneous summer drawdowns of lower Columbia River reservoirs (as per the latest litigation loss to Barry and his sister agency incompetent hacks about abiding by the water temperature daily load rulings) IS the largest ecological habitat restoration action that must occur as 'necessary' to ensure any significant trending slope for both the required WILD produced (on actual bed habitat and associated naturalized bed hydraulics) spring/summer AND fall Chinook lifehistory distributional abundances required across the each productive month of each year for the ENDANGERED SRKW. Factory hatchery fish and their increasing puniness in production and diseases have been a disgraceful waste of billions of tax- and rate-payer monies since their inception. Within 1 salmon lifecycle (2-5 years) LSR breaching restores 84 out of 140 miles of high quality spawning habitat and entire channel widths of 140 miles for rearing habitats by a naturalized re-establishment of the critical sinuosity of nearly 40 rapids dropping into both deepening and shallow run-out pools and connecting channelized runs through both braided river beds and several naturally >60-80 ft deep runs through canyons, that both the tribal fishers had their camps and coldwater springs were contributing to wall shaded cascading main flows BECAUSE the acquifers and hyporheic and seasonal regime surface waters were reconnected. The 2002 FR/EIS by the Corps Walla Walla District has this GIS based modeled if NOAA was really serious in performing the job tasked to them, as they did in the 2002 FR/EIS Biop draft document they 'politically' manipulated under pressures. ESA and other environmental laws intents as recorded were/are not 'commercially' or politically motivations by NOAA or USFWS, but such regulatory agencies are required to do their jobs using the science, NOT dreamed up technologies, to develop their BiOps Jeopardy and RPAs. Then they are off-the hook for the possible and allowable 3rd party litigation ensured upon the action agency for making their usual and anticipatory arbitary and capricious and fraudulent decisions designed to mislead, side-track, and delay and over-appropriate funding schemes beyond any status quo nonsense. Fixing culverts in the long-lost Puget Sound streams is a Washington state task and funding-find due another lost lawsuit, therefore NOT effective in any near term since the harvest negotiatons/treaties back before US v WA lawsuit loss allowed such streams to be decimated. This ruse is just that a continual ruse for throwing monies around without no positive outcome, except the few jobs at overly-priced hatchery operations, of which ALL continue to fail for multiple unscientific un-reasonings. The US has imposed our misdirected and fraudulent salmon policies of 5-8 decades finally upon pressuring Canada harvest regimes 'play-our-game' over several 3-5 decades, and that is the problem with Fraser River sockeye (for which SRKW do NOT forage) and upper Fraser River Chinook (for which mining busts and other contamination process... ie, passing through an ever increasing mega-metropolis has significant impacts; so, quit giving us the no dams propaganda, even for the sockeye lakes that have structural impoundments). So, quit flabbergasting the publics. DO your regulatory jobs, NOT commercial trading of species extirpation for more anthropocentric gamemanships. ONLY a true greater than carrying capacity across the Chinook production habitats and ecological footprints of phenotypically and genetically purified robust WILD produced salmon will satisfy ESA and orca recovery across both species ranges, and it must start with breaching the 4 LSR dams immediately this winter, then followed by some water temperature operational manipulations due late-summer through early winter drawdown of several key LCR reservoirs for connecting the channel hydraulics of the several deep layers. Five, and soon to be 6, litigation round-ups is enough of a losing game resulting in ineffective band-aiding of an arterial cancer for WILD ESA-listed salmonids throughout the Columbia River basin. Mitigation should be over and done for the salmon if the decision influencers would just apply the scientific and ecological facts, since hyper-ized technologies HAVE FAILED the salmon and ecosystem and since it is a fact that the manipulative-ness of humans upon humans can more readily and easily replace (NOT defined truly as 'mitigate') the failing water-borne commodity transport, irrigation, especially hydro-generation, and even recreation IF their will and intent is truly so aligned, as opposed to their historic and current arrogance.

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