Finding solutions to save the resident orcas and the salmon they depend on.
By Emily Crawford, published originally in Harbor’s Magazine.
On a crisp fall afternoon, the big leaf maples are splashes of gold on the high bluffs of San Juan Island. Hiking the rugged coastline between the lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park and the crescent beach of Deadman Bay, we keep an eye out for the island’s most charismatic members, the endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Despite their frequent appearances in Haro Strait and along the island’s famed west side, the whales face steep odds. Last July, one grieving orca, J35, demonstrated this to the world when she carried her deceased calf through her home waters for more than two weeks, during what should have been a season of abundance for her newborn.
The plight of J35, also known as Tahlequah, and her relatives in the J, K, and L pods, increased the spotlight and pressure on the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force designated by an executive order from Governor Inslee last spring. The Task Force is charged with preparing a comprehensive report and recommendations for recovering the Southern Residents, with a full draft due by October 1, 2018.
The population of the Southern Residents is at an all-time low of 74 members, according to the Center for Whale Research located in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. The organization has studied the population since 1976. The loss of J35’s calf – the first born in three years to the resident orcas – places the survival of the Southern Residents on a precipice.
A severe lack of the preferred diet of the Southern Residents, mostly Chinook salmon, along with increased vessel noise and traffic, and rising levels of toxins in their home waters, have created a triple threat in a battle the orcas are losing, said Jacques White, executive director of Long Live the Kings (LLTK), a science-based organization working to recover endangered salmon and steelhead. More concerning is the Southern Residents are currently heavily dependent upon the success of our hatchery production. “About 70-80% of the Chinook returning to Washington waters were born in hatcheries,” White said.
As a member of the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, White and LLTK scientists provide technical expertise to the larger group and to a working group focused on how best to increase prey availability for the Southern Residents.
For the last several decades, LLTK has worked to recover wild salmon and reform hatchery practices to prevent negative impacts on wild fish. Their work has brought several salmon populations back from the brink of extinction, while establishing sustainable fishing opportunities to meet harvest obligations. Along the way, LLTK has contributed to the food supply for the Southern Residents.
Now, LLTK is focused on providing hard-won data collected as part of a major effort to decipher one of the greatest mysteries of the Salish Sea – why juvenile Chinook, coho and steelhead are dying at radically increased numbers in marine waters – to resource managers and the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force.
In 2014, LLTK and their Canadian partners, the Pacific Salmon Foundation, brought together U.S. and Canadian scientists and more than 60 federal, state, tribal, academic, private and nonprofit organizations to launch a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary, and highly coordinated research program. The ambitious Salish Sea Marine Survival Project seeks to discover the causes of up to tenfold decline in salmon and steelhead survival in the Salish Sea—defined as the combined marine waters of Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Their collective discoveries have direct implications for the survival of the Southern Residents. The Marine Survival Project “has crystalized our focus,” over the past five years, White said. “If we don’t answer that question, we are not going to recover the salmon or the Southern Resident killer whales.”
Research from the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project suggests several factors may be contributing to the decline in survival rates of juvenile wild and hatchery salmon. While the science is ongoing, some factors are beginning to rise to the top, including limited food supply for salmon and their predators, increased predation, contaminants, a lack of estuary habitat and the interplay between changing ecosystem conditions and today’s hatchery practices.
Hatchery Chinook salmon stocks are less diverse than wild Chinook and they are generally released in a short window, rather than over a broad time period more like natural migrations. With many Chinook juveniles entering the system at once, predators may key in on the fish, or there may not be sufficient food available to support so many fish in the system at one time. LLTK recommends state, federal and tribal hatchery managers test whether diversifying their Chinook stocks – by releasing fish during different and broader time frames and releasing different types of Chinook – will increase survival of adult Chinook and change the time when these fish return to our waters, Michael Schmidt, LLTK deputy director said. Viewing the hatchery practices in light of orca recovery, “the whales need more Chinook salmon, they need them returning more often throughout the year, and they need bigger fish.”
The increased abundance of seals and sea lions throughout the Salish Sea is also a concern. Recent studies suggest these pinnipeds are competing with the Southern Residents for food, and the impact may be “several times that of all fishing,” White said. “We may be doing a really good job of supporting species that are not in decline to the detriment of the endangered ones.”
To give juvenile salmon, steelhead, and forage fish a better chance at survival, LLTK recommends further research and a comprehensive management approach. Predation hots spots must be identified and site-specific strategies developed that may include removing artificial haul outs, addressing infrastructure that restricts salmon passage, changing hatchery strategies that may attract predators, and increasing the abundance of forage fish or other fish that are staple food for pinnipeds.
Habitat and food are critical to the survival of Chinook salmon. Estuary habitat, currently limited in Puget Sound, is crucial for providing juvenile Chinook a place to grow before entering the open marine environment. Once the Chinook are in the marine environment, they need high quality food like forage fish and certain species of zooplankton to grow rapidly. LLTK recommends more emphasis on estuary restoration, recovering populations of Pacific herring and sand lance that will provide the most benefit to juvenile Chinook, and tracking our zooplankton, the cornerstone of our food web.
LLTK’s expertise on the Task Force has ensured the members working on prey recovery take into account the many threats facing salmon, and consider recovery methods backed by research findings.
In mid-September, one week before the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force was to release its draft report for public comment, a three-year-old sick and malnourished female orca, “Scarlet” (J50), was declared missing and presumed dead by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lynne Barre, director of Southern Resident recovery for NOAA, acknowledged that the death of J50 was a “low point” at a standing room only public meeting held in Friday Harbor. She stated a positive outcome from the public outpouring of anger and grief would be “broad public support for the more difficult steps needed to make things better for the whales.”
The steps the Task Force is considering are hotly debated and complex in scope, bringing to light the ways the Salish Sea and its various inhabitants are connected together and to the greater Pacific Northwest. In addition to the recommendations provided by LLTK, proposed actions include increasing flows through or breaching the four Lower Snake River dams to help salmon, requiring permits for recreational whale watching, “no go zones” or extension of safety zones around whales from 200 yards to 400 yards, increased funding for hatchery production and fish habitat restoration and protection, and reducing pollution, among many others. The Task Force must submit its final report to the governor by November 1.
Meanwhile, autumn unfolds in warm days, cool nights and the first squalls of the season. The number of whale watching vessels in Haro Strait slowly dwindles as vacationers return to the mainland and busy schedules. And the J, K and L pods continue to search the length and breadth of the Salish Sea and beyond for their increasingly elusive prey.
A milestone for salmon recovery in Hood Canal
By Mark Glyde, originally published in Harbors Magazine
In the estuary flats of Lilliwaup Creek, a long leg of the journey to bring salmon back from the brink of extinction has come to a happy end. Last February, a generation of hatchery-born Hood Canal Summer Chum was released into the creek for what scientists hope is the last time.
The success of Long Live the Kings’ conservation hatchery program to boost summer chum runs on Lilliwaup Creek and the Hamma Hamma River is a bright spot in the story of salmon recovery. On the West Coast, 28 stocks have been added to the federal threatened and endangered species list in Washington, Oregon and California since the early 1990s. None have yet been declared fully recovered. “When I started there were hardly any fish, and it was very difficult to find even five pairs. I was out every day for a month in a drysuit looking for fish, looking behind every rock in the river,” said Rick Endicott, Facility Manager for the Lilliwaup Field Station run by Long Live the Kings, a conservation and research organization.
Only 70 chum made it back to Lilliwaup Creek in 1993, when Endicott and state fisheries managers first started capturing returning fish, harvesting their eggs, and releasing salmon at the fry stage, when they would naturally emerge from gravel beds and head for the saltwater of Hood Canal.
Today, the 1/4 mile stretch of brackish water between Hood Canal and Lilliwaup Falls boasts spawning clusters that rival similar-sized streams in Alaska, the world’s bread basket of wild salmon. LLTK has released about 150,000 chum salmon fry each year into Lilliwaup Creek since 1993. Today, between 1,500 and 3,000 chum return to spawn. Over half are born in the wild, a sign that hatchery rearing is no longer needed. LLTK stopped aiding the Hamma Hamma River population when it reached a similar milestone in 2009. Now, nearly 5,000 summer chum spawn each year.
Those runs are part of the larger Hood Canal Summer Chum population, which joins Snake River Fall Chinook and Oregon Coastal Coho as one of the only three populations of salmon on a path to recovery, and, one day, delisting and removal from America’s Endangered Species Act list.
For Tribal fishermen and anglers, the rebound of chum means more opportunity in the future to catch not just chum, but also prized for their flavor chinook and coho salmon. Because the three species mix in the waters of Hood Canal and its feeder rivers and streams, managers have curtailed fishing on all three species to minimize incidental catch of chum by fishermen targeting chinook and coho.
The recovery of chum and other salmon species depends on a combination of actions including innovative science, careful harvest management, and habitat restoration. On more than a dozen salmon streams that flow into Hood Canal, local leaders and volunteers have been building healthy habitat one tree and one log at a time. Bankside forests regulate flows, tempering flood and drought damage. Woody debris builds in-river structures where fish can rest, avoid predators and find food.
“For the people who live there it’s been a huge community effort doing different kinds of restoration. And there have been limits on fishing,” said Scott Brewer, Executive Director of the Hood Canal Coordinating Council. “Unlike many (places) in Puget Sound, recovery activities seem to be working, but you have to keep at it. We need to support remaining actions necessary to get them across the finish line.”
“It’s been very uplifting being part of something that’s working and for lasting change, said Joy Lee Waltermire, a biologist and hatchery manager with LLTK. “When I started I thought my goal was to put myself out of a job. Now I want to do this for more than summer chum.”
Summer chum also returned to Union Creek in record numbers, rewarding countless hours of sweat equity invested by hundreds of restoration volunteers led by groups like the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group. In other watersheds on the Kitsap Peninsula side of Hood Canal, however, salmon recovery has a long road ahead. No summer chum are showing up yet in the Dewatto River or Big Beef Creek.
The optimism of science, policy and community leaders is tempered by caution that it’s too early to declare the job done. “As much as everyone here would love to see summer chum fully recovered, we want to wait for a few years before anyone talks about delisting so we make sure (the run) is healthy and ready to roll,” said Paul McCollum, Director of Natural Resources for the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.
Beyond the reach of local salmon recovery heroes, the intensifying impacts of climate change present new and formidable challenges. Scientists warn a warming ocean will likely mean more frequent and extreme high-temperature cycles, like the recurring El Nino weather pattern responsible for atmospheric rivers that drive windstorms and flooding. And that means lean times for salmon as the productivity of their prey, like herring and krill, falls due to warmer water in the Pacific Ocean.
Scientists and fisheries’ managers know a lot about what salmon need to survive and thrive in freshwater environments: the rivers, estuaries and streams where they spawn, feed and grow. We have much to learn about what affects salmon survival in the marine environment of Puget Sound and the open ocean.
LLTK is leading research in collaboration with tribal, federal, state, and independent researchers to find out why salmon are suffering high-mortality in Puget Sound. Study results, and proposed actions to improve marine survival, are expected in 2019. The study is likely to recommend modifications to Hood Canal Bridge, a known chokepoint where predators wait for salmon.
As 4 to 6 inch juveniles, chum salmon migrate out of Hood Canal, under the bridge, and through the Strait of Juan de Fuca before heading north to the Gulf of Alaska. In the ocean, they will feed and grow for 2-3 years, reaching about two feet in length and weighing 8-10 pounds before returning to their birth waters to spawn the next generation of fish.
The legendary life-cycle of salmon, which demands extreme endurance and a sharp homing instinct that scientists still don’t fully understand, has fascinated humans for millennia. Salmon have a remarkable ability to survive and adapt. Over the eons, these resilient fish have bounced back from calamities like earthquake-driven landslides choking off access to rivers and spawning grounds.
For people doing the hard work of salmon recovery, patience and persistence do pay off. About 15,000 fry, hatched from eggs collected from only five adults, were released into Lilliwaup Creek in 1993. Eight salmon generations later, thousands return. “It’s remarkable how quickly they’ve recovered,” said Endicott.
One of the biggest mysteries among people working on salmon recovery in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea is what happens to juvenile fish once they head for the ocean. Survival rates of Chinook, Coho and Steelhead have all declined since the 1980s, but resource managers don’t know why.
A new grant from Microsoft is using artificial intelligence to greatly improve the computer models used to tackle the question.
A collaborative effort called the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project has been around for nearly a decade. It unites the work of 60 different scientific and non-profit entities, all trying to understand what is preventing salmon and steelhead from coming home. They already use sophisticated computer models to compile field data and answer some questions.
“Like how do short and long-term changes in like circulation, water chemistry — how do they affect salmon and other relevant species in Puget Sound,” explains Hem Nalini Morzaria-Luna, an ecosystem modeler with the non-profit Long Live the Kings.
Morzaria-Luna, who works with field data from all over the region, says the recent grant from Microsoft has vastly improved the speed and capability of their modeling. Using artificial intelligence tools such as machine learning, they can dig in to much more complicated questions, for example comparing hundreds of slightly different answers to one question about available food and its effects on survival rates.
“Like, what happens if instead of 70 percent herring and 30 percent other species, what happens if that is 60 percent or 65 percent or 85 percent? It seems like a trivial question, but it actually in the end has important management implications. And before, we haven’t been able to ask those questions,” she says.
She says the relatively small grant from Microsoft (it’s valued at about $10,000 for software, in kind) has the potential to improve not just the Puget Sound model, but several others on a widely-used platform from Australia, called Atlantis.
At first thought, it might seem odd that organisms as delicate as endangered salmon and other marine species could be helped with the slick technology tools that enable modern life.
But Long Live the Kings Deputy Director Michael Schmidt says Microsoft Azure and the cloud-computing and artificial intelligence it enables is just what the Salish Sea Marine Survival Project needs, to propel research that can inform ecosystem management and policy decisions.
“Machine learning is often applied to areas where you have lots of uncertainty, where there is lots of unknown and where you’re trying to process a lot of information,” Schmidt says.
Long Live the Kings is proud to have Duke’s support. Check out one of Duke’s locations for sustainable salmon and keep coming back for the delicious variety of seafood dishes and signature chowders. Look out for Duke’s new location in Bellevue opening soon.
“At Duke’s Chowder House, we are committed to serving the finest quality, most sustainable seafood available, with a strong focus on 100% Wild Salmon. One of the major crises facing the Pacific Northwest today is declining salmon populations in the Salish Sea. This is why I strongly support Long Live the Kings (LLTK), an organization whose mission it is to fully restore those salmon populations, while at the same time promoting scientific advancement and sustainable fisheries.”
See Duke’s entire article about Long Live the Kings here.
Alison Morrow, KING 6:13 PM. PDT April 14, 2017.
“As juvenile steelhead make their treacherous trek through Puget Sound people can now follow individual fish on their journey to see if they survive.
The fish are tagged with acoustic transmitters like the one NOAA Fisheries Research Biologist Megan Moore implanted in a juvenile steelhead this week. It will send signals to receivers in the water so scientists know when the fish passes by.
“We don’t know why their populations have been declining,” Moore said.
Predators are just one of many challenges steelhead face on their way from rivers like the Skokomish all the way to the ocean. About 80 percent of them die along the way.
“The receiver picks up a ping from the transmitter up to 300 meters away,” Michael Schmidt said.”
Read the whole article and see the report at King 5.
“Salmon — whether being tossed between Pike Place Market fish mongers or wending their way through the locks in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood — are one the most iconic images of the Pacific Northwest.
They’re also one of the most threatened.
Since at least the 1980s, steelhead and certain salmon populations have been tanking in Puget Sound. Local steelhead alone have plummeted to less than 10 percent of their historic population size. But many people are unaware that the area’s beloved fish are in such dire straits.
Survive the Sound is a new interactive game that hopes to both educate the public about the salmons’ plight and help save the fish by raising money for essential research and environmental restoration.
“Without salmon, there is no Northwest, there is no Puget Sound and there is no home,” said Michael Schmidt, deputy director of Long Live the Kings, a nonprofit working to protect chinook or “king” salmon, and related fish. The group created Survive the Sound in partnership with Paul Allen’s Vulcan.”
Read the full article on Geekwire!
LLTK’s Deputy Director, Michael Schmidt, was recently interviewed by Seafood Source regarding the current administration’s proposal to eliminate Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funds for Puget Sound recovery, and dramatically reduce or eliminate National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) salmon funding for western states. Both cuts would significantly impact the science that guides our actions, critical habitat restoration underway, and the overall momentum to recover salmon and their ecosystem. Hitting close to home, the work of our Salish Sea Marine Survival Project to understand juvenile salmon mortality is at risk. Specifically, the $800,000 per year currently proposed in the draft Puget Sound Federal Task Force Action Plan and Puget Sound Science Plan. This funding would drive recovery actions and implement new management tools that will transform the way we manage our fish and the ecosystem they depend upon.
Also at risk is the twelve-entity collaborative zooplankton monitoring program initiated via the Marine Survival Project, currently funded by EPA. Zooplankton stand at the intersection of the physical and biological environments, providing us the best chance to understand how water quality and climate impact the productivity and success of salmon, forage fish, and the Puget Sound food web as a whole. This program is so important to salmon and Puget Sound recovery that tribal, state, federal, academic and nonprofit players have all come together to make it happen.
EPA and NOAA funding are also instrumental in understanding the impacts of the Hood Canal Bridge. LLTK is leading an effort to determine why the floating bridge is a hotspot for juvenile fish mortality and determine what short- and long-term management actions could be taken so that other investments in Hood Canal habitat and water quality are realized and protected.
Visit Seafood Source for the complete story. Also, check out the recent KUOW interview with our partners, the Nisqually Tribe, as they discuss the critical importance of the zooplankton program, the marine survival project, the risk of lost federal funding, and their own massive investment in these efforts.
Long Live the Kings–in partnership with the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, tribes, and state and federal agencies–is working to pinpoint the causes of high steelhead mortality at the Hood Canal Bridge, and to gauge the bridge’s effect on water quality. Alison Morrow from King5 News recently tagged along as LLTK and our partners conducted research near the Bridge. This research is also related to our Survive the Sound campaign, which will launch March 15th! Watch Alison’s report below and click here to learn more about our Hood Canal Bridge Ecosystem Project.
See the full report from King5 News here.
Why are steelhead dying near the Hood Canal Bridge? @Longlivekings and partners seek answers Click To Tweet
“‘Seafood sleuths’ study mystery of Pacific Northwest salmon declines”
Wherever you live in the Pacific Northwest, you likely have salmon for neighbors. And while the human population boom shows no sign of slowing (about 3.5 million in the Seattle metro area covering the vast swath from Everett to Tacoma), it’s an entirely different story for the salmon.
For reasons no one fully understands yet, juvenile chinook salmon, coho salmon and steelhead (the Washington state fish) are surviving at far less than historic levels in Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia, the combined international waters known as the Salish Sea.
One of the organizations taking a leading stewardship role in salmon conservation is Long Live the Kings, which has worked since 1986 to restore wild salmon and steelhead populations and support sustainable recreational, commercial and tribal fishing in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Read more at the Seattle Times.