Potential ‘irreparable damage’ to Puget Sound orcas over alleged illegal salmon hatchery expansion

Oct 25, 2021, 12:54 PM | Updated: Oct 26, 2021, 10:31 am
salmon hatchery...
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It’s no secret that Washington’s Southern Resident orca whale population is in trouble. Experts point to the decline of Chinook salmon — the orcas’ number one food source — as a primary reason for the orca whale’s status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Expansion of Washington state’s hatchery system has long been a primary tactic for preserving Chinook. The question, then, is will salmon hatcheries as currently designed save the orcas?

Some conservationists say they won’t, and are taking the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to court over it.

The Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) and The Conservation Angler filed a lawsuit Oct. 11, which alleges that WDFW “embarked upon a massive expansion in the production of hatchery salmon that could cause irreparable damage to fragile wild fish populations and to endangered Southern Resident killer whales,” per a joint press release from the two organizations.

The crux of their argument is that WDFW failed to comply with the proper environmental regulations which would encompass research to understand how hatcheries will impact native Chinook salmon populations as well as Southern Resident orca whales.

“WDFW illegally chose to bypass SEPA’s (State Environmental Policy Act) requirements throughout its hatchery planning process,” the lawsuit reads, in part. It goes on to claim the following:

The Commission ignored SEPA when it suspended the 2009 Hatchery Reform Policy in 2018, and again when it ordered the 2018 Hatchery Expansion. Likewise, WDFW staff disregarded SEPA, when, in advance of the Commission’s September 2018 directive, it unilaterally took action to ramp up hatchery production, and again when it submitted expansion plans and funding proposals to the legislature to increase hatchery production in 2018, 2019, and 2020, and when it completed a Hatchery Improvement Master Plan in 2021.

That lawsuit comes on the heels of another successful suit from WFC against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which found that the agency is in violation of the Endangered Species Act for authorizing certain Southern Alaskan commercial fish harvesting without proper scrutiny of  its “mitigation,” in this context largely referring to hatchery expansion plans to offset that commercial fishing.

The court found that the NOAA failed to adequately analyze the risks the program may pose because they did not conduct proper environmental review of the proposed mitigation, which is required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Beyond that, the court also found that the mitigation was vague and uncertain to the extent that it did not to meet the minimum requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

“The Court finds that NMFS’s (National Marine Fisheries Service, also known as NOAA) failure to make a jeopardy determination on the prey increase program for the Chinook salmon ESUs (Evolutionarily Significant Units) violated its obligations under the ESA,” its findings read.

While the case has yet to undergo final adoption, the lawsuit openly calls into question the oversight of certain Chinook salmon fish hatcheries, many of which are located in Washington state.

The latest lawsuit against WDFW contends that the department expanded its hatchery programs, largely under the umbrella of the “Orca Prey Initiative,” without properly vetting the extent to which that program would not only damage the orca’s primary food source, native Chinook salmon, but whether orcas feed on hatchery salmon at all.

“The Commission voted to suspend three of the policy’s key guidelines that had required hatcheries to be managed in accordance with scientific principles, standards, and recommendations that had been designed to protect wild fish populations,” the lawsuit alleges.

The Commission abruptly approved a significant increase in hatchery production — directing WDFW to immediately ramp up the hatchery production of Chinook salmon, until WDFW was releasing 50 million additional salmon “smolts” annually over 2018 levels.

The purported reason for this abrupt increase was the “Orca Prey Initiative,” a plan to immediately start to generate more Chinook salmon to feed the struggling population of Southern Resident killer whales — although the Commissioner who proposed the measure described it as a “win-win situation” that would also benefit fishery stocks. What was missing, however, was any scientific support for the proposition that an increase in hatchery fish would help sustain Southern Resident killer whales, which have evolved to target larger, older Chinook—which the hatcheries fail to produce.

Asked if he thought if the hatchery increase would help save the killer whales, one WDFW regional hatchery manager said only: “All we know is that we release fish, they go out to the salt (water) and then they come back … So then it’s up to the whales to go ahead and eat ‘em. We think it’s going to help.”

The lawsuit largely implies that the Orca Prey Initiative, by design or not, will simply ramp up salmon populations to the benefit of commercial fishing interests, and that the hatchery expansion, paradoxically, actively contributes to the orca’s decline, rather than support of their conservation.

“[Large scale hatchery production] can magnify the political pressure to take advantage of abundant hatchery runs at the expense of natural populations,” reads a WFC press release, summarizing a report that WDFW itself published on the subject of hatchery expansion.

While the Orca Prey Initiative is designed to boost salmon numbers to the benefit of orcas, the alleged lack of environmental review on which the latest WFC lawsuit hinges has resulted in the failure to properly understand hatchery salmon as a food source for the whales.

WFC contends that orcas do not feed on hatchery salmon because their size, smaller than native species, requires the whales to spend a disproportionate amount of calories hunting the hatchery salmon. Furthermore, they contend that, because it takes years for hatchery salmon to mature to the requisite size, the orca whale population might reach irrecoverable levels by the time the hatchery salmon produced under the Orca Prey Initiative reach maturity.

The idea that orca whales do not feed on hatchery salmon is contested. NOAA claims that the Southern Resident population must feed on hatchery salmon as much of their diet comes from Chinook that originate from the Columbia River, of which 80% of its salmon are hatchery-raised.

In a study published by the agency earlier this year, they confirmed that the Southern Resident orcas must feed on hatchery salmon out of the Columbia, stating the following:

“Chinook salmon were identified as an important prey item year round, averaging ~50% of their diet in the fall, increasing to 70–80% in the mid-winter, early spring, and increasing to nearly 100% in the spring,” the study’s summary reads. “A wide diversity of Chinook salmon stocks were consumed, many of which are also at risk. Although outer coast Chinook samples included 14 stocks, four rivers systems accounted for over 90% of samples, predominantly the Columbia River.”

While the NOAA acknowledges that salmon size has trended downward in the Puget Sound region — a problem which it contends is not exclusive to hatchery salmon — it does concede that hatchery salmon are not large enough to meet orca preferences.

“It is true that some stocks have smaller fish overall and the whales prefer larger fish,” a NOAA spokesperson told MyNorthwest.

Regardless of this particular issue of whether orcas feed on hatchery salmon, a major component of WFC’s allegations is that the undisputed, historically primary food source for the whales, native Chinook, will further decline as a direct result of the hatchery expansion.

WFC contends that hatchery salmon harm native fish on a number of axis: increasing competition for resources, expanding and proliferating disease, increasing commercial fishing harvest numbers, and attracting predators which target native Chinook.

Its lawsuit reads:

Hatcheries harm wild fish populations in a variety of ways, including when hatchery fish spawn with wild fish and decrease their genetic fitness, adaptability, and diversity; when an influx of hatchery fish overloads the carrying capacity of an ecosystem such that wild fish have to compete with an influx of hatchery fish for scarce resources; and when hatcheries artificially boost the fish population in a certain area, attracting more predators that eat both hatchery and wild fish. Severe risks occur when diseases and pathogens are amplified and spread throughout the environment through the propagation of hatchery fish. Similarly, when hatchery production increases, so do catch limits for commercial and recreational fishing, leading to more mortality of both hatchery and wild fish.

The lawsuit goes so far as to rank hatcheries along with habitat destruction, over fishing, and dam construction as reasons for salmon decline.

“We’re still looking into the details of this particular litigation, but Southern Resident killer whale recovery is extremely important to us,” a spokesperson for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife wrote to MyNorthwest. “The state, alongside tribal and federal governments and a broad network of partners, continues to make progress in support of a better future for these endangered whales. We achieve this through a number of ongoing efforts, including restoring habitat, helping to quiet the waters, educating recreational boaters, and working to increase food supply through salmon harvest season setting, and salmon hatchery production.”

This article was updated to include a statement from WDFW, today’s date: Oct. 26

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Potential ‘irreparable damage’ to Puget Sound orcas over alleged illegal salmon hatchery expansion