Killer Whale Priority Chinook salmon stocks - Questions & Answers

July 2018

Q: Why is this list of priority Chinook salmon stocks important?

A: The paper, “Southern Resident killer whale priority Chinook stocks,” describes a model that analyzes how much endangered Southern Resident killer whales likely depend on different West Coast Chinook salmon stocks. At the end of the paper is a list of West Coast Chinook salmon stocks, according to their importance to the Southern Residents.  Several of these stocks are also listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). One of the key actions in NOAA Fisheries’ Species in the Spotlight Action Plan for Southern Resident killer whales is “target recovery of critical prey.” Understanding the specific stocks of Chinook salmon that Southern Residents rely on for food will help NOAA Fisheries and our partners target recovery actions to provide the greatest benefit to both native West Coast salmon and steelhead and the Southern Residents.

Q: Who developed the model that produced the list?

A: NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region and Northwest Fisheries Science Center worked with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to develop the list and model using the best and latest research on Southern Resident killer whales and their prey. That research includes sampling of the whales' prey and scat to understand which types of fish they rely on during different times of the year, as well as analyzing high-resolution aerial photographs that reveal their body weight and condition. Salmon and whale biologists, managers, and recovery partners reviewed the model and initial list of the priority Chinook salmon stocks and discussed it at a recent workshop sponsored by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The workshop included representatives of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Puget Sound Partnership, Long Live the Kings, and the Skagit River System Cooperative. We then shared the list with the working group that is looking for ways to improve the availability of prey for the killer whales as part of the Governor's Task Force for Southern Resident killer whale recovery.

Q: What factors affect where a Chinook stock falls on the list?

A: NOAA Fisheries and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife used their most current data and other relevant peer reviewed research to develop a model to identify which Chinook salmon runs are most important to these whales. The model weighs salmon stocks based on how much their ranges overlap with the Southern Residents. The model also incorporates the latest research identifying which salmon stocks the killer whales eat based on fecal samples and scraps of their prey collected by biologists. The model gives extra weight to salmon runs that support the Southern Residents when their access to food is limited, such as in winter when aerial photographs show some whales to have poorer body condition. In summer, the whales feed mainly on Chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River in British Columbia and Puget Sound. In other months the whales expand their diet to include other types of salmon like chum, coho, and steelhead as well as small amounts of bottomfish including halibut and lingcod. Switching to other prey items may be an indicator that there is not enough of their preferred Chinook salmon. The framework and initial priority list were shared with state and tribal co-managers, stakeholders, and non-profit groups to get feedback and make improvements.

Q: Are salmon stocks not included on the list unimportant for the whales?

A: The whales range from central California to Southeast Alaska and eat Chinook salmon from many different runs within this area. Southern Residents eat all year long and need access to a variety of salmon with different run timing and distribution. NOAA Fisheries is committed to recovery of all threatened and endangered West Coast salmon stocks. We jointly created the priority list to help scientists and managers understand where we can focus salmon recovery efforts that will also help Southern Residents. In addition, there are some Chinook salmon runs that were historically important to the whales, but have been significantly reduced or extirpated and are no longer available. While these runs are not reflected in the priority list, they may provide potential for increasing the whales’ prey though future recovery or reintroduction of these populations.

Q: Is the lack of prey the most significant threat to the recovery of Southern Residents?

A: The availability of prey is one of three main threats to the whales. The Southern Residents are also adversely affected by vessel noise and traffic which can interfere with the whales’ echolocation, making finding their prey harder. When prey is hard to find and they are not eating regularly, it causes the whales to dip into their blubber stores for energy. Often, that fat is contaminated because of pollution in coastal waters. This contamination in their tissues threatens the whales’ long-term health and reproductive success. Given the myriad of threats, we’ve created a comprehensive recovery program for Southern Residents to address all of these threats. 

Q: Will prioritizing Chinook stocks for Southern Residents leave fewer for fishing?

A: The prioritization will inform recovery actions such as habitat restoration and perhaps production of fish at hatcheries, which are designed to increase the abundance of salmon overall. That will benefit salmon populations, killer whales, and fishing opportunities. Benefits of healthy habitat may well extend to other species of salmon and steelhead that support commercial and recreational fisheries. We assess all fisheries to make sure threatened and endangered salmon are protected, and in doing so also take into account their significance to the Southern Residents.

Q: How will the list affect salmon recovery funding opportunities, such as the Pacific Salmon Coastal Recovery Fund?

A: The list can help inform funders in making decisions about a variety of salmon recovery actions and they may prioritize actions that benefit both salmon and whales.  Connecting salmon recovery actions to recovery of Southern Residents could increase awareness and bring new partnerships and funding sources to the table. Already the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation has dedicated more than $2 million in funding toward projects, including habitat restoration, that will benefit Southern Residents. That money has leveraged more than $2.75 million in matching grants, for a total of nearly $5 million worth of impact on the region, which in turn benefits the local economy.

Q: How will this list be used to help priority Chinook salmon stocks?

A: Identifying and implementing actions to improve abundance of the priority stocks requires consideration of various factors including:

These considerations were not factored into the model and are not reflected in the list. However, we will be weighing these and other considerations as we identify and implement actions to benefit both the salmon stocks and the Southern Residents.

Q: Will the list be used to increase hatchery production of Chinook salmon? How might this affect current efforts to reduce the impact of hatchery production on ESA-listed Chinook?

A: Adjustments to hatchery production of high priority salmon runs may increase the prey available to the whales. However, any increase in hatchery production of Chinook stocks needs to carefully consider the impacts hatchery fish may have on threatened and endangered salmon runs. Hatchery fish can compete with and affect the genetics of natural-origin salmon, which may impact their recovery. Managing recovery of multiple species will require an ecosystem approach that considers food web interactions.

Q: How will we use this list to prioritize habitat restoration? Will current projects be halted or changed to address these new priority stocks?

A: NOAA Fisheries is committed to recovery of all threatened and endangered West Coast salmon stocks. Access to quality habitat is a limiting factor for most runs. The priority list can help inform and garner support for salmon habitat projects that benefit both salmon and whales. 

Q: Several of the priority Chinook salmon stocks are found in the Snake River. Does NOAA Fisheries now support removing those federal dams?

A: The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Bonneville Power Administration (the Action Agencies) are currently developing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that will assess and update the approach for long-term Columbia River System operations, maintenance, and configuration as well as evaluate measures to avoid, offset, or minimize impacts to resources affected by the management of the System. Based on scoping, the range of alternatives being considered is broad and will likely include evaluation of potential large-scale changes such as breaching the lower Snake River dams. NOAA Fisheries is coordinating with the Action Agencies during the NEPA process and ultimately intends to complete ESA Section 7 consultation on the final preferred alternative to assist the Action Agencies in ensuring that their action is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of listed species, including Southern Resident killer whales, or result in destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat. During the EIS and ESA Section 7 consultation processes, the federal agencies will consider the effects of operating the lower Snake River dams on prey species currently relied upon by Southern Resident killer whales and any associated measures to avoid, offset, or minimize those effects will be considered during that process.

Q: Can ESA-listed Chinook salmon stocks recover to the point where they can support the population of Southern Residents?

A: Since Southern Residents need a variety of Chinook salmon prey throughout their range throughout the year, they can obtain sufficient prey in many ways. Restoring habitat and recovering threatened and endangered Chinook salmon stocks to natural, abundant and sustainable levels are important long-term goals which may take decades. In the near-term we can take actions that support prey for the current number of whales and allow for growth of both salmon and killer whale populations. 

Q: Sea lions are feeding on ESA-listed Chinook salmon in the Columbia River, so how is NOAA Fisheries addressing that?

A: The growing abundance of California sea lion numbers along the West Coast has raised concern about predation on threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead in the Northwest. Sea lions are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Salmon is one of their favorite prey when they visit the Northwest, and some of the salmon runs they feed on are protected under the Endangered Species Act. While balancing the competing laws is challenging, NOAA Fisheries has taken the step of authorizing Oregon, Washington, and Idaho to remove a small number of individually identifiable sea lions near the Columbia River’s Bonneville Dam that have been spotted repeatedly preying on salmon. We are also evaluating another request for similar action in the Willamette River.

Q: What is the next step, now that you have the model and list? Are there new research questions/needs that would improve these?

A: The model remains a work in progress. It will be updated as we gather additional data and increase our knowledge of where Chinook salmon overlap with the whales, what Chinook runs are important to the whales’ diet, and where and when the whales are food limited.  For example, we used a detailed analysis of available data of fall Chinook distribution to inform the model. A study to analyze spring Chinook movements is now underway. This new information will be included in future runs of the model to improve its accuracy.  Another potential next step is to identify stocks that have been more historically important but are not currently reflected in the Southern Residents’ diet and so may not be reflected on this current list.