Salmon & Orcas



We’ve been on notice that this summer might be a precarious one for salmon and the northwest resident Orcas that feed on them. The above salmon sculpture seemed to me to catch that mood.

At the local level, I’ve not seen the typical lineup of salmon fishermen on my neighborhood beaches. Researchers in the San Juan Islands and northward report that the Orcas are showing changes in how they are hunting salmon.

Counting Salmon

We need more than these local observations to judge whether the Orcas can adapt to changing conditions; we need the bigger picture of salmon populations and how they connect to endangered Orcas.

I have great admiration for those who are trying to keep count of which kinds of salmon are showing up where. Once I started looking for numbers, the details got complex for me pretty quickly.

  •  Who’s counting: U. S. and Canadian governments, citizens, and researchers
  •  What to count: type of salmon, stage and age of salmon, hatchery or wild.
  • When to count: spawning season, opening and closing dates, el Nino years
  • Where to count: watersheds, coastal, river and dam locations, marine areas, watersheds. 

 A Watershed Season?

As a visual artist, I wanted to picture just one of these. I looked at the American watersheds to visualize the geography, shorelines, and rivers where the salmon spawn in Puget Sound (Skagit and Snohomish rivers circled in red).

But since the Orcas don’t care what side of the border the salmon are on, I kept looking and did find an overall international count (Each color is a different location or type: click and scroll JANE COGEN 2015, CENTER FOR WHALE RESEARCH for details).

Notice that both the highs and lows are getting lower in general over time but not in all places or for all types. Now that’s complex! 

How are the Orcas Eating?

Until the expensive studies of what Orcas actually eat this season are done we have to rely on observational reports of the summer’s activity. Here’s one from Orcanet on the San Juan Islands area:

“Seeing the whales struggle to find food is sad and alarming. The entire week I was on island most personal encounters and those of friends and others consisted of unusual combinations of Js, Ks, and Ls spread long distances. Families often foraged and traveled in 1-2's, some days the entire clan was spread far apart from one another in their search of scare Chinook salmon. What used to be time for the southern residents to join up for socializing and bonding has decreased dramatically over the years, far more so this summer.”

Observers are now reporting that they’ve seen the J pod several times without J14 - Samish; she is considered missing, possibly deceased. Also photos of J28 - Polaris show signs of emaciation; she is the mom of 8-month old calf J54 who is most likely still nursing.

To put these observations in a larger context, this full graph of the annual salmon counts also tracks the number of resident Orca deaths. Look at the top of the graph showing the Orca deaths (numbers along the right-hand margin). The artist in me sees the visual pattern of correlation: years with less salmon are the years with more Orca deaths. My researcher side expects that the actual statistical correlation would be significant.

 Future Changes

Nature’s intersecting cycles take decades to evolve and one rule of thumb is that animals can adapt to slow changes but not the fast ones. Researchers tell us that when the Orcas have to spend more energy to get their food they are less healthy. Also nursing moms’ ability to feed their young during the first year of life can be compromised. It seems we don’t know enough to predict when groups can adapt to sharp changes and when those changes will trigger extinction.

 Where is Your Watershed?

None of this is good news. It is useful for us all to accept how complex the really big picture is and at the same time ask what this means in our very local lives. Since we humans tend to shut down when things look gloomy or too complex, finding a simpler local focus can help identify new choices we can make as individuals.

Citizen groups working on the Northwest streams and creeks where salmon spawn are doing their part by keeping their actions local. I am lucky to be close to the Skagit River watershed whose very active group is putting on a day long festival this weekend.

If you can get to the event, it’s a chance to share what they’re learning and how local Skagit folk can do more. If you live elsewhere, you might get curious enough about your own watershed locations to click on Google and type in your county and the word “watershed”. Happy web surfing.
*LaConner Parks Commission project in process