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Boycotting chinook salmon to save orcas? It won't do much

A transient whale is shown on Friday, August 10, 2018, as crews attempt to locate the JPod. (Image taken under the authority of NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit No. 18786-03)
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer
A transient whale is shown on Friday, August 10, 2018, as crews attempt to locate the JPod. (Image taken under the authority of NMFS MMPA/ESA Permit No. 18786-03)

Kim Malcolm talks with University of Washington fisheries science professor Ray Hilborn about whether boycotting chinook salmon will help the recovery of southern resident killer whales.

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Interview highlights", "style": "wide"}]]Any individual's choice to not eat Chinook salmon would have no impact at all because it wouldn't change the number of Chinook salmon that are being caught.

If you don't buy it, somebody else is going to. And this is true of basically all of these boycott movements if you don't eat species X, Y, or Z, it doesn't change how many are being caught.

But we're hearing that the number of Chinook salmon has dropped. That there's not enough for the orcas to eat. How is it that we people are not in direct competition with them?

If we would catch fewer, there would be potentially some small effect.

You would have to have chinook salmon fisheries closed, and even then, it would be a very small effect because humans are a very small fraction of who's competing with southern resident killer whales.

Who is competing with them for the fish?

Primarily other marine mammals. The biggest one is northern resident killer whales. A population that’s been growing, and eats a lot more chinook salmon than humans eat. Sea lions. The harbor seals don't eat the adult chinook salmon, but they eat a lot of juvenile chinook salmon.

Let's just say for instance I go to the grocery store. I'm at a restaurant and I want to eat some salmon. It's chinook salmon. How likely is it that it's going to be from Puget Sound?

Washington state catches about 25 percent of the chinook caught on the West Coast. So that means that the chances are maybe 25 percent or a little bit higher that it's from Washington state.

But remember, southern residents are very dependent on very specific salmon. In particular, Fraser River-bound chinook salmon. That's their dominant summer species, and that's a small fraction of all of us chinook salmon that are available in the marketplace.

Most of them would be coming from Alaska or somewhere else.

We do know that the chinook are a threatened species right now in Puget Sound. How bad is the problem?

Chinook in the lower 48 have lost an enormous amount of habitat due to urbanization, dam construction, etc. A pretty significant proportion of the Chinook in Puget Sound now come from hatcheries.

Climate conditions have been bad for chinook salmon. Generally, the warming of the oceans has been good for salmon in Alaska and bad for salmon down here. Although, the Chinook aren't doing particularly well in Alaska either. There's a lot of concern about chinook salmon all the way up to the Yukon.

If it's not about NOT eating salmon, what can we do to help improve the outlook for the orcas?

We don't really know that there is anything we can do. But there's lots of things at the margins that might help. Improving water quality in Puget Sound, improving chinook salmon habitat, reducing noise and disturbance. All of those might have some effect. But if we really knew what would help, we'd be doing it.

It's just unclear why the southern residents are doing so poorly, at the same time Northern Residents are doing well.

If Southern Resident pods gradually disappear, they'll probably be taken over by the Northern Residents. So it's not as if there's a shortage of chinook salmon on the coast. It's not as if things are terrible for killer whales. It’s that things have been very poor for Southern Resident killer whales.

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