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Hatcheries Yield More Salmon for Endangered Killer Whales; New Analysis Open for Comment

January 25, 2024

NOAA Fisheries seeks review of an analysis of methods to help the Southern Resident killer whale population.

Hatching salmon eggs in a fish hatchery Credit: Shutterstock

Additional federal funds for Northwest salmon hatcheries have helped increase adult salmon available to endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Salmon increased as much as 3 percent in the places and times where the whales can best access them, according to a new analysis.

A draft environmental impact statement released assesses federal spending that began in 2020. NOAA Fisheries is seeking public comments on alternatives for allocating the federal funding examined in the new document.

The document includes an analysis of how much additional prey the funding has yielded for the whales to date and into the future. It also shows that leaving prey for the killer whales by cutting back fishing could result in similar benefits as hatchery production, but at substantial cost.

A separate alternative would seek to increase salmon numbers by improving habitat, but the results would be difficult to measure because other factors also affect salmon numbers.

Options for Federal Funding

The draft environmental impact statement examines four main alternatives:

  1. No prey increase: Discontinuing federal funding to increase killer whale prey
  2. Producing hatchery salmon to increase killer whale prey: This is the preferred alternative; federal funding would continue to increase hatchery production
  3. Habitat-based prey increase: Redirecting funding from hatchery production to habitat restoration that would increase the abundance of salmon produced in the wild by improving habitat
  4. Reduced fishing: Redirecting funding from hatchery production to reduce Chinook salmon fisheries and leave more salmon prey available for the killer whales

The population of about 75 endangered killer whales preys on salmon and other marine fish. Other killer whales prey on marine mammals such as sea lions and dolphins. Low salmon returns have reduced prey available to the whales, which are also threatened by vessel traffic and noise, toxic contaminants that collect in their blubber, and inbreeding.

The draft environmental impact statement responds to a 2022 court order, which found deficiencies in NOAA Fisheries’ 2019 analysis of domestic actions connected to the Pacific Salmon Treaty agreement. The court concluded NOAA Fisheries was required to conduct analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act on the prey increase funding.

Read and comment on the draft environmental impact statement

Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on January 26, 2024