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Members of L pod travel together north of Seattle as they depart Puget Sound on Nov. 11 following a four-day “superpod” with other Southern Resident orcas.
Photo: Michael Dougherty, taken in accord with state “Be Whale Wise” regulations

Low rainfall leads to an odd and changing year for salmon, killer whales and people

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It has been an interesting year for observing the behavior of Southern Resident killer whales, chum salmon and humans in the Puget Sound region. Weather played a significant role.

Two weeks ago, all three pods of endangered orcas spent four days together in Puget Sound, something we have not seen in years. Chum salmon, which the whales feed upon in the fall, appeared to be on a stop-and-go migration schedule because of the unusual rainfall pattern. And, as always, the activities of people must be noted within this ecological context.

Before I describe some of these behavioral observations going back to last spring, I should point out that it is often difficult to prove that one thing causes another. In the absence of careful study, keep in mind that seemingly related events might be coincidental yet worthy of further exploration.

Orcas gather for four-day “Superpod”

All of the Southern Resident orcas — more than 70 animals in J, K and L pods — spent four days feasting on salmon in Central Puget Sound, generally from South Whidbey Island south to Seattle-Bremerton and along Vashon Island, according to Alisa Lemire Brooks, whale sighting network coordinator for Orca Network, a nonprofit group that keeps track of whale movements in the Salish Sea.

This great gathering, known as a “superpod,” took place from Nov. 7 to 10. Superpods are fairly rare events anywhere in Puget Sound, and I don’t recall any time when the whales stayed together so long in this area.

“There was lots of foraging going on,” Alisa said. “It was pretty remarkable.”

“Hotspots,” where the whales seemed to be finding enough food to hang out for a period of time, include the area between Vashon Island and Des Moines and the “Possession Triangle” north of Kingston-Edmonds and south of Whidbey Island, she said.

A full report of the observations reported to Orca Network can be seen in Orca Network’s Whale Sighting Report for Nov. 15.

“Lovely views from Edmonds Marina Beach with the naked eye …,” wrote one observer, as the orcas headed out the final day of the superpod. “There have been at least three waves of orcas and a fourth on the way. Some direction changes. Relaxed whales. One was literally suspended in the same spot for a few minutes with her dorsal fin above the surface.”

Historically, superpods are recognized as important social events among the three pods of Southern Residents. Experts say these gatherings have become less frequent, because dwindling populations of salmon cause the whales to move on for their next meal.

While Chinook salmon are the orcas’ preferred food, it is well documented that Southern Residents eat chum salmon, which begin moving into streams after the Chinook runs have declined. That’s why the whales can be seen in Central and sometimes South Puget Sound during the fall months, occasionally into December.

Chum salmon surprise experts

Understanding variations in run size and timing of chum migrations provides some insight into why the whales might or might not be around in the fall. In 2019, the Central/South Puget Sound region experienced the worst run size in the past 40 years, with 164,000 fish, according to Mickey Agha, statewide salmon science and policy analyst for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The following year, 2020, saw a rebound to 256,000 fish, followed by 425,000 in 2021, a fairly significant increase last year.

This year, state and tribal experts had predicted a decline to 300,000 chum in Central/South Puget Sound, Mickey noted, so fishing seasons were adjusted to allow enough spawners to make it back home. During the fishing season, experts rely on a commercial test fishery off Apple Cove Point near Kingston to systematically determine if the fish are coming back in greater or lesser numbers than predicted.

By early November, based on the test fishery, salmon managers had doubled their early estimate to somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 chum.

“This season was far better than expected and is a continuation of a rebound from our historic low abundance in 2019,” Mickey wrote me in an email. “However, this season was unique in that we did see a significant delay in fish hitting the spawning grounds.”

The delay of salmon moving into Puget Sound and ultimately to their spawning streams was likely the result of an unusual rainfall pattern. Who can forget the record-low rainfalls of summer and extremely dry conditions of September into the first half of October? In most areas, a moderate amount of rain fell during the last week of October and the first week of November — and then the rains practically stopped.

Because so many fish apparently remained in the saltwater waiting for more rain, salmon managers remained conservative about harvesting the chum. The larger-than-expected run along with limited harvest would presumably mean more chum salmon available to the killer whales.

Reports of chum trying to swim upstream where flows were extremely low raised concerns that many of the chum would die without spawning, or else they would spawn in the same areas that barely had enough water. Either way, the actual productivity from what had become an encouraging salmon run could end up much less than the run size would indicate.

“Our harvest this year was considerably better than recent years where we limited days on the water,” Mickey said. “We can attribute the higher harvest rate and quantity not only to more time on the water but relative to the strength of the run in comparison to the past few years.”

In the streams

The tragedy caused by a shortage of rain since Nov. 8 could be affecting chum and coho runs throughout Puget Sound, according to Jon Oleyar, a salmon biologist for the Suquamish Tribe. Many of these migratory fish simply are not making it into the upper tributaries for lack of streamflow.

Each year, Jon walks the streams of East Kitsap County, observing spawning activities while counting dead and live fish. His work contributes to an estimate of natural production each year.

Chico Creek, one of the most productive chum streams in Puget Sound, now contains fish in its lower section, he said. But its tributaries, including Dickerson, Lost and Wildcat creeks, are practically barren, except for their lowest sections. That means about two miles of prime spawning habitat on Wildcat Creek, about a mile and a half on Lost Creek, and another mile on Dickerson Creek are not being used for spawning so far this year.

The late October and early November rains caused some fish to enter at the mouth of Chico Creek, but the rains were not enough to boost streamflows adequately in the upper watershed.

“The fish wanted to get upstream, but it was just a trickle in both of those tributaries (Dickerson and Wildcat),” Jon said. “Some tried to spawn downstream,” he added, but those females were effectively digging up eggs laid earlier by other fish.

“I think we are going to end up with a concentrated spawn in the mainstem (of Chico Creek),” Jon predicted, noting that many of the salmon eggs are at risk of being washed out or buried if heavy rains come later.

Jon said he has heard reports of conditions as bad or worse in other streams of Central and South Puget Sound. Some have practically no water at all at this point.

To see what Jon was talking about, I took my wife, daughter and two grandkids to Chico Creek yesterday (Sunday). Hundreds of chum were milling at the mouth of the stream, in the estuary and apparently out in the bay as well. Dead fish littered the stream banks. I was not sure how many were able to spawn versus how many died trying.

Some fish were making it upstream, but they had to jump about a foot to swim into a culvert under State Route 3, a four-lane freeway. A new $57-million bridge is under construction to replace that culvert. Once the culvert is gone, salmon will have easy passage under the freeway but could face other obstacles upstream. In fact, the stream was so low yesterday that I observed chum hanging out and waiting for rain just below big logs that had fallen across the stream.

A few beaver dams in Chico Creek also provided temporary obstacles to chum, Jon told me. In some places, good-intentioned people, apparently worried about the salmon, made a critical error by tearing out beaver dams. The result was a surge of water that headed downstream, encouraging a bunch of salmon to swim upstream and thus become stranded when the excess flow stopped.

“People think they are doing the salmon a favor by breaching beaver dams,” Jon said. “That just sent down a wall of water and brought in more fish. But when the water ran out, the fish died in mass numbers.”

To make things worse, beaver dams contain a lot of mud, he said. When the dam is breached, the mud washes downstream and buries eggs already in the gravel. Covered over and without oxygen, the eggs cannot survive.

Rains on the way as orcas return again

With reports of chum salmon waiting to go upstream, it seems that rain in the forecast would be a good thing. For tomorrow (Tuesday), the National Weather Service predicts up to half an inch of rain throughout the region.

That might be enough to get the fish moving again. Some chance of rain continues through the week until Saturday and Sunday, when forecasters say more rain is likely. The best thing for the salmon would be steady, light rains, avoiding downpours that can cause gushing streams and flood waters.

Higher stream flows are likely to be good for coho as well as chum. Some coho tend to wait offshore in saltwater until the streams rise. They are better jumpers than chum and like to spawn in the upper watersheds.

“They can hold a lot longer than chum,” Jon Oleyar noted. “They are not up in the watershed. They can probably last through November. They will go when the timing is right.”

Studies of Southern Resident killer whales have shown that they will eat coho salmon, when available, as well as other fish, as described in an article by Sarah DeWerdt in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

Over the past weekend, J pod was reported in Admiralty Inlet apparently coming back into Puget Sound on Saturday morning. Reports on Orca Network’s Facebook page indicated that they went south along the west side of Whidbey Island and then north along the east side, where Alisa Lemire Brooks posted this report from yesterday’s (Sunday’s) encounter:

“Four of us longtime friends spent over an hour in magical wonderment along the shores of this beautiful PNW place, watching beautiful J pod travel, forage and socialize while making their way slowly north up the glassy waterway of Saratoga Passage, which is nestled between Camano and Whidbey islands.

“Yesterday was one of those prolonged encounters where you have the opportunity to absorb the enormity of their presence and inhale the sounds of their exhalations heard for miles.”

As of today (Monday), sightings of what appeared to be J pod were reported from Whidbey Island to the Kingston-Edmonds ferry (Orca Network). The latest report at 5 p.m. had the whales heading south off Seattle’s West Point.

Earlier orca visits also notable

After reporting on this year’s census of the Southern Resident orcas (Our Water Ways, Sept. 27), I received an email from Donna Sandstrom, founder and executive director of The Whale Trail and a member of the governor’s Southern Resident Orca Task Force.

The annual census — compiled by the Center for Whale Research — showed another net population loss (three deaths and two births), but Donna wanted to point out some good news. For the first time in recent history, various members of the Southern Resident population returned to Puget Sound each month from May through September, continuing well into the fall.

Donna believes a major factor for the whales’ increased return this past summer could be the reduction in stress to the whales as a result of a new licensing program for commercial whale-watching boats, along with regulations designed to keep boats farther away from the whales. The regulations establish a three-month whale-watching season from July through September — the only time that commercial boats may approach the Southern Residents closer than one-half nautical mile. (At all times, the limit remains 300 yards to the side for all boats.) The limit for a commercial vessel is two hours with the whales, up to two visits a day, and no more than three commercial vessels within the vicinity of any group of whales.

In June, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife issued an emergency order designating 13 of the Southern Residents as “vulnerable” because of physical condition or pregnancy. The result was to prevent commercial whale-watching boats from getting within one-half nautical mile of any of the vulnerable animals.

“It is tremendously exciting that the Southern Residents returned to the Salish Sea this summer,” Donna told me. “We’ve made a big change. Our collective goal is to make a place that can sustain the Southern Residents once again, to help them find what food is there.”

Donna said she raised the idea of commercial licensing for whale watching at an orca task force meeting. The idea was widely discussed and became a recommendation of the group before being passed into law by the Legislature in 2019. The law took effect last year.

Beyond commercial operations, recreational boaters must stay at least 300 yards to the side of a group of whales and 400 yards to the front and back under current rules. The Pacific Whale Watch Association, which represents commercial operators, has argued that the rules for commercial vessels go too far, and the requirements reduce the ability of commercial operators to play a “sentinel role” in protecting the whales. A new study by Monica Shields of Orca Behavior Institute lends support to the idea that the presence of commercial whale-watching vessels seems to improve the behavior of recreational boaters around the whales.

Studies continue to analyze the effects of boats and noise on resident killer whales, as I describe in an article in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. The whales locate their prey by sending out high energy pulses of sound and listening for the echoes, a process known as echolocation.

Rob Williams, co-founder and chief scientist for Oceans Initiative, explained it well: “If there is not enough salmon available in the environment, vessel noise and disturbance will reduce the amount of prey that is accessible to the whales. The population consequences of noise will look just like an exaggerated effect of prey limitation.”

More and more whale watchers these days are observing the orcas with binoculars from shore. Finding them often involves help from Orca Network’s Facebook page, which keeps track of all variety of whale sightings, from humpbacks to minkes. Maps of shoreside sighting locations can be found on the website of The Whale Trail or Orca Network.

6 comments

  1. Stefanie says:

    It’s important to note that many people that go on whale watches are just “entertained” by the whales. There has not been any conclusive evidence that seeing whales = saving whales. No doubt that some people’s lives are changed, mine was, but for the majority of people that is not the case. It is simply another thing to do, to check off their list. My thoughts on this subject are based on experience as a naturalist and whale biologist, not a subjective opinion. I wish it were the case, but the overall decline of our natural world and the number of ecotourism trips has been on an upward trajectory, where it should be a downward one (loss of our natural world) and upward one if ecotourism was helping.

    • Erin Gless says:

      Interestingly enough, the killer whales in the Salish Sea who are encountered most frequently by professional whale watchers, Bigg’s killer whales, are present almost daily and their population is thriving. The salmon-eating Southern Residents, who with minimal exception are no longer allowed to be viewed by professional whale watchers on either side of the border, continue to decline. If ecotourism was the crux of the issue, you’d expect those patterns to be reversed.

      The new whale watching restrictions remove only trained professionals from the vicinity of Southern Residents and not any other vessel category. These misguided rules may be doing more harm than good. A recent study conducted by Orca Behavior Institute and published in Marine Policy (the link has since been added in the blog post) found that the number of dangerous boating incidents around killer whales more than doubled in the absence of professional whale watching vessels. Most vessels on the water are not actively looking for whales, nor are they aware of whale-related boating regulations. By marking the location of whales, providing advanced warning to nearby vessels, and modeling proper operating behavior, professional whale watch vessels play an active role in improving conditions for local whales, creating a quieter and safer environment.

      Bigg’s killer whales and Southern Resident killer whales share the same habitat. They are exposed to the same toxicants, the same vessel traffic, and the same underwater sound. The only variable is their prey. While the seals, sea lions, and porpoises on which Bigg’s rely are abundant, salmon remain both scarcer and smaller than they have been in decades past. Falsely attributing an uptick in Southern Resident sightings this year to an illogical and ineffective whale watching license program affords regulators the ability to pat themselves on the back for a job well done rather than go all-in on the one and only thing that will give Southern Residents a chance at recovery – salmon restoration.

  2. Jerry Purnell says:

    Thanks for the great article!
    I’ve lived on my property since 2017 which has a small creek (Panther Creek off of Pilchuck River) that is a Coho habitat. As for this generation of Coho, 2018 was huge in terms of returns and size of fish. 2020 was big just not quite as big and lasted into mid December. This year has been a bust so far, the steam levels are well below normal and spots where they normally spawn are dry. Leave and other debris that would be washed away by now are still in the creek. It’s pretty sad but hopeful they found a spot downstream to spawn.

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