After a long afternoon of sitting on the couch watching football–yes, the Seahawks actually won–and stuffing ourselves with nachos and jalapeno poppers (thanks, Morgan!), we were in dire need of some outside time. Better yet, on-the-water time. Luckily, the tides were lining up just right, the wind fell out, and blue skies prevailed. So we loaded up the crew into Smarty’s party barge. That’s Pete, Weston, Skyla, Morgan and Halo preparing for a serious fish session.
Of course, we took turns on the rods, ensuring a peanut gallery of comments with every attempt. After working out some “casting issues,” we started putting flies in good spots. That’s Skyla on the bow trying to ignore the hostile crowd.
And yes, we even found a few fish–gorgeous, fat sea-run cutthroats that came up to eat our flies and make the peanut gallery cheer. Crisp, autumn air, blue skies, plenty of fish, and good friends. On the way back in, a huge, almost-full harvest moon rose to the east. Awesome. Thanks, Smarty!
Our southern resident killer whales, the local, salmon-eating orcas, are starving to death. Literally. And my last post, about the small size of the king salmon we boated this summer, and how we ate them, has me thinking a lot about the whales we see on a fairly regular basis around our home waters. There are currently 75 SRKWs left. Not seventy-five thousand. Not seventy-five hundred. Seventy. Five. Period. They haven’t had a live birth in three years. And the nation was transfixed last month by the story of a mourning mother whale who carried her stillborn baby for 17 days and a thousand miles. Heartbreaking, to say the least.
These whales mean a lot to me personally. Like me, they are salmon fisherman, with a strong preference for the fatty flesh of large Chinook salmon. I’ve fished around them, watched them, and once, spent a night in a tent on the west shore of San Juan Island, listening to them breathe as they slept not more than 100 feet away. But more than any personal connection, the southern resident killer whales, as the apex predator of our Salish Sea, are the canary-in-the-coal-mine of our local waters.
Unlike the healthier populations of transient, marine-mammal-eating killer whales, SRKWs not only prefer Chinook salmon, they need them to survive. Specifically, the scientists tell us, they need large, fat-laden wild Chinook salmon. But over the last century, the size and fat content of these fish has decreased precipitously–before 1920, the average size of an adult Puget Sound king was about 25 pounds. In recent years, the average has fallen below 10 pounds per fish. This summer, at least for us, the average was probably closer to seven.
The overall numbers have plummeted as well: Today, we are at less than 10% of the historical population of Puget Sound wild Chinook. There are a number of factors involved, but the dominant forces that have shrunk the population–and the individual fish themselves–are an intensive open-ocean, mixed-stock commercial fishery, exacerbated by heavy reliance on hatchery production. In short, the only fish that survive the harvest are those that spend as little time as possible (i.e., mature quickly) in the kill zone off the coast of British Columbia. We are selecting for fish that mature at a younger age and smaller size. Add the inbreeding, domestication and lack of diversity–which result in poor overall survival–found in hatchery salmon, and it’s no wonder the orcas are starving.
If we want to save the last of our southern resident killer whales, we need both short- and long-term solutions. In the short term, simply put, the whales need more king salmon to eat. Right now.
That leaves two options to feed the whales immediately: We can either ramp up hatchery production, or reduce open-ocean harvest. Not surprisingly, Governor Inslee has recommended a large increase in hatchery Chinook production. This means nobody needs to stop fishing, and theoretically, there will be more fish for sport fishermen and commercial fishermen as well. It also means more money for the hatchery industry. In other words, a “painless” and politically popular decision.
The other option, to curtail ocean fisheries, would be incredibly unpopular by people who vote. It would hurt commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, and tribal and government-run hatcheries. But hatcheries are a part of what got us to this point in the first place. More importantly, science shows that the addition of more hatchery fish frequently results in fewer fish available for harvest, by humans or whales. And, since we know that the presence of hatchery fish works as a powerful detriment to wild fish recovery, Governor Inslee’s recommendation could actually work counter to the desired goal of providing more food for SRKWs in both short- and long term. Shooting ourselves in the foot, as it were. And it puts us in the uncomfortable position of choosing to further endanger one endangered species (wild Chinook) to save another (SRKW).
So the only real short-term solution is the painful one. We need to fish less. That would involve shifting open-ocean fisheries to areas closer to river mouths (the salmons’ destinations) so we can know which fish we are harvesting, and allow the orcas to have the “first shot” at larger numbers of Chinook salmon. No extra money for the hatchery industry. And probably an overall reduction in sport and comercial fishing opportunities. This would clearly upset a fair number of voters, making it more difficult for elected officials who support such a plan to be reelected. But it’s the job of responsible government to make unpopular decisions for the greater good. Especially when a vast majority of published, peer-reviewed scientific studies support those unpopular decisions. If saving southern resident killer whales is truly what we consider to be a greater good, this it the time for our officials, including Governor Inslee, to listen to the science and do the right thing.
And that’s just the beginning. SRKWs feed off the mouth of the Columbia River in winter to take advantage of the highest-fat-content salmon of the year–spring Chinook bound for Idaho’s Snake, Clearwater and Salmon Rivers. Those fish, like Puget Sound summer kings, have also shrunk dramatically in size and number. Last September, I spent days traveling up and down those rivers in Idaho looking at miles of empty gravel riffles. Habitat that should have been packed with spawning spring Chinook. But the four lower Snake River dams have taken a brutal toll on these fish, as well as the prized wild B-run steelhead. We need to redouble our efforts to remove these obsolete dams. But I’ve also recently learned that there’s a quicker potential option, and since the state of the orcas is dire, I think we need to consider it: Opening up the locks at these dams and allowing the reservoirs to drain and the river to run freely through them. It’s not in lieu of removing dams, just a quicker way to gain similar benefits in a much shorter period of time.
Anyway, these are the options I hope Governor Inslee, and the task force he’s assembled to address the SRKW situation, will consider. And implement. But given the unpopular nature of what I’m suggesting, and a politician’s need for reelection, I’m not holding my breath. Look at climate change: A staggering majority of scientists tell us it’s happening, we caused it, and the effects will be catastrophic. And yet we elected a President and a majority in congress who not only refuse to act, or even believe the science, but are in fact working to deconstruct even the smallest efforts to stop heating up our planet. If our governor wants to be seen as the rational, scientifically driven politician, which I believe he does, I suggest he study up on the science of salmon and not make hatcheries his own version of climate denial.
In order to qualify as “spring” cleaning, we were up against it. The solstice and the last day of school, both signs of summer beginning, were bearing down on us. The kids and I have been working to clean up the house for a couple of months now, but mostly just little sessions between homework, sports, or anything else we could think of to procrastinate. Finally, my mom came up to visit on a mission: Bust out the work and get it done! To say she helped out would be disingenuous. In fact, she led the charge, diving into the hard work of cleaning shower grout, washing windows, organizing cabinets with mind-boggling energy. For three days, the kids and I just tried to keep from being left in the dust by a 70-plus-year-old grandma.
On Sunday, we celebrated with a grand feast of smoked ribs, sweet corn, artichokes and cornbread. That’s the cleaning crew above, about to sit down for a hard-earned meal. Now the house is bright and shiny–at least compared to how it was–and we’re all feeling good about it. Still more to do, but less than there was by several orders of magnitude. Thanks, Mom! Now we just need to stay on it and finish up before her next visit.
Maybe it’s because they’re right in our backyard, or because they’re too small, or simply that they’re overshadowed by the glamour of salmon and steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, but there is a thriving population of sea run cutthroat trout along nearly every beach in Puget Sound. And the fishing is fantastic, perhaps the finest urban trout fishery in the country. In the rush to chase fat, tasty king salmon here in the Sound, and on the coast, and down in the Columbia, or swing flies for steelhead in big, rushing rivers, it’s easy to forget about the humble cutthroat.
I’ve often thought, if only they were twice as big, the typical 14-to-15-inch sea run cutt would match the average 28-to-30-inch steelhead. The rare 20-incher would turn into the trophy 40-inch steelhead–both are found with about the same frequency, or lack thereof. If only. Of course, then Puget Sound cutts would be world famous, coveted by fly anglers everywhere.The inevitable hoards would descend.
Last night, after a hectic few weeks of work and travel and an especially long day at the desk, the beauty of our little cutthroat fishery became clearer than ever. Smarty and I jumped in the boat, ran about five minutes, and started chucking flies. It was calm, quiet, gorgeous on the water. And there wasn’t a single other person fishing in any direction. We fished a couple hours, found a few fish–that’s a beauty Smarty landed above–and made it back to the house with plenty of time for the traditional Tuesday dinner. Turns out our cutthroat are exactly the right size.
There is a kind of magic involved when you get up on a surfboard and start to go. A disbelief that the forces of hydraulics, gravity, tide and distant storms mysteriously combine to propel you forward, as if flying. It’s a feeling you want to last forever, and when the wave inevitably peters out or you hit the beach, you want that feeling again and again. Earlier this spring we were fortunate enough to escape the chilly weather here for family time–Thanks, Mom!–in the warmth of one of our favorite places, the island of Kauai. And both kids graduated from boogie boards to standing up for long rides on perfect waves that rolled in behind a rocky point. I was stoked for them to feel the magic. As I’ve found with our fishing together, it was far more fun for me, as their dad, to help and watch them ride than to catch a wave or fish myself. And man, what a lot of fun! I’m pretty sure if we lived on that island instead of our own, surf would take over our lives. And I’d be okay with that. Probably better than okay. But then, I’d miss the cool air and the smell of evergreens and chasing salmon here in the Pacific Northwest, so we’ll just call it a wash and consider ourselves lucky. Very lucky indeed.