By Richard Brocksmith, Executive Director, Skagit Watershed Council, for the 2019 Skagit River Salmon Festival Program
Many people in the Pacific Northwest have either grown up with, or have come to love, our Orca whales. They live alongside us in Puget Sound; they have strong, mother-led family groups who teach their young how to survive in the wide world; and their intellectual capacity and curiosity, maybe even feelings, have captured our imagination.
Most folks know our local Orca whales are in very serious trouble and might not survive much longer without significant changes from our human society. A few background facts that are important:
Southern Resident Orcas range from the Queen Charlotte Islands in Canada down to the California Coast, but historically spent much of their summers in Puget Sound. They historically had access to rich salmon fishing grounds that included the Fraser River, Puget Sound, the Columbia River, and the Sacramento River, all of which produced huge runs of Chinook salmon. This “biocomplexity” of having different rivers to fish allowed them to adjust their feeding locations as different rivers had higher or lower success in producing Chinook salmon from year to year.
Southern Resident Orcas historically chose Puget Sound in the spring and summer as they had ample access to Chinook salmon returning to the Fraser River in Canada as well as Puget Sound Rivers. Also, these Chinook demonstrate different run timing, so that some come back in spring, some in summer, and some in fall, providing that biocomplexity and thus reducing risk if one Chinook population should crash in any year.
Here’s where the Skagit River comes into play. Of all the Puget Sound Rivers, Skagit produces more than half of all wild Chinook, both historically and today, which is roughly an order of magnitude more than any other river. Anywhere from 5,000 to 25,000 Chinook salmon return to the Skagit River every year! The Skagit is also the largest contributor of spring Chinook salmon in Puget Sound by far, with several thousand of them returning annually.
It’s easy to see why the Skagit is the most important Chinook producer in Puget Sound for Southern Resident Orca recovery! This is a fact that we as Skagitonians, or those that come to play in Skagit, can be very proud of, but also hopefully will embrace as strong environmental advocates for preserving and restoring this special place!
Time is of utmost importance as our Orcas face a very real threat of extinction. Read ahead in other articles in this pamphlet to learn what specific things you can do to help salmon and Orcas today!