How Utah’s Clever Fish Conservation Efforts Might Save Southern Resident Orcas in Washington State
In the Mormon-bound state of Utah, wildlife conservationists conduct an annual, but very clever, method of restocking wild trout into lakes by dropping them into every lake and stream where the fish are often found each summer. It’s also possible that this method could be applied to saving troubled salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest.
Last Tuesday, Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources posted a short video on its Twitter page that depicts conservationists raining dozens of tiny fish from the underbelly of an aircraft into one of the state's high-mountain lakes. The conservationists say that the fish, which usually measure around one to three inches long, tend to survive the fall around 95 percent of the time. In fact, the fish are deliberately released around that small size to ensure that the animals would survive the fall, which to most people would prove to a deadly one.
Most restocking efforts are usually done by having the hatchery-born fish packed up in trucks in holding tanks before they are released in lakes and streams through pipes. In the past, however, conservationists used to have the fish held in metal milk cans that were filled with water that were later strapped to horses. The horses would haul them up to the mountainsides where the fish would eventually be released in nearby lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams. Yet, it was also a very risky move for not just the horses, but also the fish as well. This was because the strenuous and less efficient treks would often result in the efforts to go horribly wrong with cans flying out of the straps before the horses ever managed to reach the lakes. In addition, vehicles like cars have no way to reach these high-altitude lakes which is why by the 1950s the state began to use airplanes as a viable option to safely transport the fish from hatcheries to lakes. As it turned out, the planes are able to stock up to seven different lakes in a single flight, which makes it a very cost-effective option.
Think of the orcas.
When I first saw that video on Facebook, I began to wonder if it's possible to use this practice as a way to restock enough salmon in order to save the Southern Resident orca population off of Washington State. For starters, scientists believed that the Southern Resident orca community is endangered, primarily due to lack of its main food source, which just happens to be the Chinook Salmon. As pivotal members of Pacific Northwest's marine ecosystem, orcas are apex predators to that ecosystem, which actually sees not one, but two different orca ecotypes: the fish-eating resident orcas, and the marine-mammal feeding transient orcas.
Yet, despite have to have learned so much about orcas, both in the wild and in human care, this single orca population continues to be threatened by the loss of their adequate prey base. It does not even help that NOAA has made very little to no effort to meet the essential needs of these troubled animals, which has become really frustrating to scientists who continue to study the endangered mammals. So far, a number of advocates to the wild orcas have already suggested the idea of removing the four costly lower Snake River dams since both the Columbia River Basin and the Snake River watershed serve as migratory paths for the Chinook salmon to be able to reach their breeding grounds, many of which are located around 5,000 miles away from Puget Sound.
While there is no arguing that the removal of the dams would enable wild salmon populations to recover, I believe that both scientists and advocates should consider including a restocking of Chinook salmon into the waters of Puget Sound by releasing a good number of hatchery-born fish into the water by airplane, so that there can be enough salmon for the orcas to be able to eat and survive in this ever-changing world. Believe it or not, the studies that have been done on the behavioral patterns on the Southern Resident orcas show that the mammals spend half of the year hunting for salmon from British Colombia, all the way down to Northern California but since the salmon are originally from the Columbia-Snake River basin, it would make a lot of sense to start off by releasing salmon into that area before moving on to other parts of the Northwest region where the orcas often feed. In addition, if salmon are to be restocked, they would have to be restocked between the months of January and April because that is when the salmon begin to make their annual migration to their natal spawning grounds, so releasing the hatchery-born salmon during that time would not only enable the orcas to have plenty to eat, but also, if allowed, and done correctly, could possibly result in a full recovery of Chinook salmon along with the removal of the dams. However, the only way for the hatchery-born salmon to be able to survive out in a wild environment is if they are to be given any environmental enrichment device that would enable the fish to be able to swim in different patterns in their pools.
For now, however, we can only hope that Utah's fish restocking efforts can one day prompt the state of Washington to do the same thing with the salmon. If they decide to do it, it should be because the survival of the Southern Resident orcas would depend on this secondary solution along with the removal of the dams.