Being Frank: Tell the truth, trust the science about orca recovery


My mentor Billy Frank Jr. always said that it’s going to take all of us working together to recover salmon. 

He also said, “Tell the truth.” 

The truth is that sometimes we have to change our thinking when new information comes to light. Several years ago, everyone became very concerned about how the decline in Pacific chinook salmon was affecting endangered southern resident orcas. We were told they ate only wild chinook, which sparked misguided campaigns to save orcas by boycotting chinook salmon.

A couple of years ago, new research revealed that southern resident orcas will eat salmon other than chinook, such as coho and chum, as well as steelhead, halibut and lingcod — and they eat both hatchery and natural-origin salmon. 

All along, tribal and state salmon managers have been managing chinook harvest sustainably — along with our Canadian counterparts through the Pacific Salmon Commission — in compliance with the federal Endangered Species Act. Only a small percentage of returning salmon are harvested and humans represent a tiny fraction of the competition for salmon. By comparison, seals and sea lions take six times as many chinook as the entire fishing industry.

We know that fishing is not to blame for our declining salmon runs or starving orcas, and that the best thing we can do is protect, restore and create new habitat. Tribes have thousands of years of experience managing salmon. We have been doing everything we can to rebuild chinook salmon stocks, but we can’t do it through harvest reductions alone. 

We need all hands on deck. Everyone who cares about salmon should support efforts to protect and restore salmon runs. 

However, some people are having trouble changing their way of thinking. Instead of doing the hard work of fixing our broken ecosystem or addressing the impacts of climate change, they’re pointing their fingers in the wrong direction.

One misguided campaign claims, “Every bite of king salmon you eat means less food for starving orcas,” before inviting supporters to make a generous donation.

This statement is baseless because most salmon harvested for human consumption already have passed through the waters where orcas might feed on them. The entire campaign is dangerous because it misleads and divides the people who care about the environment and want to do the right thing.

A better way to feed starving orcas is to increase the number of salmon produced in hatcheries. This is one of the recommendations from the state’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force and aligns with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s short-term risk reduction measures. 

That’s why it is unfathomable to see anti-hatchery groups attempting to interfere with state and tribal co-management — and recovery efforts for both salmon and orcas — with lawsuits that misrepresent the science behind hatcheries. 

These groups are as ill-informed as the calls for a chinook boycott. They imagine that halting hatchery production will miraculously recover natural-origin salmon. This just isn’t true. 

Salmon populations can’t recover to sustainable levels unless we restore their spawning and rearing habitat. Meanwhile, stopping hatchery production is a far greater threat to starving orcas than human consumption. Most of the salmon that return to our region come from hatcheries. 

Misinformed campaigns like these, no matter how well meaning, are harmful to salmon recovery and tribal treaty rights. They are divisive distractions that take time, money and resources away from the hard work ahead. 

We need to focus on preventing development from destroying habitat, protecting streams and rivers from high temperatures and low flows, managing marine mammal predation of salmon, and increasing hatchery production.  

The worst thing you can do for salmon and orcas is to support one of these organizations working against tribal harvest and hatchery management. We need you on our side so we can all walk the same path toward salmon recovery.


Ed Johnstone is the chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.