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Forecast for spring chinook up from last year, but still low in Washington state

Fisheries managers say the projected runs for 2021 show 7,540 spring chinook returning to the north fork of the Nooksack River.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Forecasts for this year’s salmon runs show a doubling of spring chinook in the Nooksack River.

It gives some hope even though the species remains threatened across the Puget Sound region. 

Fisheries managers say the projected runs for 2021 show 7,540 spring chinook returning to the north fork of the Nooksack River. That's almost double the 3,949 fish that returned in 2020. 

Officials say that's a decent increase from last year but over 20 years, Puget Sound chinook continue to decline. They're listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and are the primary food of the Salish Sea’s endangered orcas, called Southern Resident killer whales.

There are officially 74 whales in the three groups of endangered orcas, known as the J, K and L pods of the Southern Resident killer whales. Three calves have been born since September, but those are not yet reflected in the count because only about half of the babies survive their first year.

Facing a dearth of prey, contaminants that accumulate in their blubber, and vessel noise that hinders their hunting, the whales are at their lowest numbers since the 1970s, when hundreds were captured — and more than 50 were kept — for aquarium display. Scientists warn the population is on the brink of extinction.

A recent paper suggests that efforts to make Chinook more abundant off the coast in the non-summer months could especially pay off, and that Columbia River Chinook hatchery stocks are among the most important for the whales. It also suggests that increasing the numbers of non-salmon species could help fill the gaps for the whales when Chinook aren't available in the open ocean.

The information could also be key in setting limits for fisheries; the Pacific Fisheries Management Council has recommended that NOAA curtail fishing if Chinook abundance is forecast to drop below a certain level.