Real talk: Is eating salmon bad for the orcas?

Fresh, barbecued salmon is a summer treat that many Seattleites look forward to all year long.

But growing concerns about starving orcas and a dwindling chinook runs have made some local salmon lovers uneasy. Evergrey reader Ashley Mandel recently wrote in to ask for our help in answering a simple question: Is it OK to eat wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest?

It doesn’t feel right that I can know of the plight of our whales and salmon, but yet still buy salmon with a clear conscience,” Ashley wrote. “It definitely feels fishy (pun intended).” 

For answers, we turned to the Sustainable Fisheries project at the University of Washington and got connected with Ray Hilborn. He’s a professor and fishery scientist who studies our local seafood systems.

And in 2012, he served on a panel of scientists who prepared a report for NOAA about the effects of salmon fishing on the southern resident orca population. So, needless to say, this topic is right up his alley estuary. 

Here’s what we learned:

 

Most of the seafood available to Seattleites is very sustainable. 

When summertime hits and we see “wild salmon” in stores and markets around Seattle, most of it comes from Alaska, where the orca population relies less on salmon for food and is more stable than the southern resident population.

So that bright-red cut of sockeye you’ve been eyeing at the seafood counter? Eat away.  

“Everything coming from Alaska is well managed,” Ray says.

 

We should think about how our salmon got here, not just where it came from. 

We’re conditioned to think that local is always better. So if you’re looking at your seafood consumption from a holistic environmental view, the first thing you might consider is how far your salmon had to travel to end up on your dinner plate. But when it comes to carbon emissions, Ray says we should also think about how it got here: by boat or plane. 

Because time is of the essence with fresh salmon, it’s generally flown to market, which produces a lot of greenhouse gases. That’s why Ray typically buys frozen fish. He’s still eating a batch of sockeye from last year that he purchased from an Alaska-based buying club.

 

Eating chinook salmon is a divisive issue.

Chinook — also known as king salmon — is a touchy subject here in the Pacific Northwest, because some of the species are listed as threatened or endangered and because our southern resident orcas eat hundreds of chinook salmon every day. (Gray whales, in case you were wondering, do not eat salmon.)

When it comes to orcas and chinook, much of the controversy is around the question of whether or not overfishing plays a major role in our dwindling local runs, or if other factors like changing ocean conditions and salmon-eating seals and sea lions are the main culprits. 

And there’s no clear consensus on what’s causing the southern residents to struggle.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I would be surprised if any of the proposed solutions around chinook would be likely to make much of a difference,” Ray says. “(But) that is not a popular message.”

If you’re not convinced, Ray suggests looking for chinook that was caught in a river — where it’s come back to spawn and is no longer a direct food source for whales — or seeking out chinook from elsewhere, like Bristol Bay, Alaska, where chinook are plentiful

 

Seafood is one of the most eco-friendly things we can eat.

In terms of food production, carbon footprint, and land area required, seafood is one of the most environmentally friendly things we can eat here in the Pacific Northwest. And that statement is especially true for the oyster and mussel lovers among us. 

Farmed shellfish is a good eco-friendly choice, as is rockfish, herring, sardines, and mackerel. From an environmental standpoint, eating these items is better than going completely vegan and turning to soy products, Ray says.

“If you want to minimize almost any of the metrics of environmental impact, you’d be a selective pescatarian, not a vegan,” he said.

 

Real Talk is a new series where we hunt down answers for your most burning questions about living in Seattle. Got a question we should address? Send us a note: [email protected].

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.