King salmon at Bristol Bay in Alaska, 2013. These are the salmon that orcas eat, the type that Puget Sound killer whales rely on almost exclusively. Their dwindling numbers have hurt this particular orca population.
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King salmon at Bristol Bay in Alaska, 2013. These are the salmon that orcas eat, the type that Puget Sound killer whales rely on almost exclusively. Their dwindling numbers have hurt this particular orca population.

Seattle chef Renee Erickson pulls king salmon from menu

A Seattle restaurateur has stopped offering chinook salmon at her restaurants. Renee Erickson, chef and owner of a group of restaurants, including The Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard, said she made the decision after learning about the plight of J50, the young, ailing orca whale.

“This really tipped the scale for me, being a native Northwesterner and someone who cares about our environment,” said Erickson. “I felt there was no reason to keep buying chinook.”

Chinook salmon, also known as king salmon, is the main food source for Puget Sound-based orcas. Biologists say the scarcity of chinook salmon in recent years has been hard on these whales, whose numbers have dwindled to 75.

Erickson says customers can enjoy other types of salmon.

“I just couldn’t stomach the feeling like we were contributing to the starvation of this one whale as well as the other ones,” said Erickson.

Whale biologists differ in how they see this issue. Deborah Giles, a killer whale biologist with the University of Washington, agreed with Erickson's position.

"I recognize that Chinook salmon are the tastiest and most desirable for humans to eat," Giles said. "The whales feel the same way. The difference is that the Southern Resident killer whales rely on Chinook salmon for their lives."

But Ray Hilborn, fisheries professor at the University of Washington, said it's futile.

“Any individual's choice to not eat Chinook salmon would have no impact at all because it wouldn't change the number of Chinook salmon that are being caught,” he said. “If you don't buy it, somebody else is going to.”

Hilborn agreed, however, that if fewer king salmon were caught, “there would be potentially some small effect.”

“You would have to have chinook salmon fisheries closed, and even then, it would be a very small effect because humans are a very small fraction of who's competing with southern resident killer whales,” he said.

Other marine mammals would also have to quit chinook, he said. Northern Resident killer whales have been growing in numbers. Sea lions, with their overwhelming appetites, have also shown little sympathy for the orcas. And harbor seals eat volumes of juvenile chinook salmon.

Meanwhile, biologists delivered live salmon to J50 last week, who, at age three-and-a-half, is emaciated. A fecal test conducted to assess the pod's health indicates high levels of parasites in the whales' systems. Biologists are concerned that such levels in emaciated whales could potentially harm their stomach linings, leading to infection. They plan to give J50 additional treatment of antibiotics and a dewormer. But they’ll have to wait; the whales were last spotted on the west side of Vancouver Island, beyond their reach.

Andy Hurst contributed reporting.