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Thursday, November 13, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Orcas Put Bite On Salmon Catch -- Pod's Appetite Prompts Closure Of Dyes Inlet Fishery

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

To the T-shirt hawkers, coffee peddlers, tour-boat operators and parking-space owners, the orcas visiting Dyes Inlet near Bremerton are an autumn-business boon.

To the fishermen of the Suquamish Indian Tribe, the 19 whales in subpod L-25 are, well . . . does the name "Herschel" ring a bell?

State and tribal biologists estimate the whales eat 4 percent or 5 percent of their body weight daily and have been consuming about 700 salmon a day. Multiplied by the 23 days the pod has been camped in the narrow inlet, that means a take of more than 16,000 fish - or about three-fourths of this fall's expected run of chum salmon in the area. (Using different calculations, the Whale Museum of San Juan Island estimated total consumption through yesterday at about 8,500 salmon.)

Given the impact of the whales' voracious appetites, like those of Herschel and other sea lions that have foraged outside the Ballard Locks in Seattle, the Suquamish have closed one of their most reliable and lucrative salmon fisheries. State fishery officials also have closed a much smaller, nontribal commercial fishery.

Suquamish fishermen couldn't set their nets without seriously damaging future runs, said Jay Zischke, a fisheries biologist for the tribe.

"We kind of figure these mammals have a water and fishing right just like the tribe's right," said Zischke. "We've accepted that they're here consuming their most flavorful food and they've got no reason to go anywhere else. So we couldn't feel comfortable having a fishery."

The whales have been attracting as many as 500 boats and lots of shoreside gazers on weekends. Tribal members are awed as well, says Suquamish Vice Chairman Merle Hayes, who doesn't recall seeing but a stray whale or two venture into the inlet during the past 30 years.

The pod's visit has been tough on the wallets of fishermen like Hayes.

Tribal fishermen have had a terrible season, with meager salmon runs in traditional summer grounds in the San Juan Islands. In slow summers, Hayes said, fishermen count on a healthy catch of fall chum running through Dyes Inlet to Chico Creek. This year, the tribe had anticipated catching 12,000 to 15,000 fish, worth $50,000 or more.

Though there is no scientific evidence yet, Hayes senses the rare appearance of the whales in the inlet and the lousy fishing elsewhere in Puget Sound are connected.

"To me, the whales are an indicator that things aren't right out there," he said.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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