A unique salmon enhancement project on Vancouver Island aims to increase large adult Chinook salmon in the Juan De Fuca Strait to feed hungry south resident killer whales.

More than 200,000 healthy Chinook salmon smolts are currently being held in a temporary holding enclosure in the Sooke basin.

The “Feeding our Endangered Orcas” initiative is in its first year, but organizers say they hope to expand the number of salmon to one million within three years.

“If this works as a cookie cutter, we’re hoping that we’re able to multiply it throughout the province and change the precipitous decline curve that has befallen the Chinook salmon,” said Dan Kukat, owner of Spring Tide Victoria Whale Watching and former president of the Pacific Whale Watch Association.

Before the salmon are released they are bulked up to about double their weight.

“Unfortunately nature can’t offer the best of all natural conditions all the time and that’s where this project steps in to do that,” said Kukat. “[The salmon] will have had very high fertilization rate and they’ll have a very low mortality rate and a very low predation rate.”

Killer whales are picky eaters and prefer Chinook salmon to other fish.

“It’s got to do with the composition of the Chinook of the nutrients that are in it and some of the acids that are in it that the killer whales can’t resist,” Kukat added.

The fish are also tagged, which will allow scientists to gather important data like the salmon’s survival rate.

In 2016, researchers at the Center of Whale Research in Seattle said orcas, particularly mothers and their babies, are struggling because they don’t have enough food, which is a primary factor in the population’s decline.

Scientists said the best way to save the whales was to restore runs of salmon eaten by the killer whales. 

“We start bulking up these numbers, they’ll see a huge increase back into the river system and it’ll be … a win-win situation down the road for everybody,” Glen Varney, an organizer of the project.

Experts say it’s not only vital to helping the endangered orcas, but the initiative will also improve ecotourism as well as traditional and public fisheries.

“Feeding our Endangered Orcas” has been approved by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and is locally funded and operated. 

The number of orca whales in B.C. waters has declined in recent years. In 2016, seven southern resident killer whales died bringing the endangered population to 78.