November Decisions Critical to Future of Iconic Orcas

Upcoming actions related to Navy testing and management of salmon fishing may determine future survival of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales

Friday Harbor, Wash. (October 28, 2020) – The welcome news of two Southern Resident calves is dampened by the specter of two upcoming, key decisions this November that could impact their survival. A decision on ocean salmon fisheries will determine if they will have enough food, and a likely ruling for the U.S. Navy could lead to direct harm to more than two-thirds of their population.

“November is shaping up to be a monumental month for these orcas,” said Dr. Deborah Giles, Science & Research Director for Wild Orca. “Decisions such as these can truly make the difference between a chance of survival, or adding another nail in the coffin for these endangered animals.”

“We’ve known for years that these animals are in trouble, and it’s been incredibly frustrating to watch policymakers take half-measures—or no measures at all—rather than step up and do what’s right to save them,” said Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific Campaign Manager & Senior Scientist. “Everyone is heartened when we see new calves born as we did this year, but without bold and meaningful actions to protect their food and habitat, we’ll never be able to save this iconic species.”

First up in early November, a decision regarding the Navy’s application for continued exemption from the Marine Mammal Protection Act— to carry out military readiness activities in its Northwest Training & Testing Area, and in so doing, “take” (harass, harm, kill) multiple species of marine mammals, with potential harm to as many as 50 endangered orcas.

The Navy’s recently updated Environmental Impact Statement includes several orca-related measures but falls far short of recommendations made by Governor Inslee’s Orca Task Force and by 29 NGOs in a joint letter submitted July. With the current exemption expiring November 8, 2020, NOAA Fisheries is expected to authorize this request through 2027, thereby declaring these activities constitute “negligible impact.”

“Harassment of nearly 70% of any population should not be considered negligible,” said Dr. Giles, “but especially when the population NOAA’s mandated to protect and recover is smaller now than when listed as endangered in 2005.”

On November 16, the Pacific Fishery Management Council will conclude a nearly two-year process, to examine the effects Council-managed ocean salmon fisheries have on the prey available to Southern Residents, and determine what actions—if any—they will take to limit these impacts. Despite tens of thousands of public comments asking NOAA Fisheries and the Council to ensure these orcas have enough salmon, the menu of potential management responses the Council has to select from would be simply too little, too late.

“It’s critical that we leave enough salmon in the ocean for these orcas to survive—as they’re spending more days looking for food offshore than in the past,” said Oceana’s Enticknap. “What happens at the Council in November will resonate for years, and go a long way in determining the chances that our children and grandchildren will know an ocean that still has Southern Residents.”

Therefore, Wild Orca and Oceana are requesting that NOAA Fisheries and the Council reduce their impacts on Southern Residents in low Chinook abundance years, by closing fishing within the two proposed Southern Resident critical habitat areas—offshore northern Oregon and Washington. This action would only trigger when the pre-season Chinook forecast is below 1.144 million fish (Alternative D in the Council workgroup report.)

“In an ideal world,” said Giles, “these orcas would be allocated a quota of the Chinook harvest. However, fisheries are still primarily managed for human consumption, with little consideration for predators in the ecosystem. Until this changes, closing fishing offshore in these orcas’ foraging hotspots is essential.”

Public Comments are accepted through the PFMC website (agenda item F2) until November 8, and at the Council meeting on November 16, when the final decision will be made.

“Time is running out to save these endangered animals,” Giles and Enticknap agreed. “NOAA Fisheries and the Council must take action in favor of these orcas in November before it’s too late.”

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