A Southern Resident killer whale with a chinook salmon in its mouth.
Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research.

In an extraordinary week, first the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) announced a series of bold measures to prevent the continued, and alarming decline of Pacific salmon, and then later confirmed additional action to leave more Chinook salmon for the Southern Resident killer whales this season.

June 29 was the launch of a new initiative with a $647 million budget. It’s intent? “To stabilize and protect Pacific salmon for the ecosystems, people, and communities that depend on their sustainability.” With recent data showing the 2020 global catch of Pacific salmon was the lowest since 1982, Canada declared it was “hitting the emergency brake” and closing 60% of commercial salmon fisheries for 2021.

Recognizing that this is only a first step to recovering depleted salmon populations, a series of measures will permanently reduce the size of the fishing fleet, including an offer to commercial fishers to retire their license at fair market value.

This comes in tandem with the first implementation of a new pilot program to close Gulf Island fisheries on confirmed presence of endangered orcas. On July 1, members of K pod briefly returned to the Salish Sea, triggering closures from July 4 until October 31. This, in addition to other measures in Canadian Pacific waters, aimed at protecting key orca foraging areas.

In stark contrast, the only concession in recent years from NOAA Fisheries is their newly proposed Amendment 21. This will limit fishing, to offer more foraging opportunities for endangered orcas, but only in years of very low Chinook. This offers nothing to these orcas in the interim, despite strong scientific evidence to support the need to act now.

It’s important that Amendment 21 is approved, as it’s the first time endangered orcas will be a factor when setting fishery catch levels. But just when will the U.S. finally acknowledge—as Canada has—that Pacific salmon fishing is unsustainable when so many populations are on the brink?

One significant problem, says DFO is that, “many salmon species migrate back to their natal rivers at the same time. In some areas larger commercial fisheries cannot selectively fish for abundant stocks without potentially catching at-risk species.” This is known as mixed-stock fishing. Put simply, salmon co-mingle in the Pacific and when you put out bait, you may catch an endangered species.

This has been a known risk for decades, and is a key claim in a recent lawsuit brought against NOAA Fisheries, for failure to prevent overfishing of Chinook in south-east Alaska’s mixed-stock fisheries. Of great concern is that 97% of Chinook caught in this fishery are not from Alaskan rivers—they’re from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon— and just feeding in Alaskan waters. Caught before they can return south to spawn, further pushes Chinook populations—and the Southern Residents—towards an increased risk of extinction.

A group of Southern Resident killer whale surfacing.

Southern Resident killer whales in the Canadian Gulf Islands.

To quote the Canadian Government press release, “These decade-long declines [of Pacific Salmon] are due to a complex combination of climate change, habitat degradation, and harvesting impacts, and bold action is needed now to stabilize and rebuild the stocks before it’s too late.”

The best time for this action was decades ago. The second best time? Now!

So, let’s salute Canada’s initiative, and insist the U.S. government steps up, and joins its neighbors in taking bold, difficult, yet decisive actions to reverse the fortunes of Chinook salmon, and thereby save the Southern Resident killer whales.

When put head-to-head, there’s just no competition here. If the U.S. government is out to win a gold medal this season, it has already failed at the first hurdle.