Lifeline Falls Short for Endangered Orcas

Friday Harbor, Wash. (Nov 18, 2020)

Pacific Fishery Management Council recognizes that northern Oregon, Washington offshore waters are important to Southern Resident killer whales, but fails to protect their known offshore feeding hotspots from ocean fisheries in years of low Chinook.

This week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council concluded a nearly two-year process to examine the impacts of Council-managed fisheries on the decline of Southern Resident killer whales, and to seek management solutions. Council members concluded, by-and-large, that they’re having little to no effect on the health of these whales, and that current management measures mostly suffice.

The Council voted for a motion that could ensure continued fishing, even during times of low Chinook abundance, and to activate additional management measures only when the annual pre-season forecast for northern Oregon and Washington is less than 966,000 Chinook.

“This decision is disappointing, but not surprising,” said Dr. Deborah Giles, Wild Orca Science & Research Director. “These ocean fisheries are operating in known Southern Resident offshore feeding hotspots, identified as critical habitat in a 2019 proposed government ruling. Yet despite this, no meaningful restrictions are in place, and NOAA Fisheries is yet to officially designate even one of the six proposed critical habitat areas along the west coast from California to Washington.”

The Council chose nine of 16 proposed management measures to take effect with their selected threshold, including a potential reduction to non-treaty fishing quotas (north of Cape Falcon, Oregon) with some shortened fishing seasons along the coast, although some of these changes amount to little more than tinkering around the edges of current practices.

Wild Orca advocated for a higher threshold than the adopted, and for closing offshore critical habitat. In 2020, the so-called resident whales were absent from the Salish Sea for nearly four months when historically they would be present almost daily—the lowest recorded number of visits since studies began in 1976. These known offshore feeding areas are increasingly becoming critical to the whales’ health and survival.

“It’s true it might have been worse,” concluded Dr. Giles, “the Council could have selected the status quo option, so this is a small step in the right direction. But it’s disappointing that NOAA Fisheries approved this when it was at their request this process was instigated- to support the recovery of these whales through responsive fisheries management. Unfortunately, history shows that by the time measures kick-in at this low level of Chinook, the whales will already be at risk of starvation.”

Earlier this month, the government gave permission to the U.S. Navy to test and train in the Southern Resident’s range, exposing them to harassment and potential harm over the next seven years, and so this latest decision makes November 2020 a twofold blow.

“Decisions such as these,” said Giles, “can truly make the difference between a chance of survival, or adding another nail in their coffin. I’m not sure how many fishing seasons are left before we run out of chances to take decisive action. These recently-born calves deserve a chance at survival, and an opportunity to pass their unique culture and language on to future generations.”

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