There are fewer Southern Resident killer whales in this population today than when they were listed as endangered in 2005. They need more salmon left in the ocean.That requires less fishing.

Southern Resident killer whales are heading towards extinction without enough of their primary prey, Chinook salmon. As non-human harvesters of these fish, they’re not allocated a share of the catch, and so rely on the salmon left to spawn to produce future stocks. It’s clear –  as shown in a number of studies – this is inadequate. However, making any changes to salmon fisheries management is not an easy task.

Some salmon fisheries fish in state waters and so are managed by their State Department for Fish and Wildlife. Other fisheries operate outside state waters and are managed by bodies such as the Pacific Fishery Management Council, or the Pacific Salmon Commission which oversees issues such as salmon caught across country/state boundaries.

Lastly, there is a government agency responsible for fisheries (NOAA Fisheries) that may also set management rules for salmon that override the management rules of other fishery bodies, especially where there are federal protections under the Endangered Species Act. Getting more salmon for starving killer whales requires weaving through a series of giant bureaucratic hurdles.

Reliance on outdated scientific evidence

In 2009, NOAA Fisheries concluded that Pacific Coast salmon fishing didn’t impact the recovery of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales, and so offshore coastal fishing could continue unimpeded. At this time the population of killer whales stood at 85.

Fast forward 10 years and the population declined to 73, lower than when listed as endangered. Yet NOAA did not revisit their decision, even though more recent scientific studies had clarified the important connections between these orcas and Chinook, and provided other new information about the orcas’ range, foraging behaviors, and needs.

Intent to Sue

On December 18, 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Fish Conservancy issued a 60-day notice of intent to sue the U.S. Government, due to NOAA Fisheries’ failure under the Endangered Species Act to update their assessment of the impacts of ocean salmon fishing on endangered orcas, stating that, “NOAA has not considered the best available science in recent management decisions for ocean salmon fisheries.”

In response, NOAA Fisheries set up a review and convened a panel of government and fishery experts to consider and make recommendations for change.

Initial Report

August 2020, for Public Comment

The experts and advisers worked for over a year to review ocean salmon fishing, and their potential impacts on the status of the endangered whales. In August 2020, they released their draft report for public comment ahead of a meeting of the fishery managers for ocean fisheries – the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Wild Orca reviewed and submitted comments for this September 2020 meeting, as it was clear that  recommendations in the report, as drafted, would provide little, to no benefit to starving orcas, especially as one option was status quo, i.e. do nothing.

Despite reviewing the best available science, the report claimed to find no causal link between the decline of these endangered orcas, and successive years of low Chinook abundance, contrary to the many scientific findings published since 2009.

Despite public and written testimony asking for options to provide more food for the orcas, the draft report was accepted with a few additional clarifications, for the final report due for the November 2020 final decision meeting.

Center For Whale Research

Final Decision

November 18, 2020

The final report was released in early December, with the opportunity for Public Comment. We strongly believe these orcas deserve a fair share of the salmon harvest. However, we decided the best outcome we could achieve in this setting would be for a compromise, in asking – when low Chinook is forecast – for no fishing in the Southern Resident killer whale’s feeding hotspots off the coast of Oregon and Washington.

Unfortunately, the final decision didn’t go as far as we’d advocated for, nor as far as the orcas need. However, the “do nothing” option wasn’t selected – which seemed a distinct possibility – and instead, they opted for measures that might provide additional Chinook salmon for hungry orcas in years when Chinook is forecast to be less than 1 million fish.

In these low forecast Chinook years, there’ll be some delayed fishing season starts in a few locations from Washington to California, and some will close for an extended winter period — though truth be told, we see very little benefit in many of these. Unfortunately, there were no specific protections for offshore killer whale feeding hotspots, but we intend to pursue this in other ways.

Though we didn’t get all that we advocated for, it was still more than many anticipated, and that is definitely a small step forward in this complex world of fisheries management. It’s possible that a united voice of killer whale advocates — with written and oral comments — made the difference.

Thank you.

we have a fishing problem.

Southern Resident killer whalesare starving to death

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