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.

Background

Southern Resident killer whales are slowly heading towards extinction without enough Chinook, aka King salmon. However, fisheries are managed for human consumption, and so these whales’ needs are not considered when the annual catch is allocated to fisheries—commercial, recreational and tribes. Studies show this leaves insufficient Chinook to sustain this population. Making a change to fisheries management—to consider the needs of marine predators—is not a simple ask, even for an endangered species, and especially when their prey is also endangered.

Salmon Fisheries Management: It’s complicated.

Within state waters, fisheries and hatcheries are co-managed by state fishery managers and tribes. Ocean fishing (beyond the 3-mile state boundary) is managed by the Pacific Fishery Management Council. The Pacific Salmon Commission regulates issues arising from salmon crossing the US/Canada border, ie. when one country catches another’s salmon; and finally, NOAA Fisheries is the government agency responsible for all fisheries in U.S. waters. Advocating for more salmon for starving killer whales requires navigating through this series of bureaucratic hurdles. Or filing a lawsuit…

Reliance on outdated scientific evidence

In 2009, a NOAA Fisheries review concluded that west coast salmon fisheries didn’t negatively impact the future survival of the Southern Residents; at that time, the population stood at 85. Within 10 years, it had fallen to 73; yet NOAA Fisheries did not revisit the impacts of Chinook fishing on these whales, even though a number of recent scientific studies amplified the significant connection between Southern Residents’ high dependence on Chinook, and the health impacts of insufficient prey.

Intent to Sue

On December 18, 2018, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Wild Fish Conservancy issued a 60-day notice of intent to sue, stating that, “NOAA Fisheries is failing to ensure that its ongoing authorization and management of the Pacific Coast salmon fisheries are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.” Adding, “they have not considered the best available science in recent management decisions for ocean salmon fisheries.”

Recommendations

Southern Resident Killer Whale Workgroup Draft Report

In response to the threat of a lawsuit, NOAA Fisheries initiated a salmon fishery review, and convened a workgroup of government and fishery experts to “develop a long-term approach to ensure these fisheries appropriately limit any adverse effects on Southern Resident killer whales.”

In August 2020, the workgroup released a draft report with recommendations for consideration by the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

One recommendation was to agree on a threshold—like a backstop—below which additional management measures would apply, whenever the pre-season forecast for Chinook fell below the agreed figure. These measures could limit fishing in a variety of ways, with a menu of choices for the Council’s consideration.

We were disappointed to find the recommendations showed little, to no immediate benefit to starving whales, especially as the first option was the status quo, i.e., do nothing. Other options would not kick in until the expectation was for a salmon season matching some of the worst on record over the past few decades.

The workgroup report claimed no definitive causal link between the decline of the Southern Residents, and successive years of low Chinook abundance, contrary to the many scientific findings published since 2009.

It should be noted that NOAA Fisheries own killer whale scientist was not a member of the workgroup, and recent government-funded studies were not provided as part of the review of the most up-to-date evidence.

Center For Whale Research

Final Decision

November 18, 2020

In November, the final report was submitted for Council decision. While we strongly believe that these whales deserve their fair share of the Chinook salmon fishery, we decided the most pragmatic action was to support the best of the four alternatives on offer, and sent written, and gave oral testimony to this effect.

The Council’s Final Decision selected an alternate—with a slightly lower threshold known as Alternative C—together with a series of management measures.

What does the final decision mean?

In future years, whenever the pre-season forecast predicts less than 966,000 Chinook, new regulations will apply to limit Chinook fishing, and leave more Chinook for foraging killer whales:

  • Reduce quotas for non-tribal fisheries in northern Oregon and Washington;
  • Closures of two areas until June 15;
  • Delay start of the commercial fishing season in some areas from Oregon to California; and
  • Extend winter fishing season closures in California.

Does this decision benefit the whales?

The final decision is a positive move in the right direction for sure, and a small victory for these whales and the conservation community, directly due to the threat of legal action by our colleagues.

While the final decision wasn’t as robust as we’d advocated for, this is a far better outcome than the status quo—which had seemed the most likely outcome at times.

In this complex world of fisheries management this is a somewhat unexpected result. It’s likely that the united voice of killer whale scientists and advocates—including your written and oral comments—made the difference. Thank you!

Amendment 21

Updating the Fishery Management Plan

In June 2021, the Pacific Fishery Management Council submitted to the feds a proposed change to the Pacific Coast Salmon Fishery Management Plan.

Amendment 21—if approved—would formalize the recommendations agreed on by the Pacific Fishery Management Council in November 2020.

That is, when Chinook salmon abundance is forecast below 966,000 fish, it will trigger a number of changes to Chinook fishery management to limit human catch, to make more salmon available to foraging killer whales.

Precedent Setting

That’s the view of the Wild Fish Conservancy, one of the co-litigants in the lawsuit that preempted this action:

"This is a small step forward when considering the scope of the crisis facing the Southern Resident killer whales. At the same time, this action represents the beginning of a fundamental shift in how federal agencies should be managing commercial salmon fisheries. Amendment 21 says it is no longer acceptable to fundamentally ignore the prey needs of federally-protected killer whales when managing commercial salmon fisheries."

Take Action for

Fair Fisheries

Limit Salmon Fishing to Save Endangered Killer Whales

Tell the Federal Government to amend the Pacific Salmon Management Plan and renew our hopes for a future for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Act Now

Limit Salmon Fishing to Save Endangered Killer Whales

Tell the Federal Government to amend the Pacific Salmon Management Plan and renew our hopes for a future for the Southern Resident killer whales.

Act Now

Action Guide

We need your help.

we have a fishing problem.

Southern Resident killer whalesare starving to death

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