Summary

In 2021, in a historical precedent, NOAA (the nation’s fishery managers) conceded that the Southern Resident killer whales’ prey needs must be considered when setting catch limits for Chinook salmon and agreed on new rules. In a backslide this November—without consultation or public discussion—NOAA changed the rules, decreasing the possibility of reduced fishing in future years to protect salmon for orcas.

Why it Matters

Studies show that the Southern Resident killer whales are not getting enough food, resulting in too many premature deaths and too few births. Today, 17 years after being listed as endangered, this population is at an all-time low. NOAA’s backslide risks the health and the future of this endangered community.

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Background

Background

In 2019, NOAA undertook an 18-month review to assess the impact of west coast Chinook fisheries on the health of the Southern Resident killer whales. Fishery managers agreed that whenever Chinook numbers are predicted to fall below a set threshold—966,000 fish—management actions would trigger to limit the next season’s fishing. Such actions could leave more prey for the whales. In November, they announced they would reduce this threshold by one-third, down to 623,000.

Healthy killer whales need abundant prey

The Southern Resident killer whales rely on Chinook salmon almost year-round yet must compete with fisheries for survival. Insufficient prey drives a 69% pregnancy failure rate, with nutritional stress contributing to numerous health concerns. Until NOAA gives these whales increased feeding opportunities, their health issues will continue, exacerbated by living in noisy, polluted waters. These combined factors contribute to their population stagnation.