Changes to 2019 fisheries are not expected. But future restrictions could include season closures.

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VANCOUVER, Clark County — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is taking a fresh look at whether new fishing restrictions are needed to help prevent the extinction of endangered southern resident killer whales that frequent Puget Sound.

New evidence about the fish the whales depend on and the risk posed to orcas by depleted prey has caused the agency to write a letter of guidance to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, indicating the agency is examining whether new restrictions are needed — particularly on fisheries in the Lower Columbia and Sacramento River and on fall-run chinook salmon in the Klamath River.

After 20 years and $1 billion spent on Washington state salmon programs, fish still declining, new report says

NOAA in 2009 concluded fisheries did not jeopardize the survival and recovery of killer whales.

But since then, “a substantial amount of new information is available on SRKW (southern resident killer whale) and their prey,” and has the agency wanting to take another look at fishing, Barry Thom, regional administrator for NOAA’s West Coast region, wrote to Phil Anderson, chairman of the council, on Wednesday.

That process is intended to result in fishing that lessens the impact on prey targeted by the whales. Possibilities include restrictions in time and places when fishermen and whales most intersect, or season closures. And not only in the ocean: NOAA is also evaluating fishing in Puget Sound and southeast Alaska to reduce impacts on orcas. The agency already, through the Pacific Salmon Treaty, worked to cut back harvest rates on salmon in Canadian fisheries.

Fishing is just one aspect of what the agency has on the table, as it works to recover the southern residents. Pollution, vessel disturbance and noise, and other risk factors also are under study and consideration for action, in a multifaceted approach. 

Hostile Waters: Orcas in Peril


ABOUT THIS SERIES
The Seattle Times’ “Hostile Waters” series explores and exposes the plight of the southern resident killer whales, among our region's most-enduring symbols and most-endangered animals. We’ll examine the role humans have played in their decline, what can be done about it and why it matters.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is charged with helping to set up the ocean-salmon harvests off California, Oregon and Washington. NOAA wants the council to try to assess the fishing impacts on the stocks that orcas feed on as it comes up with the plan for the 2019 salmon season. The agency is also reviewing fisheries being set by the state agencies and tribes in Puget Sound as well as in Canada under the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

In remarks Thursday to the council, Thom said the review is intended to ensure that salmon harvests don’t impede the recovery of the orcas. He noted that possible impacts on orcas could be more significant in years when salmon stocks are low.

“We do need to make sure that fishery management is doing the right thing, at the right place and the right time to move forward,” Thom said.

Some council members expressed skepticism that fishing could have a major impact on the southern resident killer whales.

“The fisheries that have occurred … are not the cause of the ultimate decline in these stocks, in all likelihood,” Brett Kormos, a council designee with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Oftentimes the fisheries become the first knob to turn, and they often are the easiest knob to turn.”

Marc Gorelnik, a California sport fisherman who serves on the council, said that the biggest problem confronting the salmon that return to the Sacramento River are the poor conditions in freshwater — not fishermen.

The fishermen’s harvest “pales in comparison to what we are missing from the lack of production owing to inland conditions.”

Joe Oatman, a council member with the Nez Perce Tribe Fisheries Department, said the salmon are very important to the region’s tribes and asked that NOAA ensure that tribes are involved in the assessment of the harvest’s possible impacts on orcas.

The Center for Biological Diversity raised the issue of fishing and its effect on southern resident survival in a notice of intent to sue it sent to NOAA Dec. 18.

In the letter, attorney Julie Teel Simmonds said new research has documented links between low chinook abundance in the Columbia and Fraser rivers and lost orca pregnancies. Even with the decision to reassess fishing impacts, NOAA still is not moving fast enough to protect the whales, Simmonds said.

“We’re glad the Trump administration is looking at how the salmon fishery can be better managed to prevent these orcas from going extinct, as we requested in December,” Simmonds said in a prepared statement. “Southern resident killer whales are starving and they need more food to survive. But the federal guidance letter doesn’t address this urgent situation with the clear timelines and interim measures it requires. Federal officials and fishery managers can and should do better than this.”

Lack of prey is one of the biggest threats to the southern resident killer whales. Shortages particularly of chinook throughout the whales’ vast migratory range make all of their other problems, including vessel noise and pollution, worse.

Over the past decade, the southern resident population has declined from 87 whales to a historical low of 74, and future projections under status quo conditions suggest a continued decline over the next 50 years,  and the whales are at high risk for extinction.

“Chinook salmon, the whales’ primary prey, are important to SRKW survival and recovery. Any activities that affect the abundance of Chinook salmon available to SRKW have the potential to impact the survival and population growth of the whales,” Thom wrote in his letter to the council.

“Fisheries can reduce the prey available to the whales and in some cases can interfere directly with their feeding. Insufficient prey can impact their energetics (causing them to search more for fewer prey), health (decreasing their body condition), and reproduction (reducing fecundity and calf survival).”

The agency would “like to work with the Council to reassess the effects of Council fisheries on SRKW in light of this new information and as needed to develop a long-term approach that ensures these fisheries appropriately limit any adverse effects on southern resident killer whales,” Thom wrote.

Thom wrote that the agency anticipates developing a “long-term approach” and doesn’t expect changes for 2019 fisheries.

However, the agency wants work to get underway as soon as possible, Thom stated.

Killer whales are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. Under the act, actions that jeopardize the survival of protected species are illegal.