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NOAA Opens Consultation On Offshore Fisheries To Take A Look At Impacts On Orcas
Posted on Tuesday, March 26, 2019 (PST)

NOAA Fisheries says it will take another look at offshore fisheries’ impact on the ability of Southern Resident killer whales to find and eat the prey they favor -- chinook salmon.


In a March 6 supplemental guidance letter to Phil Anderson, chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council, Barry Thom said that NOAA is reopening consultation with PFMC on fisheries’ impacts on the killer whales, also known as Orca whales, which are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Thom is West Coast regional administrator for NOAA.


In the last 10 years, the population of the whales has declined from 87 to an historical low of 74, and projections show a further decline in the future, Thom’s guidance letter says.


NOAA, along with the state of Washington, is taking a number of actions to conserve and recover the killer whales by addressing the three main threats to their existence: a declining number of chinook salmon, vessel traffic and noise, and chemical contaminants.


Chinook salmon are important to the Southern Resident’s survival and recovery, Thom said, and any activities that affect the abundance of those salmon available to the whales have the potential to impact the survival and population growth of the whales.


“Fisheries can reduce the prey available to the whales and in some cases can interfere directly with their feeding,” the letter said. “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 NOAA supplemental guidance letter is at


In 2009, NOAA consulted with the PFMC, concluding at that time that Council fisheries did not jeopardize the survival and recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales, but since that time, a substantial amount of new information about the whales and their prey has come to light. For that reason, Thom said that NOAA will re-initiate ESA consultation on Council fisheries this year, saying the federal agency would like to work with the Council to reassess the effects of Council fisheries on the whales “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 SRKW.”


He continued, saying that developing such a long-term approach would take time and so it wouldn’t be available in 2019 as the Council sets its fisheries, which it plans to do at its April meeting in California. NOAA is also looking at actions that can be taken in Puget Sound and in Alaska waters.


On December 18, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Wild Fish Conservancy sent a 60-day letter of intent to sue to NOAA saying that the federal agency is in violation of Sec. 7 of the ESA “by failing to reinitiate and complete consultation on the impacts of Pacific Coast salmon fisheries on critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales. Consequently, NMFS is failing to ensure that its ongoing authorization and management of the Pacific Coast salmon fisheries under the Pacific Coast Salmon Fishery Management Plan (‘Pacific Salmon Plan’) are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales.”


In addition, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Recovery Task Force crafted a list of ways to help the whales in Puget Sound recover. The task force released its report Nov. 16, listing 36 recommendations it believes will be needed to add 10 more orcas in the next 10 years to the depleted southern residents.


Inslee followed in December the Task Force recommendations by adding $1.1 billion to the state budget (2019 – 2021 biennium) that includes investments to save the Southern Resident whales in Puget Sound. Much of his budget is aimed at increasing the number of chinook salmon in the Columbia River basin and in Puget Sound, and includes funding a task force to look at breaching Snake River dams.


NOAA and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife identified three populations of chinook salmon that are important to southern resident killer whales. Those are stocks from the lower Columbia River, Sacramento River and fall chinook from the Klamath River. Identifying these high priority chinook stocks is an important step to assess impacts and prioritize management and recovery actions that will benefit the whales, the letter said


NOAA is also working on a risk assessment that analyzes the effects of salmon fisheries on the availability of chinook to the whales. That assessment will look at where and when the whales and chinook intersect.


Along with this risk assessment, the agency is also developing an adaptive management framework that could help inform fisheries management regarding conditions that pose a risk to the recovery of the whales.


“We believe adaptive frameworks like this, or other equally protective tools, provide confidence that fisheries can respond to the highest risk conditions and help improve conditions for SRKW in the future,” the letter says.


For this year, Thom asked the PFMC to consider recently available information about 2019 salmon abundance when it sets its fisheries next month.


“We would like the Council’s participation between now and the April meeting to help us understand the potential impact of proposed Council fisheries on the draft priority SRKW prey stocks,” the guidance letter said.


NOAA “looks forward to working with the Council to develop 2019 ocean salmon fisheries consistent with the conservation and management objectives of the Pacific Coast Salmon Fishery Management Plan, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act, and the ESA,” the letter concluded. “We are committed to working with the Council to address the issues outlined in this letter.”


The Pacific Fishery Management Council is one of eight regional fishery management councils established by the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. It is charged with helping to set up the ocean-salmon harvests off California, Oregon and Washington. Its next meeting is April 9 – 16 in Rohnert Park, Calif.


Also see:


-- CBB, February 22, 2019, “WDFW Seeking Public Participation in Setting Salmon Fishing Seasons For 2019, Orcas A Factor,”


-- CBB, February 1, 2019, “Study Looks At How Pink Salmon Biennial Abundance Years May Be Connected To Orca Births, Deaths,”


-- CBB, December 21, 2018, “Inslee Budget Includes Over $1 Billion For Orcas/Salmon; $750,000 For Task Force On Snake Dams,”


-- CBB, September 28, 2018, “Orca Task Force Recommendations Include Focus On Salmon Runs; Non-Native Game Fish To ‘Predatory,’”


-- CBB, Sept. 14, 2018, “NOAA Fisheries Studying Nighttime Behavior Of Endangered Killer Whales As Part Of Action Plan”


--CBB, May 11, 2018, “Puget Sound Boaters Asked To Observe ‘No-Go’ Zone To Protect Foraging Orcas,”


--CBB, March 16, 218, “Washington Governor Signs Executive Order To Protect Orcas, Chinook Salmon”


-- CBB, Jan. 15, 2016, “Study: Chinook Salmon Make Up 80 Percent Of Diet For ESA-Listed Killer Whales In Pacific Northwest”


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