Conservationists Say Salmon Fishing Plan Imperils Whales

SEATTLE, Wash. (CN) – The government allowed salmon fishing in Alaska at rates its own reports said will push endangered Southern Resident killer whales closer to extinction, environmental groups claim in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

Salmon born in the rivers and streams of Oregon, Washington state and British Columbia migrate to the Pacific Ocean and through the Gulf of Alaska, home to a major troll fishing fleet. In southeast Alaska, 97% of the Chinook salmon fishermen harvest were born elsewhere. The fish they take never make it back to their home waters, where they could have been dinner for the 72 remaining Southern Resident killer whales – a genetically distinct group of orca that are starving due to a lack of their main prey.

An adult female Southern Resident killer whale known as J16 swims with her calf (J50) in September 2015. (NOAA Fisheries/Vancouver Aquarium via AP, File)

“It is reckless and irresponsible for NOAA to approve this harvest, these salmon don’t belong to Alaska, they belong to Southern Resident killer whales, indigenous peoples, and fishing communities down the coast,” Kurt Beardslee, Wild Fish Conservancy’s executive director, said Wednesday in a press release.

The whales live in three extended, matrilineal families called pods. Their numbers never fully rebounded since aquariums that later became SeaWorld captured a third of them in the late 1960s. After that, they climbed to a high of 98 in 1995 before plunging again. In 2018, a mother whale from J pod refused to let the body of her dead calf sink to the sea floor, instead carrying it on her nose for 17 days. Three more died last year, and a fourth disappeared this spring.

Their decline is due to three main factors: water pollution that harms their reproductive systems, ship noise that impairs their ability to communicate and find food using echolocation, and dramatically reduced numbers of their main food, Chinook salmon.

Scientists say that last problem, a lack of prey, is the main factor causing the whales’ decline. Meanwhile, nine species of Pacific Northwest Chinook are listed as either threatened or endangered.

Southern Residents normally spend the summer in the salty inland waters near Seattle. They’re so ubiquitous in the Salish Sea that a whale-watching industry was built on their daily appearances in the area. But last year, they were barely been seen in the core waters of their designated critical habitat. Instead, the collapse of mainstay populations of Chinook salmon has sent them chasing fish along the Pacific Coast from Canada to California.

Last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service studied whether commercial fishing of salmon in the ocean should be curtailed to make sure there was enough left for Southern Residents to survive. It concluded in a 2019 biological opinion that Chinook numbers would have to increase by 15% to help the whales recover. Yet the rates of harvest by commercial fishing allowed in southeast Alaska under the 2019 Pacific Salmon Treaty will instead reduce Chinook available to the whales swimming along the Pacific coast by as much as 12.9%, according to the biological opinion.

Some runs of Chinook affected have been identified by scientists as “priority stocks” critical to the whales’ survival.

Despite its own research showing the harm Alaskan salmon fishing causes to the whales, the service concluded that fishing isn’t likely to jeopardize their continued existence. Instead of ordering the reduction of Chinook fishing in Alaska, it proposed a massive increase in hatchery production in Washington’s Puget Sound and in the Columbia River.

That won’t work, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday by Wild Fish Conservancy that called for the plan “ill-defined, undeveloped and unfunded.” Such a plan would have to be approved under the Endangered Species Act and other regulations and may therefore never be implemented, all while fishing continues unabated, the lawsuit states.

Michael Milstein, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Beardslee said his group blames the government for approving unsustainable harvest plans, not Alaskan fishermen who are following those rules.

“The entire world is watching as Southern Resident killer whales literally starve to death,” Beardslee said in a press release. “NOAA has made it clear they are unwilling to stray from the same failed strategies that created this problem.”

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