Feds Sued to Save Some West Coast Salmon for Killer Whales

Southern Resident killer whale eating a Chinook salmon. (Center for Whale Research)

(CN) – Environmental groups called on the federal government to redo plans to let fishermen catch 300,000 Chinook salmon off the West Coast this year because the fish are the main food of endangered Southern Resident killer whales, which are starving toward extinction.

The Center for Biological Diversity and the Wild Fish Conservancy sued National Marine Fisheries Service, asking a federal judge in Seattle to force the service to include the dietary needs of Southern Residents in the formula for setting the West Coast fishing quota for Chinook salmon – themselves listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Southern Resident killer whales swim the inland waters between Seattle and the Pacific Ocean. Seasonally, they also travel the West Coast to follow specific salmon runs as the fish make their way from the ocean back to the rivers where they were born. Distinct from populations of orcas that eat seals and other sea mammals, Only 75 Southern Resident killer whales remain, down from 98 in 1995, and a calf born in January is the first in four years to survive past birth.

Last year there was a public outcry over the whales’ dire situation. Images of a grieving mother whale pushing her dead calf on her forehead for over two weeks – herself showing telltale signs of starvation – helped urge a specially convened task force to recommend a dramatic increase in production of hatchery salmon, reduction of toxic chemicals that drain into rivers that feed the Puget Sound and reduction of ship noise that interfere with the whales’ ability to communicate and locate food.

Based on the task force’s recommendations, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee called on lawmakers to budget $1.1 billion for projects to help the whales avoid extinction. State lawmakers are currently debating budget proposals.

But the outcry didn’t reach the Pacific Salmon Plan, which governs ocean fishing on the West Coast from 2 to 200 nautical miles offshore. Most recently amended in 2016, the plan allows for the catch of 300,000 Chinook salmon each year but doesn’t specifically account for the appetites of Southern Residents. The plan, issued by the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Secretary of Commerce, still operates under a 10-year-old biological opinion issued when there were 85 living Southern Residents.

Barry Thom, regional administrator for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s West Coast fisheries and the person responsible for making sure the agency’s fishing plans comply with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, along with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.

NOAA spokesman Michael Milstein points to a letter Thom sent last month to the Pacific Fishery Council, announcing NOAA’s intent to revisit the plan in light of new science showing Southern Residents’ dependence on specific runs of Chinook. But the letter says such a reassessment will require a long-term approach, and thus will not apply to this year’s fisheries plan.

Meanwhile, third-generation salmon fisherman and task force member Butch Smith called the lawsuit “disingenuous.”

“Fishing is not the problem,” Smith said. “Saving these whales is going to take production of fish, cleaning up habitat for salmon and cleaning up habitat for whales.”

But Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the plaintiff Wild Fish Conservancy, said the lawsuit is a necessary addition to efforts by the governor and the task force.

And Beardslee says the long-term plans contemplated by NOAA will only be meaningful if the whales survive the short term.

“Killer whales are starving,” Beardslee said. “They need to eat today. And we know that harvest today is taking food away from them. They need their own allocation, just like other fisherman.”

The environmentalists seek a court finding that the plan violates the Endangered Species Act and an order giving the government 90 days to complete consultation for a new plan that also reduces the risk of insufficient prey for the whales.

They are represented by Sarah Uhlemann and other attorneys with the Center for Biological Diversity.

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