(CN) – The number of salmon that can be fished out of the ocean this year will be similar to last year’s allowance, according to draft rules adopted Monday by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which did not make any adjustments to the allowance based on the number of salmon that endangered Southern Resident killer whales need to eat.
Final numbers were not available Monday night, but between commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries, approximately 395,000 Chinook salmon and 267,000 coho salmon will be allowed to be caught this year along the West Coast. Those figures reflect a reduction of nearly 4% of salmon estimated to be in the ocean this spring and an additional reduction of about 9% of forecasted summer ocean salmon populations.
The draft rules will now go to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce for final approval before the spring fishing season opens in early May.
The salmon fishing allowance is the result of a complicated process, and the council factored ecological, economic and legal considerations into their draft rules, but it did not include any specification that would minimize the impact of fishing the major food source for a unique population of orcas that live in the inland coastal waters near Seattle.
Instead, the council voted to create a workgroup with a mandate to ensure that the salmon harvest measures do not jeopardize the existence of Southern Resident killer whales. The council will incorporate the workgroup’s recommendations at next year’s meeting to plan ocean fishing for the 2020 season.
Scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service believe the proposed salmon fishing allowance will reduce available food for the whales by between 7 to 10%.
However, the agency said in an advisory letter that ocean fishing does not pose a risk to the recovery of the whales, because it does not consider that reduction in available food to be “substantial.”
Council Chairman Phil Anderson suggested to the workgroup at the council meeting on Saturday that it should consider recommending an increase in salmon hatcheries.
An increase in Chinook salmon hatchery production is already underway in Oregon and Washington with the aim of providing more food for orcas, and production will continue to increase thanks to a bill passed by the Washington Legislature last week, which authorized more funding for Chinook hatcheries.
Council Vice Chair Marc Gorelnik said other factors besides ocean fishing are to blame for the orcas’ decline.
“The problem we are facing here isn’t really a fishery problem,” Gorelnik said at the council meeting Saturday. “Although that is the only knob we have to turn. I don’t want NMFS to lose sight that it can get a lot more fish from dealing with inland river conditions than it can by taking them away from fishermen.”
Julie Simmonds, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued National Marine Fisheries Service April 3 over its refusal to regulate ocean fisheries this year on behalf of endangered orcas, told Courthouse News the council’s plan is “an underwhelming response given the plight of the orcas.”
Ben Enticknap, senior scientist at Oceana, also lamented the agency’s lack of consideration for the orcas during its determination of salmon fishing allowances this year.
“Southern Resident killer whales are not recovering,” Enticknap said in a phone interview. “They are slipping toward extinction. They need salmon now.”