NOAA Sharpening Its Eye On West Coast Chinook Fisheries

Federal overseers could press for new Chinook fishing restrictions for select stocks at sea in the coming years to provide more salmon for orcas.

In a guidance letter earlier this week to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages fisheries off the West Coast, NOAA made known that it wants to reengage with the panel on season setting.


The agency last did that in 2009 and found that the council’s commercial and recreational fisheries in Washington’s, Oregon’s and California’s ocean waters, didn’t jeopardize southern resident killer whales at the time, but the salmon-eating J, K and L Pods have declined since then and last year an analysis identified important king stocks for the hungry marine mammals.

“Several of the high priority Chinook salmon stocks currently identified in the framework contribute substantially to Council fisheries, including lower Columbia River, Sacramento River, and Klamath River fall-run Chinook salmon stocks [bolding in the original]. Identifying high priority Chinook salmon stocks for SRKW is an important step to assess impacts and prioritize management and recovery actions that will benefit the whales,” the March 6 letter from NOAA Regional Administrator Barry Thom to PFMC Chair Phil Anderson states.

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Lower Columbia stocks are key to Washington Coast salmon fisheries, while the other two runs are important off Oregon and California.

Puget Sound fall Chinook were found to be even more important to orcas, according to NOAA’s and WDFW’s joint review last year, but are not mentioned in the letter. Still, the state agency is developing seasons with an eye towards the species’ “dietary needs.”

The letter does say that the feds are developing a “risk assessment” for analyzing salmon fisheries past, present and future in terms of overlap with SRKWs, and how they impact orca prey availability.

“If adjustments are needed, this framework could guide fisheries actions to limit impacts to prey availability in specific areas and times that are believed to create the greatest benefit to 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 states.

While it says that the new tool won’t likely be available to apply to 2019 fisheries, NOAA still wants to get with PFMC about this year’s proposed seasons and their impacts on the aforementioned stocks.

Lurking in the background is the threat of a lawsuit against NOAA to look into fishery effects on orcas.

According to The Seattle Times, which broke the story yesterday afternoon, fishing interests involved in the process say fisheries aren’t to blame for the downfall of the “blackfish,” but seasons are an easy “knob” to try and turn, and that habitat issues in the spawning and rearing waters are the real problem for low Chinook numbers.

The letter goes on to say that efforts are also being made to reduce disturbance from boats in orca foraging areas.

A bill passed out of Washington’s House yesterday on a 78-20 vote expands the don’t-go distance around orcas from 200 to 300 yards, prohibits approaching closer than 400 yards from behind, and requires vessels to slow to 7 knots within a half-mile bubble around them. It now goes over the Senate.

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