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West Coast salmon fishing and southern residents

by NOAA Fisheries 12 Apr 14:54 UTC
Southern Resident killer whale © Candice Emmons / NOAA Fisheries

Southern Resident killer whales have long pursued the biggest and most nourishing Chinook salmon from coastal Pacific waters. Chinook salmon fishing is also a mainstay of the West Coast economy, generating nearly $72 million in income last year.

Is there room for both?

The answer is yes, with safeguards. NOAA Fisheries prioritizes the needs of Southern Residents in setting salmon fishing seasons, as the Endangered Species Act requires. We also recognize the importance of salmon fisheries to port communities up and down the West Coast, as outlined by laws including the Magnuson Stevens Act.

We are working with states, tribes, and the Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council). We are examining in detail how West Coast fisheries affect prey for the Southern Residents. So far, the analysis has indicated that Council fisheries have been taking a small proportion of the available Chinook salmon each year.

Fishing takes small fraction

The analysis comes in the form of a risk assessment [PDF] evaluating the impacts of fishing on Southern Resident killer whales. It found that Southern Resident numbers have declined over the last two decades. This has occurred even as Chinook salmon abundance has varied and fishing harvest has decreased coastwide.

While salmon fisheries have usually been managed river-by-river, the risk assessment looked at them differently. It examined salmon abundance by geographic areas that at any given time include migrating fish from many stocks. This provides the most complete picture to date of the prey available to the whales in the areas where they forage.

For example, in 2016, the last year with data available, ocean salmon fisheries off the West Coast caught an estimated six percent of the 2.8 million adult Chinook salmon in offshore waters. Off the Washington Coast, the science indicates prey abundance is consistently more important to the Southern Residents when migrating in the Council management area. There, fishing removed just 2.5 percent of the 1.4 million available Chinook salmon.

This level of impact from coastal fishing off Washington on the Chinook salmon population overall is small compared to the natural year-to-year variations in salmon abundance. The continuing loss of vital nearshore habitat where young salmon feed and grow before they head to the ocean also limits fish numbers and recovery.

Limits in Canada and Alaska

We must also look beyond our own coast. Fishermen in Canada often catch more Puget Sound salmon than local fishermen do. Alaskan salmon fisheries catch very few fish from Puget Sound. However, they often catch many fish from the Columbia River before they turn south to areas where they would be available to the whales.

New provisions of the Pacific Salmon Treaty were renegotiated in 2019 between the United States and Canada. They have cut back catches of Chinook salmon throughout their migration from the Northwest to Alaska, which are expected to increase prey available to the whales. The new agreement also invests millions of dollars in additional Chinook hatchery production and habitat restoration to support salmon and Southern Resident recovery.

Just as importantly, fishing remains sustainable, which is the bottom line in setting salmon seasons for Council fisheries. You can feel confident that local salmon you find in stores and restaurants are sustainably caught. Better yet, you have a say in setting the seasons. Next, we explain how.

Participating in setting salmon seasons—learn how to take part

We explained how fisheries managers account for the Chinook salmon prey needs of Southern Resident killer whales. Now we will explain how to take part in the public process of setting federal salmon fishing seasons in waters off the U.S. West Coast.

NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region works with the Pacific Fishery Management Council (Council) to set salmon fishing seasons. We also set harvest levels at sustainable levels consistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Annual catch limits are set to achieve science-based conservation objectives that constrain fishing when abundance is low and to support recovery of the runs protected by the Endangered Species Act that co-mingle in the ocean with the abundant runs.

The Council begins the public process of setting salmon fishing seasons along the West Coast in March. Harvest levels depend on fish returns, which vary widely from year to year. The first step is to consider the scientific forecast for salmon returns to rivers along the West Coast.

Annually the Council's abundance analysis [PDF] estimates returns for each river, down to the specific stretch of river or tributary. The outlook for 2020 varies widely, with returns likely to be stronger in California but weak in the Pacific Northwest.

NOAA Fisheries guidance

Each year NOAA Fisheries' West Coast Region sends the Council a guidance letter (see 2020 guidance letter [PDF]). It summarizes key parameters for designing the upcoming salmon season consistent with the Endangered Species Act and Magnuson-Stevens Act and other recommendations and concerns about individual salmon stocks.

We have included guidance about taking into account the Chinook salmon prey needs of Southern Resident killer whales as well. And this year, for example, forecasts predict very low returns of Klamath River fall-run Chinook salmon. Therefore, we urged a cautious approach in setting fishing rules for the stock. That is likely to limit fishing between Point Falcon on the northern Oregon Coast and Point Sur, California, to reduce impacts on the Klamath fish even if other stocks might be more plentiful.

Regarding the prey needs for the endangered Southern Residents, Regional Administrator Barry Thom noted in the letter:

"We are particularly concerned about years with critically low Chinook salmon abundance throughout the whales' geographic range because of the potential effects to the whales' energetics, health, reproduction, and survival."

He advised that if Chinook salmon numbers fall below the average of the seven lowest abundance years, then the Council should adopt additional precautionary measures. These could include reduced quotas or limits on salmon fishing time and areas. The guidance letter is specific to managing the 2020 fisheries. However, the workgroup and Council are continuing their efforts to incorporate the whales into a long-term fishery management strategy.

Salmon returns this year are not expected to fall to those levels.

Three fishing alternatives

The Council uses the forecasts with input from federal, state, and tribal representatives; industry; and the public to develop potential management scenarios for the salmon season. These alternatives vary—some with more fishing and others with less, and with variations in time and areas where fishing would be allowed. Each must allow enough salmon to return to their home rivers to spawn the next generation.

The Council then held public meetings between their March and April meetings to solicit input. Next, the Council will discuss the alternatives Based on the scientific information and public comment, the Council will select one of the alternatives at their April meeting that runs April 4-10, 2020. They will recommend the alternative to NOAA Fisheries for approval and implementation into regulation. The new fishing year will start in early May.

To offer input now, you can join the Council's April meeting, which will be held via webinar given health and safety concerns about Covid-19.

Learn more:

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