Amid concerns about the future of endangered killer whales and in the face of a possible lawsuit by conservation groups claiming coastal salmon fisheries impact the orcas’ chances at survival, federal fishery managers plan to further analyze the true impact of the fisheries.

What they find could lead to new fishing restrictions on the ocean for runs of salmon that return to critical areas like the Columbia River.

orcas

A young resident killer whale chases a Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island.

The southern resident killer whale population, which frequents Washington state’s Puget Sound, relies heavily on a diet of Chinook salmon. Over the past decade, the population has declined from 87 orcas to a historical low of 74.

Future projections under current conditions paint a grim picture of steady decline and the killer whales are believed to be at high risk for extinction.

There are several bills in front of the Washington Legislature dealing with orca protection. Gov. Jay Inslee has said efforts to save the orcas are among his top priorities for the state’s two-year budget.

“Everyone across the landscape needs to step up and we need to make sure, from the fisheries management perspective, (that what we do) doesn’t impede their recovery moving forward,” said Barry Thom, regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

At a Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting Thursday, Thom announced the agency’s intention to reinitiate an Endangered Species Act consultation to reassess the effects of fisheries on the orcas. The council helps set ocean salmon harvests of Oregon, Washington state and California.

The agency is also looking at an overall management framework that would help fishery managers make decisions in years when, for example, environmental conditions — such as warmer-than-average waters — might impact the availability of salmon and pose a risk to orca recovery.

A National Marine Fisheries Service consultation in 2009 concluded that fisheries overseen by the council did not jeopardize the survival and recovery of the whale population.

The Wild Fish Conservancy and the Center for Biological Diversity have filed an intent to sue, arguing that coastal salmon fishing impacts the orcas’ survival, Thom said.

Chinook salmon runs throughout the year are an important part of the orcas’ diets. Certain fished runs, including those that return to the lower Columbia River, are especially critical.

But many West Coast fisheries have seen decreased salmon stocks over the years — a concern to some on the Pacific Fishery Management Council when it comes to assessing the fisheries in light of declining killer whale populations.

Some on the council want to make sure any investigation takes into account a wide amount of factors that could be impacting salmon populations and, as a result, impacting orcas.

“Often fisheries become the first knob to turn and the easiest knob to turn,” said Brett Kormos, a council designee for Chuck Bonham of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We know the fisheries themselves have not been robust and healthy,” Thom said. Nor is it clear if simply providing more food means the Puget Sound orcas would rebound given other pressures in the environment.

One of the biggest challenges for salmon abundance — as well as orca abundance — is habitat, Thom said.

Fishery managers and state and tribal partners are working on habitat protection and recovery and to negotiate harvest reductions on salmon runs.

“But we do need to make sure fish management is doing the right things in the right places to move us forward,” he said.

The consultation is a long-term plan, unlikely to provide information for the 2019 fisheries.

But the National Marine Fisheries Service asked the council to begin taking steps to develop a long-term approach. The agency will be evaluating information about projections for the abundance of Chinook salmon in 2019. Future planning will likely be discussed at a council meeting in April.

Katie Frankowicz is a reporter for The Daily Astorian. Contact her at 971-704-1723 or kfrankowicz@dailyastorian.com.

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