A lawsuit filed April 3 by two environmental groups says federal agencies are relying on old information to authorize coastal fishing rules, and want the National Marine Fisheries Service to take a new look at the impacts of the Pacific Salmon Plan on endangered southern resident killer whales.
The suit--filed against NMFS in U.S. District Court in Seattle by the Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Fish Conservancy--notes that primary threats to the southern resident orcas' survival are a lack of adequate prey, vessel noise and disturbance, and contaminants. Coastal fishing is having a significant impact on both prey availability and vessel disturbance, the lawsuit claims.
"These coastal salmon fisheries are depleting the salmon stocks at a level that is biologically significant to the orcas," the lawsuit says. In 2018, the Pacific Fishery Management Council reported that over 250,000 Chinook were caught in commercial and recreational fisheries, and another 65,000 were reported from bycatch, it says.
According to the lawsuit, southern resident orcas spend about 244 days a year in coastal waters, and 122 days in inland waters, each consuming roughly 25 salmon a day. That equates to 684,375 salmon needed every year for the entire population of 75 orcas, it says.
The lawsuit says that one study estimates that ocean fisheries reduce Chinook abundance by between 18 and 25 percent, and another study projected that a 15 percent increase in coastal Chinook with a reduction in noise disturbance would allow killer whales to reach growth targets needed to recover.
The groups want the National Marine Fisheries Service to reinitiate and complete a consultation on the impact of authorizing the Pacific Salmon Plan on the endangered orcas, and implement additional mitigation measures to reduce the risk of insufficient prey.
NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said the agency has no comment on the lawsuit, but noted that a March 6 guidance letter from NMFS to the Pacific Fishery Management Council notifies them that NMFS will reinitiate Endangered Species Act consultations on the impacts of coastal fishing this year.
The letter noting that a substantial amount of new information is available since 2009 consultations found that Council fisheries did not jeopardize survival and recovery of the orcas.
The agency is also "working closely with partners to reduce vessel disturbance and interference with foraging, so that the Chinook salmon are more accessible to the whales," the letter says.