Two conservation groups say the National Marine Fisheries Service is violating federal law by failing to assess the direct, indirect and cumulative impacts of Pacific coast salmon fishing on endangered southern resident killer whales.

After initially seeking and getting a new biological opinion (BiOp) on fishing impacts on the whales after filing Center for Biological Diversity et al. v. National Marine Fisheries Service et al. in April 2019, the groups are now asking the case judge to vacate the one-year BiOp along with an environmental assessment and finding of no significant impact. They also want an order for the agency to reinitiate consultation over the Pacific Coast Fishery Management Plan for fishing and complete a supplemental EIS, including mitigation measures to reduce risk of insufficient prey for the orcas.

The Center for Biological Diversity and Wild Fish Conservancy made their request in an amended complaint filed June 5 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle. They claim that up to 300,000 Chinook are harvested by commercial fishing authorized in the fishery plan, which is approved by NMFS. The loss of those Chinook—the orca's primary food—can interfere in the orcas' feeding behavior, causing them to forage for longer periods, travel to new locations or abandon their efforts, the lawsuit says.

Plaintiffs claim that in approving this year's fishing seasons, NMFS continued to rely on analysis from the 2009 BiOp for southern resident killer whales, and failed to properly examine numerous impacts of salmon fishing on the orcas.

In addition to asking the judge to order a new BiOp, supplemental EIS and mitigation, the groups are asking the judge for declarations the agency is violating the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Administrative Procedure Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

In a different lawsuit, Wild Fish Conservancy is calling into question commercial fishing off Alaska's southeast coast. The group is seeking an injunction—also through the U.S. District Court in Seattle—to halt Chinook salmon fishing there in July, arguing the Alaska fishing season prevents significant numbers of fish from returning to Pacific coastal waters, where orcas could hunt for them. A U.S. District judge has not yet ruled on the request.

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.