A court decision may help endangered orcas, but Alaskan fishermen are wary

A pod of killer whales making an attack in the wild waters of southeast Alaska. Photo by Ron Sanford via Getty Images.

The southern resident killer whale population, three pods of orcas that ply the coastal waters between Monterey, California, and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, has dwindled to only 73 members. Scientists believe this endangered species, which relies almost exclusively on Chinook — or king — salmon, which are also in steep decline, is basically starving its way to extinction.

This past September, however, the U.S. District Court in Seattle seemed to offer the marine mammals a lifeline when it issued a preliminary decision that might make more Chinook available to orcas. Responding to a lawsuit filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy, the court found that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency responsible for management of both fisheries and endangered marine species, had violated the Endangered Species Act when it determined that commercial harvest of Chinook off southeast Alaska would not jeopardize southern residents or endangered king salmon populations.

But while the court decision is expected to help orcas, it may be bad news for fishermen, as NMFS will likely need to rethink Chinook harvests.

Southern resident killer whales, whose numbers have dropped 25 percent since the 1990s, are the darlings of the Pacific Northwest, as well as of tourists, politicians, scientists, and conservationists. In 2018, when a female orca carried the dead body of her newborn calf for 17 days in apparent mourning activity, many people considered the behavior a symbol of the plight of these struggling mammals.

This population of orcas may be the most closely studied whales in the world. “These animals have life histories similar to us,” said John Durban, an ecologist with Oregon State University who monitors orcas using drones deployed from a 24-foot Zodiak. Scientists name and closely monitor individuals throughout their lives. Young stay with their mothers into adulthood, and pods hunt cooperatively, play, and communicate through calls and whistles. “It’s very easy to identify with them,” Durban said.

While other killer whale populations are thriving, these orcas have failed to rebound from their nadir in the 1970s, after dozens of them were captured for theme parks. According to a University of Washington study conducted between 2008 and 2014, up to 69 percent of pregnancies among these whales failed or calves died shortly after birth.

Chinook, the largest of the Pacific salmon species, are born in rivers and streams from California to Alaska and migrate hundreds of miles across the ocean as they mature before returning to their natal waters to spawn. But over the last century, dams, habitat destruction, and poor water quality have decimated king salmon runs. The Columbia River was once the most productive Chinook habitat in the world, and each year, salmon the size of large dogs would return to the river to reproduce. Today, only an estimated 2 percent of historic wild fish runs remain.

To make matters worse, individual fish are — for a combination of biological and anthropogenic reasons — shrinking in size. The enormous king salmon from decades past are pretty much gone. Southern residents require 300 to 400 pounds of Chinook per day, Deborah Giles, a killer whale researcher at the University of Washington, said. In the past, that might have meant eating four hefty Chinook. Now, these whales need to hunt down more than 20 fish per day.

In southeast Alaska, Chinook salmon are harvested commercially by a fleet of hook and line trollers, with allowable harvest levels tied to fish abundance through a treaty between the U.S. and Canada. Using tissue analysis, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has confirmed that the vast majority of Chinook caught in Alaskan waters — which lie outside the primary range of southern residents — originate in rivers that flow from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. While trollers have taken numerous cuts to their allowed catch over the years — last year, they harvested only 170,000 kings, well below the average of the previous decade — conservationists believe that even steeper reductions would leave more fish to migrate back down the coast and into the whales’ key foraging areas.

Lack of adequate nourishment makes these pods even more vulnerable to other threats, including industrial pollutants and disturbance from ships and recreational boats. The impacts of vessel traffic on starving whales are compounded when these orcas, which have little energy to spare, have to spend precious calories to avoid boats.

NMFS acknowledged, in 2019, that commercial trolling for salmon off the coast of Alaska would harm both endangered killer whales and king salmon populations. But the agency approved the fishery based on a plan to rehabilitate future king salmon runs by boosting hatchery production of these fish. Reared in incubators, hatchery salmon are released to the ocean as juveniles and spend the bulk of their lives at sea before returning to waters near the facility where they were born. In its September decision, the Seattle court found this plan too vague — lacking a timeline and adequate details on funding. The court noted, as well, that the plan would not protect southern residents from an existential threat.

While boosting hatchery production might at best be a “short-term patch” to provide a pulse of new food in the coming years, Durban said, in the long-term it might further threaten these whales. Research has shown that hatchery fish can interbreed with wild salmon and compete with them for prey. And because hatchery salmon often mature quicker and at smaller sizes than wild fish, they never turn into the big, old Chinook that southern residents need.

On top of that, there’s no evidence that links a boost in hatchery production to an increase in food for southern residents, said Kurt Beardslee, the director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “The remedy may be worse than the problem,” he said.

The court’s decision means that trollers will likely face new fishing restrictions. “Our king salmon allocation has been cut and cut and cut,” said Alaska troller Tad Fujioka, who earns about one-third of his fishing profits from Chinook landings. These fish are worth far more per pound than any other salmon — they brought in more than $7 million last year at southeast Alaska docks — making the troll fishery a critical part of the region’s economy. Among the remote coastal communities in that part of the state, Fujioka explained, there are few alternative livelihoods.

Despite the legal win for whale conservationists, these endangered killer whales and wild Chinook salmon will continue to face challenges as climate change brings warmer waters and a host of ecological shifts to this region’s marine and freshwater environments. Making matters worse, the House of Representatives just announced that Congress plans to make a $400 million investment — its largest ever — in northwest hatchery infrastructure. The output from these facilities, conservationists say, will likely place wild fish and the whales that eat them in even greater jeopardy.

NOTE: The final paragraph of this story was corrected to a $400 million investment in northwest hatcheries, not $400,000.