NOAA Fisheries to Review Killer Whales’ Endangered Listing

Killer whale pods
Killer whale pods travel as a single-family unit. Photo courtesy NOAA.

On April 22, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced its intent to conduct a five-year Endangered Species Act (ESA) review of Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW), also known as “orcas.” The purpose: “to ensure that the listing classification remains accurate.”

Currently, the Southern Residents are listed as endangered – “in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of (their) range,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s unlikely that status will be moderated since experts believe there are only 75-80 SRKW left.

“The Southern Resident population remains small and vulnerable and has not had a net increase in abundance since the mid-1980s,” NOAA writes in its new, 2021-2025 “Species in the Spotlight” document, which presents upcoming activities to protect SRKW.

Marine wildlife experts emphasize that ESA reviews are undertaken to confirm that a species existence is accurately presented, not to start new programmatic initiatives.

On the other hand, attention to killer whales is hardly check-the-box. There is nothing casual about orcas and related wildlife policies. And an ESA review does not exist in a vacuum; it’s meant to inform real world decision-making. The ESA review could influence policymakers, in other environmental programs, to add or revise protections for killer whales or their habitats.

A NOAA spokesperson said the ESA review could take several months to a year. Importantly, NOAA is also completing status reviews for all West Coast salmon and steelhead. These projects are expected to be done by the fall. Salmon are an integral factor in evaluating the ESA status of Southern Resident killer whales.

‘Struggling’ to Feed

“Washington’s Orcas Are Hungry” is the title and core message of a multi-media presentation from the Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force, part of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Killer Whales are struggling to find enough food,” the Task Force reports.

Since SRKW are a top priority across many environmental fronts, it raises the question: Will the upcoming ESA process and outcome impact commercial fisheries? Potential impacts don’t just include temporal and spatial fishing rules, but can include vessel speeds, entanglements, gear, sound/vessel noise and vessel discharges.

The ESA will “not directly” impact fisheries, according to Mike Conroy, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

“We welcome the review,” Conroy wrote in reply to questions about the ESA, “as it will be an opportunity to incorporate the newest scientific information into the ESA listing process and decision-making process.”

People and killer whales are competitive predators for salmon, although that competition, for people, is checked and tightly controlled by fisheries policies.

Conroy notes that all commercial West Coast ocean salmon fisheries in California, Oregon and Washington had combined harvests that averaged only between 1.2% to 7.7% of total salmon ocean abundance, depending on region, with less impact in areas where SRKW are most common. Those statistics are from the 2020 Risk Assessment by the Pacific Fishery Management Council in a study focusing on fishing and impacts to SRKW. Conroy’s point: in fishing areas, there is plenty of salmon available for orcas.

Conroy said that orcas sometimes do compete for Chinook salmon with West Coast salmon fisheries. But that is rare, he said, occurring only when the orcas migrate from the Salish Sea to the ocean near central California. Orcas primarily feed in coastal areas, Conroy explained, around estuaries where salmon heading upstream are more dense and easier to catch, sites far from boats at sea.

But critically, enough salmon have to return from the sea to complete their storied lifecycle, returning upriver to spawn. Again, considering the low percentage taken by commercial harvests (1.2% to 7.7%), it likely would take a jarring set of new return numbers to impact allowances at commercial fishing sites.

Barry Thom is Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ West Coast Region. In an April 19 NOAA newsletter, Thom wrote that “Collaboration Offers the Best Hope for Lasting Puget Sound Salmon Solution,” stating that “endangered Southern Resident killer whales depend on the same salmon – and therefore the same habitat – which only adds to the urgency” of sustainable fishery policies.

Considering his reference to killer whales, Thom was asked whether he foresaw the five-year ESA review sparking, directly or indirectly, any new SRKW protections, and how fishery managers prioritize conservation efforts when confronting the need to maintain fisheries and preserve the same fish vital to an endangered species.

“We are constantly evaluating the sustainability of fisheries, and the first step is providing for the needs of the ecosystem,” Thom explained. “Whether salmon or sardines, we work with the Pacific Fishery Management Council to determine harvest levels that fundamentally ensure that there will be enough fish to sustain the species. That means inherently accounting for the appetites of predators such as killer whales, the variability of ocean conditions, and the loss (or gain) of habitat there to support them.”

Thom referenced a November 2020 West Coast fisheries Decision Summary Document, prepared by the Pacific Fishery Management Council covering a wide range of issues, from habitat to species management, including decisions regarding the “Southern Resident Killer Whale Endangered Species Act Consultation – Final Action.”

The document notes that in most years, there are sufficient salmon for killer whales, but in some low-return years there may not be. Consequently, when a year’s preseason abundance projection falls below an established threshold, that will start new salmon fishery management actions including, for example, reduced quotas and temporal closures for Columbia River, Grays Harbor and state designated areas.

Primary Threats

In the “Species in the Spotlight” document, NOAA cites three primary threats to killer whales: insufficient prey; high levels of contaminants; and impacts from vessels and sound that may affect their behavior and reduce their ability to successfully find and capture prey.

In announcing its ESA review, NOAA asks for new and updated information on seven broad categories pertaining to SRKW recovery, including the need for “additional conservation measures or updates to the Recovery Plan.”

In his comments about the ESA five-year review, Mike Conroy noted that an important tangential issue is NOAA’s 2019 proposal to revise and expand the critical habitat designation for the SRKW. In fact, for background and context, NOAA refers to the 2019 proposal in its April five-year review announcement. The expanded designation would add six new areas along coastal Washington, Oregon and California, totaling more than 17,000 square miles. The current critical habitat designation, set in 2006, covers 2,560 square miles.

In a reference to “scarcity of prey” within the proposed 2019 designation, NOAA includes “fishery harvest practices” as one of the main reasons for declines in salmon populations and the consequent impacts on orcas.

As of late May, the expanded designated habitat proposal was still open, with a NOAA staff person explaining that the “final rule to designate coastal critical habitat for Southern Residents has not published yet and is in review at our headquarters office,” including reviews by the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

The states of California, Oregon and Washington are important players in SRKW policies. Washington has taken a particularly active stance via its recent Southern Resident Orca Task Force. While the task force completed its work in 2019, its many recommendations remain pertinent, and easily referenced as policy makers consider the ESA review.

Bycatch, for example, was a concern for the task force, and it recommended that fishery managers “continue to work with regional councils and stakeholders to further reduce bycatch in West Coast fisheries. While changes to timing, gear and harvest areas have contributed to the bycatch reductions to date, work needs to continue within the councils to seek further reductions when and where possible as new technology and research become available.”

Again, the ESA now seeks “all new information” since NOAA’s last review. For fisheries, it remains to be seen just how impactful – or not – that new information will be.