The Pacific Fishery Management Council has decreased the number of chinook salmon it allocates each year to feed Southern Resident orca whales.
The number is important because added conservation measures to ensure adequate food for the Southern Residents can only be put in place if that number is not reached.
The council manages the commercial, recreational and tribal fisheries for about 119 species in federal waters off the West Coast.
The number of chinook allocated for the Southern Residents in 2021 was 966,000. That number has been lowered to 623,000 due to new modeling, said Robin Ehlke, council staff member responsible for handling salmon fishery management issues.
The threatened Puget Sound chinook are the largest part of the diet for the endangered Southern Residents.
Ehlke said the council did its due diligence in coming up with the new number, however, some environmental groups disagree.
"(The whales) are not getting better. More conservation efforts are needed, not less," Ben Enticknap, senior scientist for the environmental nonprofit Oceana, said. "It's simply the wrong approach. It's like moving the stop sign past the intersection and hoping to hit the brakes in time."
Meanwhile, Orca Network Education and Advocacy Coordinator Cindy Hansen said making the threshold smaller is disappointing and that the current threshold is measured from a time when Southern Resident populations were declining.
"In order to support population growth, the threshold must be set at a higher number and should correspond with years when the Southern Residents were experiencing population increase with healthy viable new calves ... They are experiencing an almost 70% miscarriage rate primarily due to lack of food," she said in an email.
Two models were used to set the threshold number.
The updated Fishery Regulation Assessment Model shows the estimated population of chinook to be roughly the same as in years past.
The model known as Shelton, et al. was updated in 2021 and it showed that where the chinook are expected to be has changed.
In the prior version, roughly one third of chinook were in the northern region near British Columbia, but in the newest version slightly more than half are in the British Columbia region.
This is largely what led to the decrease, said Ehlke. There are less fish expected to be in the Puget Sound and Salish Sea areas where the orcas are most present, so the share set aside for the Southern Residents is also less.
Ehlke said that when the original threshold was set there was an understanding that it would likely change due to anticipated updates to the two models.
Enticknap said that just because there are less fish in the area than previously thought, does not mean that the endangered orcas need less help. He said he believes the threshold should be higher so conservation efforts can be put in effect sooner.
He also said that the studies go off the assumption that the Southern Residents are only around the Salish Sea part of the year, when it has been shown that many, J pod specifically, are present year-round.
"We should be doing more to help the Southern Resident killer whale population," he said.
Hansen echoed the same sentiment.
"If the improved models are showing a more accurate forecast of salmon abundance, that's obviously a good thing. But the needs of the Southern Residents have not changed," Hansen said in an email.
Ehlke said that if new research was to show that the threshold needs to be increased or if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was to put forth reasoning for increasing the threshold or adding other conservation efforts, then the council would surely consider it.
"Nothing is fixed," Ehlke said. "It is not something that is set in stone and the council will take the lead of NOAA."