Southern resident killer whales are federally listed as an “endangered species.”
In a finding released this week, the National Marine Fisheries Service said similar protections “may be warranted” for the orcas’ favorite food: Chinook, or “king” salmon on the Washington Coast.
Last May, two conservation groups, the Center for Biological Diversity and Pacific Rivers, jointly filed a petition seeking federal “threatened” or “endangered” listings for Chinook on the Chehalis, Quinault, Queets, Hoh and Quillayute river basins, with an emphasis on spring Chinook.
With the National Marine Fisheries Service’s finding released Wednesday, the agency will now take on a status review for Washington salmon that spawn “north of the Columbia River and west of the Elwha River.”
A public comment period will be held until Feb. 5 and testimony may be submitted by “any interested party.”
To the knowledge of Jeff Miller, a senior conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, no organizations have petitioned for this listing in the past. Last year, the center petitioned for a similar listing in Oregon and the National Marine Fisheries Service began conducting a review for the decision earlier this year, signaling a step forward in the listing process.
Spring kings, “which are distinct from fall-run salmon,” Miller said, return in the spring from the ocean to spawning grounds in freshwater rivers.
This means the fish’s difficult, final journey upriver takes place during the warmest months of the year, when the water holds the least oxygen. Relying solely on stored energy, between their depleting strength and increasing stressors from climate change, barriers and waters warmed by recently-logged areas without adequate shade, the fish are easy pickings for fishermen and predators. Or, they may just die before spawning.
According to the center, “Washington coast spring Chinook have declined significantly and are now at a fraction of their historical abundance, with an average of only 3,200 adult spawning fish returning annually to Washington coast rivers.”
Miller said the status review is supposed to take one year, “but frequently takes longer. National Marine Fisheries Service will consult with state agencies, tribes, salmon experts and solicit public information to into the review.”
The agency’s full report can be found at https://public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2023-26852.pdf.