Bombshell Court Victory: Chinook Harvest Harms Southern Resident Killer Whales and Wild Chinook Recovery

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A bombshell ruling from Seattle’s federal Court landed Monday evening calling out the federal government for failing to protect endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKWs) and wild Chinook by approving unsustainable Chinook harvest at levels that are harming the recovery of both federally protected species.

U.S. Judge Richard A. Jones issued summary judgement in a lawsuit brought by Wild Fish Conservancy in March 2020 challenging NOAA Fisheries for authorizing commercial salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska’s Chinook troll fishery at levels that the federal agency admits in their most recent analysis of the fishery are pushing federally protected SRKW’s and wild Chinook closer to extinction. The Court’s order overwhelming agreed that NOAA violated the law by improperly relying on undeveloped and uncertain future mitigation to offset this ongoing harm to species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

In the Southeast Alaska Chinook troll fishery at issue, many people are unaware that only 3% of all Chinook harvested originate from Alaskan rivers, while the majority 97% originate from rivers throughout British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. As an example, over half of the fish harvested would return to the Columbia River and its tributaries, including the Snake River. If given the opportunity, these Chinook will migrate back down the coast serving as the primary prey for the SRKWs as the Chinook pass through the whale’s key forage areas. Instead, these Chinook are being harvested outside of the range of the whales, regardless of their status under the ESA, and at levels that federal fishery managers acknowledge are unsustainable for the long-term survival and reproductive success of both wild Chinook and the Southern Resident population.

The Court’s order finds that NOAA violated the ESA by improperly relying on uncertain mitigation measures in the form of hatchery production that “lack specific and binding plans, lack specific deadlines or otherwise-enforceable

The Court further found NOAA violated the ESA by relying on the supposed benefits to SRKWs from increasing hatchery production, obligations, and are not subjects to agency control or otherwise reasonably certain to occur.” without fully evaluating the harm those same hatchery increases will cause to native Chinook salmon populations in Puget Sound, the Columbia River, the Snake River, and the Willamette River. NOAA recognizes hatcheries and associated impacts as one of the top four factors contributing to the decline of wild salmon, along with overharvest, habitat loss, and hydroelectric dams.

Finally, the Court held that NOAA Fisheries violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by approving the Southeast Alaska Chinook salmon harvest levels, and by implementing increased hatchery production in Puget Sound and Columbia River to offset those harvests, without any NEPA procedures, which would include opportunities for public input and an evaluation of alternatives.



Friday, 09 September 2022