Tuesday April 16, 2024

The Journal of the San Juan Islands

This week, new research was published in the Journal of Communications Earth & Environment sounding a grave warning for endangered Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW) and highlighting urgent conservation measures necessary to stem their pending extinction. While projecting rapid population collapse in roughly 40 years’ time from maintenance of the status-quo, the authors also shine light on a hopeful path forward to recovery. The publication suggests curtailing ocean-based salmon fisheries in the North Pacific—or transitioning these fisheries toward river-based locations—can immediately increase critical wild Chinook salmon prey for SRKW and prevent the extinction of the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled keystone species.

For decades, biologists have understood the factors causing the decline of the Southern Residents. Overwhelmingly, the most critical factor affecting SRKW is the reduced abundance and body size of Chinook salmon—the whale’s primary food resource. The Southern Residents are obligate prey specialists on the oldest, largest, and fattiest Chinook, which limits their ability to adapt to a changing environment.

Despite our understanding of the science, conservation actions to stem SRKW decline have been insufficient, and politicians and resource managers have fundamentally avoided addressing the role of harvest in depleting the abundance and quality of the whale’s primary food source. For example, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has openly acknowledged that status-quo management of Chinook ocean fisheries deprives SRKW of the marine prey they require for survival. As a result, the Northwest’s beloved whales are malnourished and declining rapidly toward extinction in plain sight.

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