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ODFW accepts petition to consider listing Southern Resident killer whales (orcas) as endangered

A Southern Resident killer whale with a salmon in its mouth
Melisa Pinnow/OSU
A Southern Resident killer whale with a salmon in its mouth

SALEM, Ore. (KTVZ) — The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission accepted a petition Friday to list the Southern Resident killer whale Distinct Population Segment as Endangered under the Oregon Endangered Species Act.

Acceptance of the petition initiates the rule-making process that will include an assessment of the biological status of SRKW in Oregon by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and consultation with affected agencies, tribes, organizations, and the public. An actual decision on listing SRKW will not be made until a future commission meeting.

The petition was made by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

SRKW use coastal waters off Oregon, Washington and California and currently number just 73 individuals in three pods. Some key factors behind SRKW’s decline are scarcity of prey (primarily Chinook), high levels of contaminants from pollution, disturbance from vessels/sound and inbreeding. This population is already listed on the federal.

In other action:

Wolf Management Report: On Friday morning during the Director’s Report, ODFW staff presented the 2022 Annual Report and discussed a planned review of the Oregon Wolf Conservation and Management Plan. (The Plan needs to be reviewed every five years; it was last reviewed in 2019.) Staff will initiate the review in May 2023 and plan to bring any necessary rule changes to the Commission by June 2024. A public workshop with the Commission and other opportunities for public input are planned. Interested members of the public can sign up for Wolf Updates to keep up with the Wolf Plan review process.

Adopted 2023-24 Game Bird Regulations: The summary of changes for next year is: Western Oregon Fall Turkey Season will open on Sept. 1, rather than the second Saturday of October. A special Beardless Turkey Permit was established allowing the harvest of up to three beardless turkeys in portions of four Wildlife Management Units in Grant County beginning this fall. The cost of the Western Oregon Fee Pheasant permit will increase from $17 to $25 to keep up with the cost of stocking pheasants; a $10 Youth permit will also be available. No changes from last year for migratory game birds; duck seasons will begin on Oct. 14 in both zones with bag limits the same as last year.

Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs: Approved an updated agreement for off-reservation hunting.

Marbled murrelet: Approved Endangered Species Management Plans for ODFW and nine other designated land-owning or land-managing state agencies that can play a role in marbled murrelet conservation. They also directed to staff to continue collaboration with these nine landowner agencies for conservation of the marbled murrelet.

Fish Screening Task Force: Appointed Robert R. Durham of Dufur to fill the vacant seat representing Agriculture.

Pacific halibut seasons: The International Pacific Halibut Commission set this year's fishery catch limit at 1.52 million pounds for Area 2A (Oregon, Washington and Northern California) which is 30,000 pounds higher than last year. For a look at the recreational season visit this map.

Ocean salmon seasons: The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) recently adopted ocean salmon fishing regulations for federal-jurisdiction waters from three to 200 nautical miles offshore. The Commission adopted matching permanent regulations for state jurisdiction waters (within three miles offshore). A strong coho run is expected again and recreational fishing will begin along the entire coast in mid-June. But due to severely low forecasts for Chinook returns to the Klamath and Sacramento Rivers, recreational and commercial fishing for Chinook will be closed south of Cape Falcon until Sept. 1 to protect these fish that are caught along with local Chinook and coho in Oregon's ocean fisheries. See this map for more details on recreational ocean salmon fisheries.

News release from the Center for Biological Diversity:

Southern Resident Orcas Move Closer to Oregon Endangered Species Protections

PORTLAND, Ore.— The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted today to advance a petition seeking to protect Southern Resident orcas under the state Endangered Species Act.

The petition was brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

In the coming months, the commission will conduct a public rulemaking process and decide whether to protect the orcas under state law. Only 73 Southern Resident orcas remain alive, and their numbers have decreased in recent years. While they are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act, they are still threatened by dwindling salmon runs, pollution and vessel traffic.

“Southern Resident orcas are one step closer to getting the protection they need in Oregon, thanks to the wildlife commission’s leadership,” said Quinn Read, Oregon policy director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “This is an encouraging sign that Oregon has moved from the sidelines of orca recovery onto the field of play. It’s about time.”

“These beloved orcas are on the brink of extinction and need and deserve all the help we can give,” said Kathleen Callaghy, Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. “We are happy this petition is moving forward. It’s a scientifically sound and collaborative way of formalizing Oregon’s commitments to their recovery.”

Southern Resident orcas are recognized by their unique and striking black and white coloration and their history in popular culture. These orcas have an extensive range, which includes the inland and coastal waters of Washington and the coastal waters of Oregon and California.

The mouth of the Columbia River on Oregon’s northern border is a crucial foraging area for the whales, and more than half of the chinook salmon consumed while they are in coastal waters can be traced to the Columbia Basin.

The Southern residents even have their own dialect, which is unique among orcas. They feed almost exclusively on Chinook salmon, which are also experiencing population declines because of dams, habitat destruction, and other issues.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Colleen Weiler, Jessica Rekos fellow with Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “The Southern Residents regularly forage for Chinook salmon off the Oregon coast. Oregon is part of their home. There is still a lot of work to be done for Oregon to put meaningful recovery measures in place, but this is the much-needed first step, and we thank the commission for recognizing this opportunity for Oregon to be part of saving the Southern Residents.”

Southern resident orcas are also protected under Washington state’s Endangered Species Act.

Oregon state listing would require the development of a state endangered species management plan, which would spur coordination among relevant state agencies and the development of concrete actions to address the primary threats to orcas in Oregon.

Article Topic Follows: Wildlife

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