NOAA Fisheries charts progress for West Coast species at risk

February 2018

NOAA Fisheries recently submitted its biennial Report to Congress on the status of threatened and endangered species listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including five West Coast species at high risk of extinction.

The report summarizes efforts to recover 93 species under NOAA Fisheries’ jurisdiction from October 1, 2014, through September 30, 2016. While nearly a third of the species held their own or increased in number, eight of the species are especially at risk from population decline or loss of their habitat. This group is the focus of NOAA Fisheries’ Species in the Spotlight initiative, an effort to prevent the extinction of these highly at-risk species.

In a letter to Congress, Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator for NOAA Fisheries, wrote, “We launched the initiative as a way to marshal resources within NOAA Fisheries, as well as those of vital partners, and garner greater support of the American public to address immediate needs to help stabilize the declining populations of eight endangered species.­”

Five of the eight species are found along the West Coast:  Southern Resident killer whales, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Central California coho salmon, Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, and white abalone. The other three species include the Cook Inlet beluga whale in Alaska, the Hawaiian monk seal, and the Atlantic salmon in the Northeast. The report to Congress outlines what NOAA Fisheries is doing to advance their recovery.

a single killer whale with the Seattle skyline in the background and a ferry close by

Southern Resident Killer Whale. Photo: NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center

For Southern Resident Killer Whales, which NOAA Fisheries listed as endangered in 2005, scientists estimate that 140 or more whales once swam in and around Washington’s Puget Sound.  The population has since dropped to 76 whales.  They face three main threats:  lack of prey, chemical contaminants, and vessel traffic and noise.

Ongoing recovery efforts got a boost when NOAA Fisheries initiated a five-year Species in the Spotlight Action Plan in 2016 to further address the threats and enlist stakeholders in support of the whales. The National Fish and Wildlife Federation awarded more than $2.5 million in grants and matching funds for research and conservation projects.  NOAA Fisheries has also expanded law enforcement activities to keep boats a safe distance from the whales and supports the non-profit Killer Whale Tales, which has educated more than 12,000 students in 206 schools about killer whale science.

large, spotted leatherback turtle on sand, with ocean in background

Pacific Leatherback sea turtle. Photo: NOAA

Pacific Leatherback sea turtles were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The populations of these international travelers from the Eastern and Western Pacific have declined 97 percent and 80 percent, respectively, from their historical levels.  Except for pregnant females, leatherbacks never return to land after birth. Instead, they forage on jellyfish all over the world, including along the West Coast of the United States. NOAA Fisheries has strengthened international cooperation with other governments to better protect leatherbacks, awarded over $300,000 to help reduce bycatch of turtles in coastal fisheries, and supported protection of nesting beaches around the Pacific.

two coho salmon with red spawing colors

Coho salmon. Photo: John McMillan

Once returning to coastal rivers from Humboldt to Santa Cruz by the thousands, Central California coho salmon have nearly disappeared. Since the Species in the Spotlight initiative began, NOAA Fisheries has taken several steps to help recover the species, such as supporting conservation hatcheries to prevent extinction and improve genetic diversity. In addition, recovery efforts have protected more than 200 miles of stream habitat they need and protected 3,800 acres of watershed from development -- with another 64,000 acres expected to be protected.

adult Chinook salmon held outside of water

Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon. Photo: Naseem Alston, NOAA Fisheries

NOAA Fisheries listed Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon as endangered in 1994.    These fish suffered through California’s recent and devastating drought and few of the offspring spawning below Shasta Dam survived due primarily to high water temperatures. Fortunately, the survivors have a better chance of making it to the ocean thanks to improved management of cold water releases from Shasta Dam. In addition, improved fish barriers reduce the chances that adults returning to spawn will stray into dead-end waterways or agricultural ditches.

white abalone on sand

White abalone. Photo: NOAA

Finally, in 2001, white abalone was the first marine invertebrate to be listed as an endangered species. Unfortunately so few of these animals remained in the wild along the California coast that they could not reproduce on their own.  Through recovery and conservation efforts, NOAA Fisheries and our many partners are supporting a captive breeding program at the University of California-Davis Bodega Marine Lab. Using aquaculture techniques, the goal is to produce captive-bred animals that can establish a self-sustaining white abalone population in the wild.

For all threatened and endangered species, whether named as one of our Species in the Spotlight or not, our aim remains the same, “Our goal is to recover species to the point where they no longer need the protections of the ESA and can be removed from the list,” Oliver said.

Home page photo: NOAA Fisheries