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New Actions Focus Efforts to Save West Coast “Species in the Spotlight”

April 21, 2021

Ecosystem connections link priority marine species from orcas to abalone.

Killer whale breaching in Puget Sound Southern Resident killer whale in Puget Sound. Credit: Candice Emmons, NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center

This week NOAA Fisheries released new action plans to promote the recovery of its high-priority “Species in the Spotlight.” These nine species are in pressing need of attention to avoid extinction. Five of the species are native to the West Coast, tied together by biology, geography, and urgency.

The five endangered species, with links to their new action plans, include:

Some of the species are connected as predator and prey, while all are connected by benefiting from highly productive West Coast waters. Endangered Southern Resident killer whales forage preferably on Chinook salmon, including those from California’s Central Valley. Of Central Valley salmon, Sacramento winter-run Chinook salmon are the most imperiled and are also a Species in the Spotlight.

Winter-run Chinook salmon once spawned in the cold mountain streams of Northern California. Today, they can no longer reach those streams because major barriers, including Shasta Dam, now stand in their way. They hang on by spawning in the warmer mainstem Sacramento River and some of its tributaries below Shasta Dam.

Our action plan calls for reintroducing the salmon into their historical habitat that remains consistently cold due to high elevation snowmelt and coldwater springs. In addition, improving fish habitat and passage should help them withstand a changing climate.

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Juvenile Chinook salmon
Juvenile Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon. Credit: California Department of Fish & Wildlife

Hunting California Salmon

Southern Resident killer whales still hunt California Chinook salmon. As recently as last year, some Southern Residents traveled south along the West Coast as far as California’s Monterey Bay. They were likely searching for Chinook salmon that they once found along the California coast.

Climate change will challenge the entire West Coast array of marine species, affecting their movement and distribution. This goes beyond the prey of the Southern Residents. Recent research has suggested, for example, that Pacific sardines may move northward off the West Coast to follow their preferred temperatures.

In winter, when fewer Chinook are available, the Southern Residents diversify their diet, consuming coho salmon, and marine species such as halibut, lingcod, and skate. West Coast salmon all traverse rich coastal waters on their way to and from their home rivers. This gives killer whales access to many salmon stocks including Central California Coast coho salmon, another of the West Coast’s Species in the Spotlight.

While salmon spend most of their lives in the ocean, they reproduce in freshwater. For many salmon species, dwindling freshwater habitat is one of the most acute factors limiting their numbers, and, in turn, their recovery. 

A key recovery strategy for both Chinook and coho salmon is to restore freshwater habitat. Floodplain habitat and wetlands in particular are important, because juvenile salmon find food and refuge there as they grow large enough to survive in the ocean. For Central California Coast coho salmon, our action plan calls for watershed-scale restoration to improve ecosystem productivity and connectivity, and freshwater rearing and survival rates.

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Leatherback turtle underwater
Pacific Leatherback turtle swimming in the waters near Kei Islands. Credit: Jason Isley, Scubazoo

Leatherbacks Cross the Ocean

Endangered leatherback sea turtles migrate across the Pacific Ocean from Indonesia to the West Coast. They take advantage of its productive waters, infused by chilled, nutrient-rich water welling up from the depths. The rich waters promote the growth of many fish, marine mammals, and even jellyfish, specifically sea nettles—a leatherback’s favorite food.

Leatherbacks consume jellyfish in great quantities to fuel their growth before migrating 7,000 miles back across the Pacific Ocean to nesting beaches in Indonesia. The action plan for Pacific leatherbacks includes:

  • Working with international partners to monitor nesting beaches
  • Protecting turtles and nests from threats such as poaching and predation
  • Reducing impacts from climate change such as increasing sand temperatures and rising seas

But we also need to prevent further population decline by developing, testing, and implementing bycatch reduction strategies to prevent unintentional capture in fishing gear.

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White abalone
White abalone. Credit: Melissa Neuman, NOAA Fisheries

Abalone Shape Ecosystems

Finally, white abalone is the least mobile of all the West Coast Species in the Spotlight, traveling inches instead of miles per day. The aquatic snails dwell in coastal rocky reefs. That makes them especially vulnerable to changing ocean conditions—they cannot move to areas of more favorable temperatures as quickly or easily as other species can.

Yet the white abalone, perhaps more than the other Species in the Spotlight, help shape their ecosystem. They are a key architect of kelp ecosystems that benefit salmon and jellyfish in coastal waters, and in turn leatherback turtles and salmon-eating orcas. Abalone help diversify kelp forest habitat by grazing on the plants, clearing patches of rocky surfaces so that multiple kelp species can flourish.

To recover this keystone species we will:

  • Continue the captive propagation program to boost production numbers
  • Increase their genetic diversity and reproductive success
  • Expand outplanting programs to new sites that may offer refuge from increasing ocean temperatures and acidity

Working Together

In the face of challenges from warming oceans to lost habitat, recovering the five West Coast Species in the Spotlight can seem daunting. But we are increasingly developing adaptive solutions. We’ve established landmark agreements with landowners and other public agencies have incredible potential to advance recovery of our shared water resources.

For example,  the Shasta River Safe Harbor Agreement outlines more than 100 restoration actions to improve water quality and habitat conditions in more than 37 miles of rivers, streams, and creeks.

In our Species in the Spotlight Priority Action Plans we’ve provided the key actions needed to recover these species and build their resilience. We invite you as partners in recovery and public education to read our action plans and join us to save these species from extinction.

Last updated by West Coast Regional Office on April 21, 2021