Pacific Northwest
Westport Marina, Port of Grays Harbor CREDIT: NW NEWS NETWORK

Cutting back on fishing could help orcas. But would it hurt charter fishing fleets?

Pacific Northwesterners are undeniably fond of their endangered resident killer whales. Many locals are also fans of salmon fishing, a hobby that sustains charter fishing fleets in coastal harbors from Neah Bay, Washington, to Brookings, Oregon.

But now there is a chance future fishing trips on the ocean could be curtailed to leave more food for the killer whales. Regulators are preparing to reassess the Pacific salmon harvest and an environmental lawsuit seeks more action to save orcas.

The cross-currents of this quandary remain beneath the surface for most visitors to the sport fishing haven of Westport, Washington. A well-timed stroll along the harborfront in midafternoon can coincide with the daily return of charter vessels from daytrips to fishing grounds in the Pacific Ocean.

"Man, as soon that thing just started ripping out a bunch of line I knew I had a big one on," exclaimed fisherman Dave Wessel after disembarking from the charter boat Hula Girl.

"Then it got tangled into four different lines. They had to cut some lines to get it in. It was outstanding," added fishing buddy Roy Hatton about the fight with a hefty lingcod.

Captain Steve Westrick gave Wessel, Hatton and the day's other clients bulging bags of rockfish and lingcod fillets before turning to ruminate about the ups and downs of the fishing industry.

Westrick and his grown son Jason, also a licensed captain, are looking forward to a busy summer of salmon fishing in the ocean now that the 2019 season has been approved. Recreational anglers can pursue salmon from ports along the Washington coast and northern Oregon coast seven days a week from late June through September.

But on the horizon, there's uncertainty introduced by the plight of the critically endangered Pacific Northwest killer whales.

"I'd be a fool to say I wasn't concerned," said Steve Westrick with a nervous laugh. "We're definitely concerned and aware of the issue."

Federal fishery managers and the agency overseeing orca recovery agreed this month to reassess West Coast fishing quotas for next year and beyond. The object is to make sure endangered orcas have enough king salmon, their preferred food, to eat. At this point, no one knows if the reassessment will trigger stricter catch limits or cutbacks in times and places for ocean fishing.

"If a fishery reduction is what we need, well, we've had that and we've had that for a long time," said Jonathan Sawin, president of the Westport Charterboat Association.

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