NMFS, Others to Appeal Decision Halting SE Alaska Salmon Troll Fishery

An adult Chinook salmon swims in Ship Creek in Anchorage. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A commercial salmon troll fishery in Southeast Alaska that contributes millions of dollars to the regional economy remained uncertain in May, with federal fisheries managers and harvesters pitted against an environmental group that contends endangered orca whales need the fish more.

The state of Alaska on May 8 filed an appeal to the U.S. District Court of Western Washington, which ruled just a week earlier than the summer and winter king salmon troll fisheries in Southeast Alaska were in violation of the Endangered Species Act and were depriving endangered Southern Resident killer whales in Puget Sound of fish critical to their survival.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones ruled in favor of the plaintiff, the Washington State-based Wild Fish Conservancy, in its three-year-old battle to secure more Chinook salmon for the Southern Resident killer whales in Puget Sound.

In its latest filing, the state of Alaska asked Jones for a ruling by May 26. If Jones did not act by May 26, the state said it would file a similar motion with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The lawsuit stems from a biological opinion released by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2019 in which NMFS said that the commercial salmon troll fishery would have no significant impact on fish available for the Southern Resident orcas.

The Wild Fish Conservancy disputed provisions of the Biological Opinion requiring mitigation actions to support Chinook salmon hatchery production to increase prey for killer whales. That mitigation not only allows Alaska fisheries to continue in the face of ESA concerns, but also for salmon fisheries in the Lower 48 states to proceed.

Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang said he found Jones’ ruling to be wholly unfair and disappointing, as it does not attack fisheries off the coasts of Washington and Oregon, even though those fisheries have significantly larger impacts on the ESA-listed species.

Emma Helverson, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, praised the judge’s decision, calling it “the largest victory for Southern Resident killer whale recover in decades.” Helverson contends that halting the commercial fishery in Southeast Alaska would result in wild Chinook to return to spawning grounds in Washington state and help restore wild Chinook in rivers throughout Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.

Vacating the incidental take statement and effectively closing the fishery is a radical step,” Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said. “We understand the critical importance of this fishery to the affected fishermen and communities across Southeast.”

Taylor said the state would ask the court to stay Jones’ order pending appeal and immediately notify the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that an appeal was forthcoming.

Tim Bristol, executive director of the environmental nonprofit SalmonState, noted in a statement that Southeast Alaska Trollers have reduced their Chinook harvest over the years with no effect on killer whales or Washington salmon populations, because, he said, as Washington’s State of Salmon in Watersheds report makes clear, habitat destruction, dams, climate change and contamination are the driving problems feeding their continued decline. 

“The science and data clearly shows that habitat loss, dams, climate change, water pollution, and urbanization are harming salmon and orcas in the Northwest – not our hook-and-line fishery that operates almost 1,000 miles away and has done so sustainably for over 100 years,” Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said. 

A central issue to the Wild Fish Conservancy’s legal contention on closing down the Southeast Alaska summer and winter troll fisheries is the conservancy’s concerns about the hatchery mitigation program, which was instigated to help feed the endangered killer whales with hatchery kings.

The conservancy contends that the hatchery program, funded by a multi-million-dollar mitigation package approved by Congress, violates approved hatchery guidelines developed by scientists to protect and enhance runs of wild salmon.

In order to protect the genetic makeup of wild salmon, hatchery guidelines prescribe limits on the number of hatchery fish allowed to spawn in streams, the conservancy had argued.