Southeast Alaska Troll Fishery Faces Legal Challenge Over Orca Harvest

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

Southeast Alaska’s lucrative commercial king salmon troll fishery faces new challenges from a federal judge’s decision in Seattle over the impact of their harvest on endangered killer whales in Puget Sound.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Jones in Seattle in August challenges the National Marine Fisheries Service’s biological opinion for the Southeast Alaska salmon fishery, the document giving Alaska Endangered Species Act “incidental take” coverage and allowing the state’s Pacific Salmon Treaty salmon fisheries to operate.

The lawsuit brought by the Wild Fish Conservancy in Seattle argues that Alaska fisheries threaten the survival of several ESA-listed Chinook salmon stocks in Washington and Oregon and the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales that rely on Chinook salmon for food. It does not attack similar fisheries off the coasts of Washington and Oregon, despite similar impacts, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game noted in a response statement.

The Wild Fish Conservancy heralded the judge’s decision as a “bombshell court victory,” showing that the commercial Chinook harvest in Southeast Alaska harmed Southern Resident killer whales and wild Chinook salmon recovery. Emma Helverson, director of Wild Fish Conservancy, said Jones’ ruling “is finally calling into question decades of unsustainable Chinook harvest management in Southeast Alaska and marks a watershed moment for the recovery of Southern Resident orcas and wild Chinook.

“To date, reducing overharvest on the whale’s primary prey is the only scientifically proven recovery action moving forward that promises immediate access to Chinook for these starving orcas and which will help to recover and restore larger and more diverse wild Chinook these whales evolved to eat which are fundamental for their long-term recovery,” Helverson said.

Wild Fish Conservancy maintains that only 3% of all Chinook salmon harvested in Southeast Alaska originate from Alaska rivers, while 97% originate from rivers throughout British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

Deborah Lyons of Sitka, Alaska, who serves on the northern panel of the Pacific Salmon Commission, said that in fact a study by the Joint Chinook Technical Committee of the Pacific Salmon Commission shows that less than 2% of the Alaska fisheries total harvest are Endangered Species Act-listed Puget Sound Chinooks.

“Salmon populations are dynamic and the Alaska fisheries have been extremely conservatively and responsibly managed for more than 40 years, going back even prior to the Pacific Salmon Treaty,” Lyons said.

Not just Southeast Alaska, but all Alaska impacts on the Chinooks “are undeniably minimal on Puget Sound whales,” she remarked.

ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said his agency disagrees with the ruling and is considering an appeal.

“We have a responsibility to look out for our fisheries and the Southeast coastal communities and families that rely on them,” Vincent-Lang said. “In the meantime, Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries will proceed as normal. Alaska should not be expected to be solely responsible for remedy.”

“A lot of what we may do is contingent on what the feds may or may not do,” he stated. “Given the uncertainties, we are leaving our options open.”

Matt Donohoe, also of Sitka, and president of the Alaska Trollers Association, described the multi-million-dollar fishery as a cornerstone of the Southeast Alaska economy.

“There is trolling in every single community of Southeast Alaska,” Donohoe said. “They are here year-round. Approximately 85% are Alaska residents.”

“This suit is a serious threat to all Alaska fishing in federal waters. If two judges can agree with the ridiculous WFC claims then no Alaskan harvest of any resource anywhere on federal land or water is safe,” Donohoe wrote in a letter to Southeast Alaska troll salmon harvesters.

“One of the many points WFC does not consider concerning protecting SRKW (Southern Resident killer whales) is the recommendation of the Washington State Governor’s Task Force,” he wrote. “This 2018 task force recommended a moratorium on whale watching in the Puget Sound area. This, of course, didn’t happen.”

The plight of the endangered Southern Resident killer whales is itself complex, with the dearth of Chinook salmon only part of the puzzle. The orcas have also been subject to overfishing, dams blocking salmon passage, area development and toxic pollution, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, organic compounds now banned, but once used in oil paints, coolants and other products.

A 2018 National Geographic article predicted that half of the world’s orcas could soon disappear due to lingering PCB pollution posing a threat to many marine mammals. The article quotes Jean-Pierre Desforges of the Arctic Research Centre at Aarhus University in Denmark as saying that a group of chemicals thought to be no longer a threat are still present in concentrations that continue to pose significant risk.

The results, Desforges said, are “frightening”—in part because PCBs are just one of several threats facing orcas, often not even the dominate one.

While no longer produced, PCBs breakdown slowly, are attracted to molecules of living animals and have worked their way up the food chain to the apex of the food chain. Orcas have no natural predators and are known to eat fish and other sea mammals, from seals and sea lions to other whales, so the carcinogens build up in their blubber, the National Geographic article stated.

As orcas can live as long as humans, some of those alive today were around during the heyday of PCB uses, and these whales have a hard time getting rid of PCBs. Some of these whales now have 25 times more PCBs than amounts shown to alter fertility and these pollutants can be passed along during birth or through breast milk, the report said.

Alaska Depart of Fish & Game officials said the best-case scenario would be for the court to give the Fisheries Service time to rework its Biological Opinion without vacating the current incidental take coverage.

Killer whales. Photo: Holly Fearnbach/NOAA.

Endangered Species: Chinook and Orcas

The Endangered Species Act, which was ratified in December 1973, offers protections for fish, wildlife and plants that are listed as threatened or endangered; provides for adding species to and removing them from the list of threatened and endangered species, and for preparing and implementing plans for their recovery.

It also provides for interagency cooperation to avoid take of listed species and for issuing permits for otherwise prohibited activities.

Southern Resident Orcas were designated as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2005 and are considered one of the most critically endangered marine mammals in the United States.

Two species of Chinook salmon are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act: Upper Columbia River spring-run and Sacramento River winter-run. Seven other species are listed as threatened under the ESA: Lower Columbia River, Puget Sound, Central Valley spring-run, Snake River fall-run, Snake River spring/summer-run, California coastal and Upper Willamette River.