Trollers side with NMFS in Chinook litigation

Endangered whales compete with increasing populations of seals and sea lions

Litigation to halt the Southeast Alaska king salmon fishery to provide sustenance for Southern Resident Killer Whales is prompting commercial trollers to intervene in the lawsuit brought by the Washington state based Wild Fish Conservancy.

The Alaska Trollers Association in Juneau voted on Tuesday, April 21, to insert itself into the defense of the lawsuit filed in mid-March against the National Marine Fisheries Service and the subsequent injunction against king salmon fishing and the troll fishery specifically.

“Becoming an intervenor is important to ensure that the interest of our membership is represented, and our way of life is protected,” the ATA said. “This frivolous lawsuit puts the short- and long-term future of our coastal communities and our small fishery businesses a serious risk.”

The action is taken on behalf of the economy of Southeast Alaska all power and hand trollers and all commercial interests that harvest king salmon, the ATA statement said.

The ATA notes that in every round of negotiations over the Pacific Salmon Treaty they have taken significant cuts in the allowable catch in Alaska, where the salmon producing rivers are not dammed, nor has the area seen the population growth of the Puget Sound region.

The decline of these whales in Washington state can be traced back to the 1960s and 1970s, when the state of Washington allowed the capture of 270 sexually mature Southern Resident killer whales for marine parks, the ATA said. It was that action that subsequently led to creation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and a statement from NMFS that the capture of killer whales for public display likely depressed their population size. Alaska trollers should not be held accountable for the multitude of bad decisions and continued environmental degradation threatening this population, the ATA said.

Wild Fish Conservancy, with offices in Duvall, Washington, asked a federal court on April 16 to halt the Chinook salmon fishery in Southeast Alaska on grounds that it harvests salmon vital to endangered Southern Resident killer whales. The Wild Fish Conservancy sued the national Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in March, charging that NOAA violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect Southern Resident killer whales and wild Chinook in its analysis of the fishery. The conservation group asked the court to stop the fishing season slated to begin July 1 until the NOAA assessment is corrected and shows that the fishery would not push the surviving 72 Southern Resident killer whales further toward extinction.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, said that fewer than 3 percent of the king salmon caught off the coast of Southeast Alaska are actually from Alaska rivers. The other 97 percent would return to home rivers and fishing communities of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, thus giving these endangered whales opportunities to feed, and wild populations to rebuild, Breadslee said in a statement issues by the conservancy.

The conservancy also cited in defense of its lawsuit at statement from Robert Lacy, a conservation scientist emeritus with the Chicago Zoological Society and faculty member of the University of Chicago, who did an assessment of the health of this whale population in 2015 on behalf of Canada’s National Energy Board. Lacy has estimated a 59 percent probability that this endangered whale population will drop below 30 animals sometime in the next 100 years, becoming functionally extinct.

Meanwhile scientists like Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, have suggested that the declining Chinook salmon populations are directly related to the exponential increase in seal and sea lion populations, who compete with the Southern Resident killer whales for food.

According to Keep Canada Fishing, the national voice of Canadian Sportfishing industry Association, there are some 380 salmon-eating killer whales on the coast of British Columbia, the population of Northern Resident killer whales have doubled since the mid-1970s. The 74 Southern Resident killer whales, who return to British Columbia in the springtime and reside there for two to three months, deeding on salmon, have sewer breeding females than they need to survive.

The reasons these killer whales are in trouble, the sport angler entity said, include pollution climate change, declining Chinook salmon populations and competition for food, including competition from vastly increased numbers of seals and sea lions.