SE Alaska Chinook controversy attracts more user groups

Sport, charter fishermen say the problem is habitat destruction in Washington state

A controversy over whether NOAA Fisheries is properly managing Chinook salmon stocks in Southeast Alaska, with consideration for a hungry whale population in decline, has been joined by sport and charter fishermen who say Alaska is not the problem.

The environmental organization SalmonState, along with the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and Alaska Trollers Association said on Monday, April 27, that sport and charter harvesters have joined them in support of NOAA Fisheries in a lawsuit brought by Wild Fish Conservancy, of Duvall, Washington.

The group characterizes as misguided the decision of WFC to sue NOAA Fisheries in federal court to halt Chinook salmon trolling in Southeast Alaska effective July 1.

WFC filed in federal court on April 17 for an injunction, just a month after the conservancy introduced its lawsuit against NOAA for authorizing the Southeast Alaska Chinook troll fishery.

The WFC alleges that NOAA violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect Southern Resident killer whales and federally listed salmon. According to Kurt Beardslee, executive director of WFC, “it is irresponsible for NOAA to authorize this harvest in Alaska when they know it undermines efforts to restore imperiled wild Chinook populations in Washington, British Columbia and Oregon rivers, and contributes to the starvation of endangered Southern Resident killer whales and fishing communities all along the coast.”

Tim Bristol, executive director of the conservation entity SalmonState, called the WFC lawsuit “a cynical attempt to target commercial and sport salmon fishermen in Southeast Alaska while ignoring the root cause behind the massive decline of salmon in the Pacific Northwest and the plight of Southern Resident orcas.”

The problem, said Bristol, is catastrophic habitat destruction in Washington and Southern British Columbia.

“If we put every boat on the beach, we would do little to help these incredible mammals,” he said. “The answer to saving them lies a lot closer to Puget Sound than Southeast Alaska.”

“I feel this lawsuit is a misguided diversion from the real issues: pollution, dams and habitat loss in Washington state,” said sport harvester Steve Ramp, of Sitka.

“Alaska is famous throughout the world for its successful, science-based fisheries management,” said Ramp, who holds the resident sportfishing seat on the Sitka Fish and Game Advisory Committee and has lived and fished in Sitka for 23 years.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, called the lawsuit “misguided at best.”

ALFA members are small scale fishermen committed to sustainable fisheries and healthy ecosystems, and ALFA, in fact, has been honored for its conservation work both in Alaska and nationally by the Obama Administration, she said.

“This lawsuit facilitates the demise of wild salmon and orcas by ignoring the devastating impacts of dams, pollution and habitat loss,” she said.

“We still have healthy whale populations in Alaska because we have healthy salmon habitat from the headwaters out to the marine waters,” said Mike Reif, owner and operator of Sea Roamer Charters, in Sitka. “In the Pacific Northwest, by comparison, freshwater environment has been largely spoiled by urban impacts and dams, which have limited access to historically productive salmon river systems.”

WFC officials disagree.

“Most people don’t realize that over 97 percent of the Chinook salmon caught in the ocean off Southeast Alaska are not from Alaska,” Beardslee said. “They’re actually from rivers in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. These salmon are not Alaskan salmon. They belong to the rivers and peoples of the entire coast, as well as the killer whales and coastal ecosystems that depend on them.”