State wants in on federal case involving SE fisheries

Lawsuit pits Alaska troll fishery against nutritional needs of endangered killer whales

A lawsuit pitting the future of salmon fisheries in federal waters off Southeast Alaska against the nutritional needs of endangered killer whales has the state of Alaska seeking to intervene on behalf of commercial harvesters.

“Sustainable management of our fisheries was one of the primary drivers behind statehood,” said Alaska Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang. “I don’t take unjustified accusations and threats to state management of our resources lightly.

“The state abides by terms of the Pacific Salmon Treaty and complies with terms of the biological opinion issued by NOAA Fisheries that are tied to it,” he said.

State officials are now waiting for an opinion from the federal court on whether to approve the state a seat at the table as an intervener.

The lawsuit filed on March 18, 2020 by the Wild Fish Conservancy, based in Duvall, Washington, contends that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in violation of the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect southern resident killer whales and wild Chinook salmon. The lawsuit alleges that the federal agency’s authorization of the Southeast Alaska Chinook troll fishery could contribute to the extinction of the endangered killer whale population in Puget Sound and much of the U.S. Pacific coast, and of wild Chinook salmon as well.

The lawsuit cites a biological opinion issued in 2019 by NOAA Fisheries on the harvest of Chinook salmon in Southeast Alaska. According to Kurt Beardslee, executive director of WFC, 97% of the king salmon harvested in the Southeast Alaska troll fishery are from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, and when they are overharvested it poses a threat to the recovery of those wild salmon to the south.

Earlier in March, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones in Seattle denied the WFC’s motion for a preliminary injunction on the fishery, a decision hailed by Amy Daughtery, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association. “We still have the central case to deal with, but meanwhile this is great news,” Daughtery said.

The lawsuit seeks to shut down all salmon fisheries in federal waters off of Southeast Alaska, an area running from three to 200 miles offshore, which comprises approximately 87% of the fishable area of Southeast Alaska. National Marine Fisheries Service has delegated the state the authority to manage these salmon fisheries, consistent with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

According to report on the economic impact of the Pacific Salmon Treaty on the Alaska troll fleet prepared for the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association by the McDowell Group, the troll harvest volume and value vary significantly from year to year. From 2009-2018, annual harvest volume ranged from a low of 14.8 million pounds to a high of 26.3 million pounds. Harvest value ranged from $21.5 million to $44.1 million, the report said.

Parties to the lawsuit are now awaiting a summary judgement decision from a federal magistrate.

Brian Knutsen, legal counsel for WFC, said that an opening brief from WFC is due on May 5, after which NOAA Fisheries and interveners will have 21 days to file their cross motion.

WFC will then have 14 days to file a cross motion, and then NOAA Fisheries and interveners must file their final brief within seven days. The matter then rests with the federal magistrate, who has no specific deadline to issue a decision.