A House Joint Resolution urging federal and state defense of Alaska fisheries, including the Southeast Alaska troll fishery, has passed the Special House Fisheries Committee.
The measure urges the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, the National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other federal and state agencies to defend the state’s fisheries, with particular emphasis on the commercial troll fishery targeted for closure by an environmental entity.
The Wild Fish Conservancy in Seattle contends that the highly prized Chinook salmon, harvested by some 1,500 commercial trollers, are needed as food by Southern Resident orca whales in Puget Sound.
Southeast Alaska trollers told the House Special Fisheries Committee on Tuesday that the fishery is critical to the economy of Southeast Alaska, and halting the fishery would not provide additional food for the endangered whales.
“This is a significant portion of our income,” said Casey Mapes, a commercial fisherman from Yakutat, in his testimony to the committee. “A number of fishermen here depend on it. This a big part of what our town depends on. Catching a Chinook is a part of the life blood here in Southeast Alaska. Taking it away is like taking a rifle away from a hunter.”
“Salmon trolling is a significant part of our economy,” said Tim O’Connor, a longline harvester who is the mayor of Craig and vice president of the Alaska Trollers Association. “If the Wild Fish Conservancy is successful, it will set a precedent.”
Matt Donohoe, of Sitka, president of the Alaska Trollers Association, called the Wild Fish Conservancy “serial litigants” who made their case to use the litigation as a money maker.
“We catch fewer than 600 Puget Sound Chinooks a year,” he said.
Sitka trollers Eric Jordon and David Richey also implied that the litigation to close the trollers’ lucrative winter and summer fisheries was simply a money-making stunt.
“A fund-raising charade,” said Jordon.
“We’re the low hanging fruit,” said Richey.
“We are the low hanging fruit on their list,” echoed Jeff Farvour, another Sitka troller who serves on the board of Alaska Trollers Association.
“There would be no real benefit of closing this fishery to the orcas,” said Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.
The orcas are threatened not by the Southeast Alaska troll fishery — 3,000 miles away — but by industrial pollution.
“We work hard to protect fish habitat,” Behnken said. “The whales depend on the salmon. The salmon depend on clean habitat. Now is the time for Washington to take better care of its habitat.”
Puget Sound salmon, as well as other salmon fisheries from California to British Columbia, have been in demise for years because of a variety of reasons — ranging from weather issues causing temperatures to rise in these waters to huge dams blocking the ability of salmon to return to their native streams to spawn. There have also been a number of pollution issues impacting the ability of fish and sea mammals to find the prey best suited to their traditional survival.
A decision from a Washington judge on the matter is expected soon and further litigation by Alaska Trollers Association and the state of Alaska is anticipated if the court rules in favor of the environmental organization.