A federal district judge in Washington state has ruled in favor of closing a major commercial king salmon troll fishery which contributes millions of dollars to the Southeast Alaska economy, in order to provide more food for endangered Southern Resident killer whales in Puget Sound.
The decision on Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones, came after a lawsuit filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy, which concluded that closing the multi-million fishery would provide fish for the orcas.
McKinley Research Group in Anchorage, formerly McDowell Group, has estimated the economic impact of that fishery at about $85 million.
Emma Helverson, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, said the court’s decision “is the largest victory for Southern Resident killer whale recover in decades and will be celebrated internationally.”
“After years of inaction by our federal government to address the prey crisis facing the Southern Residents, Judge Jones’ decision will finally provide starving orcas immediate access to their primary prey,” Helverson said. “What’s more, by allowing far more wild Chinook to return home to their spawning grounds, this action is also helping to recover and restore wild Chinook from rivers throughout Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, essential to rebuilding both populations in the long-term.”
Alaska’s congressional delegation condemned the judge’s decision, labeling it disastrous for Southeast Alaska’s small boat troll fishermen and the regional economy.
“This uniquely awful decision blames Alaska for Washington’s problems, and suggests that an end to sustainable fishing in Southeast Alaska can cure decades of destructive environmental practices in Washington,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “If you want my ‘biological opinion,’ this is beyond ridiculous and cannot stand.”
Alaska House Minority Whip Louis Stutes, R-Kodiak, also expressed her disappointment with Jones’ ruling: “The troll fishery is a vital part of our state’s economy, and its closure would have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for the thousands of Alaskans who depend on it. If allowed to stand, this could be the beginning of the end for commercial fisheries as we know it in Alaska.”
Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G), said the state “will vigorously defend our fisheries from this unjustified ruling. We are reviewing the opinion and considering our options and will release a statement soon.”
Within hours the Alaska Department of Law released a statement saying they plan to appeal.
Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor noted that Wild Fish Conservancy sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) alleging several violations of the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act. The plaintiff’s primary claims are that Southeast Alaska fisheries and the associated prey increase (hatchery) programs threaten both wild salmon and the listed Southern Resident killer whales who depend on this salmon for sustenance off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and Canada.
“We understand the critical importance of this fishery to the affected fishermen and communities across Southeast,” Taylor said. “We will be filling a request to stay the order pending appeal and immediately notifying the Ninth Circuit that an appeal is forthcoming.”
“We have a responsibility to look out for our fisheries and the Southeast coastal communities and families that rely on them,” said Vincent-Lang. “The State of Alaska abides by the terms of the Pacific Salmon Treaty and the Biological Opinion that is tied to it, and it is troubling that this ruling singles out our fisheries.”
The lawsuit stemmed from a 445-page biological opinion on the issue that was released by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2019, in which NMFS said that the Southeast Alaska commercial salmon troll fishery would have no significant impact on fish available for the Southern Resident orcas.
Amy Daughtery, director of the Alaska Trollers Association (ATA) in Juneau, said the court’s order would cause irreparable harm to communities in Southeast Alaska, with no measurable benefit to Southern Resident killer whales. Daughtery said that ATA’s attorney is working with the state of Alaska and National Marine Fisheries Service to evaluate potential next steps.
“The ATA board will be relying on our counsel to advise us of our legal options and more information will be posted to our website as to our next step by the end of this week,” Daughtery said. “We are prepared to appeal this ruling. The ATA will continue to fight for the way of lives of its members and the communities of Southeast Alaska.”
Attorneys for the Wild Fish Conservancy have argued in court that the number of king salmon harvested commercially in the Southeast Alaska fishery has impacted the potential for survival of these killer whales, but opponents of the lawsuit, including the nonprofit environmental entity SalmonState, contend that reducing or closing down this commercial harvest will not provide additional king salmon for the hungry whales, who have a decided preference for the kings.
“Over the years, Southeast’s trollers have reduced their Chinook harvest with no effect on killer whales or Washington salmon populations, because as Washington’s State of Salmon in Watersheds report makes clear, it is habitat destruction, dams, climate change, and contamination that are the driving problems feeding their continued decline,” SalmonState said in a statement released on Tuesday, following the judge’s decision. “Killer whale populations in other parts of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, including in Southeast Alaska, have increased in recent years, and a recent study found that inbreeding is a factor in Southern Resident killer whale decline.”
In the 1970s, about 270 orcas in the Salish Sea area were captured during a search for whales for SeaWorld aquariums. Twelve died during capture and 50 were kept for display, SalmonState said.
“To save wild salmon, environmental organizations must work with people of all stripes who care deeply about wild salmon,” said Tim Bristol, executive director of SalmonState. “Instead of reaching out to trollers or to others they target through their frequent lawsuits, the Wild Fish Conservancy is racing down a low road that will make it harder to save endangered salmon runs and threatens the people who rely most on wild salmon.”
“The court’s decision is disappointing, not only because it puts the future of Alaska’s small-boat fishing families in jeopardy, but it distracts from the larger, more urgent issues that are causing the continued decline of the Pacific Northwest’s Chinook and orca populations,” said Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “The science and data clearly shows that habitat loss, dams, climate change, water pollution, and urbanization are harming salmon and orcas in the Northwest – not our hook-and-line fishery that operates almost 1,000 miles away and has done so sustainably for over 100 years.”
The Southeast Alaska troll fishery directly employs 1,500 fishermen, with 85% of troll fishery permit holders living in Southeast Alaska. The fishery is one of Southeast Alaska’s top three most valuable fisheries, generating overall $148 million annually in economic outputs that include restaurant sales, consumer purchases, transportation jobs and other benefits accruing throughout the West Coast of the United States and beyond.