NOAA Fisheries: Alaska chinook harvest not to blame for killer whale decline

(Photo via The Salmon Project)

The National Marine Fisheries Service says shutting down Southeast Alaska’s king salmon season would contribute little to saving an endangered population of killer whales in Puget Sound.

NOAA Fisheries filed a motion on May 11 in US District Court opposing a Washington state conservation group’s effort to block the summer troll and sportfishing seasons.

The motion in opposition to the Wild Fish Conservancy’s injunction petition is 34 pages, with over 2,000 pages in supporting scientific documents.

The question the court will have to decide is whether prey abundance is the sole limiting factor in the decline of the Southern Resident Killer Whale, which was listed as an endangered species in 2005.

The orcas eat chinook salmon — also called kings — which originate in the big river systems of the Pacific Northwest, but spend most of their lives rearing in the Gulf of Alaska.

Linda Behnken thinks that taking a conservation question directly to the federal courts is a costly distraction.

“This, to me, places orcas at greater risk,” she said.

Behnken is a former member of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, and a 30-year veteran of allocation and management battles in Alaska’s fisheries. She’s never wavered from the position that conserving resources are paramount, as is preserving the fishing economy. The two are inseparable.

So Behnken has no idea where the Wild Fish Conservancy is coming from in asking a federal judge to shut down chinook fishing before it even begins this summer.

“By not identifying the real issues of habitat loss, of dams, of climate change — there are even shifts in predator-prey relationships — they’re really preventing people from understanding the bigger issues, and taking actions that would save orcas,” said Behnken.

Behnken’s organization, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, put its name to a statement issued by the Alaska Trollers Association and Juneau-based conservation group SalmonState, opposing the Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit and injunction petition.

In a state where environmental battles are common, it’s unusual for conservation organizations to be on opposite sides. Tyson Fick is a gillnetter and crabber out of Douglas. His official title with SalmonState is “Salmon Evangelist.”

He thinks the Wild Fish Conservancy, based in Duvall, Washington, wants to do more than help the endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales.

“Personally, I get really frustrated as someone who works in conservation and harvests salmon for a living when a group comes in under the guise of conservation, but really they want more fish in the rivers for sportfishing in Washington and Oregon,” said Fick.

Fick says he should be more careful about leveling accusations, but the Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit doesn’t make sense to him. No one — not even the National Marine Fisheries Service, the defendant in the Conservancy’s lawsuit — denies that king salmon contribute to the diet of Southern Resident Killer Whales, but the complexities in the Endangered Species Act and fisheries management are so enormous, that singling out the Southeast chinook harvest seems like an oversimplification.

Fick thinks trollers are likely the slowest-moving target.

“And it really is unfortunate that as Alaskans, we’re once again put in a place where we’re going to have to explain how the fisheries work, how sustainability is something that we all believe in,” he said. “And meanwhile they’re painting a picture of this giant killing machine of hook-and-line fishermen, trolling in one-hundred-year-old wooden boats all along the coast.”

SalmonState hasn’t joined the legal fray, but the Alaska Trollers Association has. On April 23, the ATA filed a motion to intervene in the case, and shortly thereafter, a brief opposing the injunction.

The State of Alaska, meanwhile, is still holding its cards. In an email to KCAW on Monday, May 18, ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang wrote, “We are closely monitoring the lawsuit and respective filings with an eye towards ensuring that state interests are protected.”

The Wild Fish Conservancy suit argues that the National Marine Fisheries Service (aka NOAA Fisheries) failed to comply with the Endangered Species Act in developing a management plan for salmon fishing in Alaska, and it’s asked for an injunction to stop fishing until the case is decided.

The Alaska Trollers Association is being represented by the Portland-based law firm of Landye Bennett Blumstein. The Environmental and Natural Resources Division of the US Justice Department is representing the government. The case is being heard in the US District Court for Western Washington by US Magistrate Judge Michelle Peterson.

Robert Woolsey is the news director at KCAW in Sitka.

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