A federal judge in Washington state issued a ruling this week that threatens to shut down trolling for king salmon in Southeast Alaska this summer.
The ruling comes in a lawsuit filed three years ago by a Washington-based conservation group called Wild Fish Conservancy that aims to protect a small population of Orcas.
The lawsuit centers ons whether Alaska fishermen should be allowed to harvest king salmon, which are considered essential prey for the Southern Resident Killer Whales.
KCAW’s Robert Woolsey has been following the lawsuit from Sitka, in the heart of the Southeast salmon troll fishing region, and says whether the king fishery will be closed this summer remains uncertain.
[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]
The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Robert Woolsey: If you look at the order, the language of the order says, yes, they’re definitely calling for the end of troll fishing this summer. But both the state and the Alaska Trollers Association, who are intervenors in this lawsuit, filed a notice to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court. And they’ll probably ask for a stay of the order until the appeal is heard. So it’s possible that fishing might happen this summer. It’s still kind of an open question, though.
Casey Grove: Yeah. And I take it that uncertainty is pretty difficult for fishermen trying to just get ready for the season or to know if they should get ready for the season. I want to talk more about what the impacts might be to the fleet. But first, maybe let’s back up. Where did this lawsuit come from? What does it aim to do?
RW: Well, it all got real back in December of 2022, when another U.S. District Court judge in western Washington named Judge Michelle Peterson issued a report and recommendation that basically went in favor of just about everything the Wild Fish Conservancy was asking for. The Wild Fish Conservancy, in its lawsuit, had argued that the National Marine Fisheries Service had violated sections of the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in failing to fully account for the impact of the Alaska Chinook fishery on this very seriously threatened population of killer whales in Puget Sound. So that report and recommendation had to be affirmed by another U.S. District Court judge. And that happened this Tuesday, when Judge Richard Jones basically issued a two-page order saying, “This is it. And I’m ordering the National Marine Fisheries Service to fix the flaws. And I’m also vacating this document that’s called an Incidental Take Statement.” And an Incidental Take Statement is essential to open a fishery that might impact an endangered species. And so this Incidental Take Statement that allows Chinook fishing to happen in southeast Alaska in summertime, and in winter, has been vacated.
CG: So, obviously, this is focused on king salmon off Alaska’s coast. But the orcas also spend a lot of time closer to Seattle, which is a huge city, it continues to grow. There have got to be other environmental factors going on there. So what are people saying about that?
RW: Well, everybody keeps coming back to this, Casey, including our congressional delegation. They all issued statements saying this lawsuit is outrageous, mainly in that it overlooks what probably are the real threats to Southern Resident Killer Whales, which are industrial toxins, population of the Puget Sound area, vessel traffic, all these other sources that probably are creating more harm for these animals than the harvest of what is actually very few fish in Southeast Alaska. I mean, the 2023 troll harvest allocation is only 149,000 kings. We’re not talking millions of fish that are being scooped up in Alaska.
CG: And I guess whether that sways the judge or the Wild Fish Conservancy, who knows, But I think what’s fair to say is that if that fishery gets shut down, it’s going to have a huge impact on those people, their families. What have you heard from them about that? I mean, what’s the impact going to be on Southeast Alaska in general, if this fishery gets shut down?
RW: Trollers are kind of the iconic Alaska fishing vessel. The fishery has been going on since territorial days. Trollers have these tall poles that extend out and they just cruise along gracefully over the waves catching fish one at a time. Each king salmon, each coho salmon, every fish that they bring aboard, is caught one at a time. Pound for pound, a troll-caught king salmon is the most valuable fish in Alaska. It’s possible that a king salmon is more valuable to Alaska than a barrel of crude oil. And the fishery is quite lucrative at the dock. It’s worth about $15 million. Statewide there are about 1,800 permits for salmon trolling, both power and hand troll. But only half of those permits might be fishing any given season. And once those fish are sold to the processor, and then the processor sells them and they enter sort of the economy, that $15 million is multiplied many times over. So it’s going to be a huge impact. But I don’t think it’s going to be the end of trolling, mainly because chum salmon has become so valuable in recent years. But it’s a loss to the people who have been doing this fishery or participating in this fishery for multiple generations. And it’s kind of a loss for everyone who feels that Alaska has bent over backwards to try and preserve this stock, and it’s being taken away on basically a technicality.