Ruling clouds future of southeast Alaska king salmon fishery

The ruling means the federal agency must reassess the impact of the fishery on orca and salmon populations.

SEATTLE — A federal court ruling this week has called into question the future of a valuable commercial chinook salmon fishery in Southeast Alaska after a conservation group challenged government approval of the harvest as a threat to protected fish and the endangered orca that eat them.

The ruling, issued Monday by US District Judge Richard Jones in Seattle, says the NOAA fishery violated the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws when it authorized troll fishing.

The ruling means the federal agency must reassess the impact of the fishery on killer whales and the protected salmon stocks of Puget Sound and the Columbia River, and whether a plan to balance the harvest by releasing more chinook salmon from hatcheries makes sense.

It’s unclear if trollers will be allowed to continue fishing for kings, also known as chinooks, in the $800 million industry while this is happening. The court is expected to begin considering remedies for the agency’s rights violations in the next few weeks.

“We applaud Judge Jones’ ruling, which finally calls into question decades of unsustainable chinook catch management in Southeast Alaska and marks a turning point for the recovery of southern resident orcas and wild chinooks,” said Emma Helverson, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy. the group that challenged the approval of the fishery.

The NOAA fishery said Wednesday it is still reviewing the decision. In a written statement, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said it was considering an appeal.

“We have a responsibility to look after our fisheries and the Southeast Coast communities and families that depend on them,” said Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang.

Chinook, the largest of the Pacific salmon species, makes up the bulk of the diet for endangered orcas in the waters of the Salish Sea between Washington state and Canada. Due to causes such as overfishing, dams, development and pollution, king salmon runs in the Northwest are at a small fraction of their historical abundance and, in turn, orcas have suffered, with just 74 whales remaining and scientists warning of extinction.

While endangered killer whales from the South don’t typically make their way as far as Alaska, a large amount of the Chinook salmon caught in the troll fishery in southeast Alaska — about 97 percent — comes from rivers in the South, in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. If these fish are not caught, many would be available for orcas to eat while salmon migrate to their natal streams to spawn, argues the Wild Fish Conservancy.

In 2019, NOAA Fisheries issued a biological advisory approving the most recent decade-long plan for the Chinook commercial troll fishery in Southeast Alaska, with catch limits set during negotiations between the US and Canada.

The agency acknowledged that harvesting Chinook would likely harm orcas and protect Puget Sound and Columbia River chinook salmon stocks, but said it would offset the damage by spending about $100 million on habitat restoration and Chinook breeding production would increase by 20 million smolts per year, providing more food for the whales.

Last year, Michelle Petersen, a judge reviewing the case, questioned this, noting that under federal law, NOAA fisheries cannot rely on hypothetical mitigation measures to offset actual damage to protected species. Because funding for the recovery effort was uncertain, because there were no binding deadlines for mitigation actions, and because the agency didn’t really investigate how an increase in hatchery production would affect wild salmon stocks or orcas, this mitigation was not legally sufficient.

Jones accepted their recommendations in his statement Monday and asked them to consider possible remedial actions. Options include continuing to allow trollers to fish Chinook while NOAA fixes the legal bugs, bans them from doing so, or something in between. It’s also possible that NOAA could be ordered not to increase farmed production of chinook salmon unless it proves the mitigation plan is sound.

According to court documents, about 1,000 license holders fish in the commercial troll fishery in Southeast Alaska each year, and the industry supports thousands more full-time jobs. The trolling takes place 10 months a year, mainly split between the winter and summer seasons. Fishermen also hunt coho and chum salmon, but chinook is the most prized.

The Alaska Trollers Association, which joined the lawsuit as a defendant, criticized the Wild Fish Conservancy for filing the lawsuit, saying it had no regard for Alaskan fisheries.

“Our hook-and-line chinook fishery is low impact, harvesting one fish at a time, and our annual harvests are limited to about a third of what we have harvested in the past,” the association said in an email on Thursday. “We have been fishing with this method for over a hundred years and we are committed to continuing to do so in a sustainable manner. … We will continue to fight to preserve our fisheries and our way of life.”

Last fall, the Wild Fish Conservancy separately sued the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, accusing it of massively expanding hatchling production to increase killer killer prey without undergoing environmental assessment and the procedures required by law.

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