Eliminating Alaska king salmon troll season will harm fishing communities without helping our endangered southern resident orcas

A lawsuit seeking to stop the commercial southeast Alaska troll salmon fishery, brought by the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) on behalf of our southern resident orcas out of concern for their survival, has become a huge topic of discussion in Last Frontier and in PNW. fishing communities after a federal court judge recently ruled in favor of the WFC, jeopardizing the upcoming fishing season.

The state of Alaska is appealing to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, hoping to obtain an appeal ruling that would keep the fishery open this year.

WFC claims the decision “finally will provide the starving southern resident orca population with far greater prey, marking a tipping point for their survival.”

I call this a one-sided and distorted view of the matter.

To understand how we got here, some background is needed.

“The Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) over NMFS’s 2019 Biological Opinion (BiOp), which is the document that provides Endangered Species Act coverage for all fisheries in the wild. Southeast Alaska salmon, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, ALFA, explains in this primer, which is available to read on their website. “The Court found BiOp inadequate in a number of respects that are largely technical or process related.”

Briefly, NMFS prepared an analysis of the Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries and associated conservation program. One component would increase the rookery chinook and thus increase prey availability for the southern resident orcas. The BiOp concluded that the Alaskan salmon fisheries would not harm orcas or several at-risk Chinook populations. The court decided that the NMFS would need to develop a more specific conservation plan, which the NMFS intends to do.

There are ten killer whale populations in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Only southern residents are dealing with a population decline, and only southern residents are listed under the Endangered Species Act. In fact, the population that is native to southeast Alaska, where the Chinook is being caught by the troll fishery, is doing well. The paper goes on to state that the causes of the decline are uncertain, but most scientists believe it is a combination of factors, such as:

I. Impacts of Vessel Traffic

“The waters of the Salish Sea are getting noisier due to the increase in oil tankers, freighters, ferries, cruise ships, commercial and private vessels, naval sonar, subsea construction, drilling and resource exploration,” notes the Georgia Strait Alliance. “The frequency of the emitted sound depends on the type of boat engine, propeller design, speed and distance from wildlife. The temperature and salinity of the water can also affect underwater noise.”

“Initial research has indicated that vessel traffic decreases the hunting capacity of southern resident orcas by approximately 23 percent, with commercial vessels responsible for two-thirds of that reduction,” the alliance says. “Whale watching boats of all kinds, commercial and recreational, make up the remaining third.”

II. pollutants

Because they spend much of their time in the polluted Puget Sound, and because they are at the top of the marine food chain, southern residents are among the marine mammals most exposed to pollutants.

third Marine mammal predation on salmon

Between 1970 and 2015, chinook consumption by pinnipeds increased by more than 90%. They eat twice as many chinook as killer whales and six times as much as is caught in commercial and recreational fisheries.

Interestingly, in 2012, the WFC filed a lawsuit to stop the killing of sea lions that fed on endangered salmon, many of them chinook, that congregated below the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. So WFC doesn’t want to stop the sea lions from killing the chinosok, but then they claim there aren’t enough chinosok.

IV. Deterioration of habitat conditions

Human population growth and habitat degradation, not fishing, is the primary problem for the Puget Sound chinook.

While habitat conditions have deteriorated for both southern residents and Chinook salmon, the Pacific Salmon Treaty has reduced Alaska trolling catch by more than 30% since 1985 and pegged the troll quota to Catch a plethora of chinooks.

Since that time, the reduced troll catch has resulted in an increase in the number of Chinook salmon returning to areas near their natal streams by more than a third, but the population of resident killer whales in the south grew by only 2%. “Multiple analyzes concluded that further cuts to already low oceanic fishing exploitation rates are unlikely to help rebuild the southern resident killer whale population.”

WFC also filed another lawsuit to stop WDFW’s hatchery programs that breed nearly 23.6 million Chinook, coho and chums.

The Chinook produced in those hatchery programs is intended to help restore natural corridors and increase prey for the southern resident orcas.

Lawsuits can be a bad way to manage natural resources. Defenders can present figures that support their position, leaving it to a judge, who is not an expert on the subject, to decide based on arguments and not facts.

The Southeast Alaska troll fishery is sustainably managed under the Pacific Salmon Treaty based on the abundance of Chinook salmon that spend most of their lives feeding in the Gulf of Alaska. Less than one percent of Puget Sound populations of chinook, which are important to southern residents, are caught in the Southeast Alaska troll fishery, so the impacts of that fishery are extremely low.

Seafood consumers, retailers and restaurants need to be assured that the Alaskan troll fishery is not depleting the prey of the southern resident killer whales, nor is it reducing killer whale abundance.

The WFC lawsuits remind me of the “fish wars” of the past, when people fought over ever smaller portions of the resource. Instead, if we want salmon and orcas to survive, we must work together to find solutions to the problems of habitat loss, pollution, and climate damage, all of which are affecting both salmon and whales. Here is a rundown of the organizations working in this space:

  • Save our Wild Salmon is a coalition of up to fifty organizations working together in positive ways to find solutions to increase wild salmon populations.
  • Then there’s SalmonState, which advocates for science-based decision making, preventative management, and Alaskans having a say in what happens to our wild salmon. Here is his response to the lawsuit.
  • There’s Salmon Beyond Borders, an organization of Alaskans and Canadians who protect salmon that use transboundary rivers.
  • The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council also supports Southeastern trollers.
  • In Washington, there are Regional Fisheries Improvement Groups, which were designed to benefit and enhance cooperative efforts to increase salmon populations.

The fishermen’s livelihood depends on healthy runs of salmon. As a result, many fishermen are conservationists by nature. Conflicts between people and organizations interested in conservation only serve to undermine opportunities to strengthen fisheries. The environmental movement must commit to projects that improve the resource to sustainably benefit fish, fishermen, and whales.