A lawsuit that seeks to halt the southeast Alaska commercial salmon troll fishery, brought by Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) on behalf of our southern resident orcas out of concern for their survival, has become a big topic of discussion in the Last Frontier and in the PNW’s fishing communities after a federal court judge recently ruled in favor of the WFC, putting the upcoming fishing season in jeopardy.
The State of Alaska is appealing to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, hoping to secure an appellate ruling that would keep the fishery open this year.
WFC claims the decision “will finally provide the starving southern resident population of orcas with far greater prey, marking a turning 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 in order.
“The Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) over NMFS’ 2019 Biological Opinion (BiOp), which is the document that provides Endangered Species Act coverage to all southeast Alaska’s salmon fisheries, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, ALFA, explains in this primer, which is available for reading on their website. “The Court found the BiOp to be inadequate on a number of counts that are largely technical, or process related.”
Briefly, NMFS prepared an analysis of the southeast Alaska salmon fisheries and an associated conservation program. One component would increase hatchery chinook and thus would increase prey availability for southern resident orcas. The BiOp concluded that Alaska salmon fisheries would harm neither the orcas nor several at risk Chinook stocks. The court decided that the NMFS would need to develop a more specific conservation plan, which the NMFS intends to do.
There are ten orca populations in the northeastern Pacific Ocean. Only the southern residents are dealing with a population decline, and only the southern residents are listed under the Endangered Species Act. In fact, the population that is native to southeast Alaska, where the troll fishery is catching Chinook, is doing just fine. The paper goes on to state that the causes of decline are uncertain, but most scientists believe it’s a combination of factors, such as:
I. Vessel traffic impacts
“The waters of the Salish Sea are getting louder due to an increase in oil tankers, freighters, ferries, cruise ships, commercial and private vessels, naval sonar, underwater construction, drilling and resource exploration,” notes the Georgia Strait Alliance. “The frequency of sound emitted depends on a vessel’s engine type, propeller design, speed and distance from wildlife. The temperature and salinity of the water can also impact underwater noise.”
“Initial research has indicated that vessel traffic diminishes Southern Resident orcas’ hunting ability by roughly 23 percent, with commercial ships responsible for two-thirds of that reduction,” the alliance says. “Whale watching vessels of all types — commercial and recreational — account for the remaining third.”
Because they spend much of their time in Puget Sound, which is contaminated, and because they are at the top of the marine food chain, the southern residents are among the marine mammals most exposed to contaminants.
III. Marine mammal predation on salmon
Between 1970 and 2015, chinook consumption by pinnipeds increased over 90%. They eat twice as many chinook as the orcas and six times as much as harvested in commercial and recreational fisheries.
Interestingly, in 2012 WFC sued to stop the killing of sea lions that were feeding on endangered salmon – many of them chinook — congregating below the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. So WFC doesn’t want to stop sea lions from killing chinook, but then they claim that there aren’t enough chinook.
IV. Deteriorating habitat conditions
Increasing human population and degradation of habitat, not fisheries, is the primary problem for Puget Sound chinook.
While habitat conditions have deteriorated for both southern residents and chinook salmon, the Pacific Salmon Treaty has reduced Alaska troll fishery catch by over 30% since 1985, and has tied the catch quota to chinook abundance.
Since that time, the reduced troll catch resulted in increased numbers of chinook salmon returning to areas near their natal streams by over a third, but the southern resident orca population grew by only 2%. “Multiple analysis concluded that additional cuts to already low ocean fishery exploitation rates would be unlikely to help recover the southern resident orca population.”
WFC also has filed another lawsuit to halt WDFW hatchery programs rearing nearly 23.6 million Chinook, coho, and chums.
The Chinook produced in those hatchery programs are intended to help recover natural runs and increase prey for southern resident orcas.
Lawsuits can be a poor way to manage natural resources. Advocates can present figures that support their position, leaving a judge, who is not an expert in the issue, to decide based on arguments, rather than on the 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 chinook populations, which are important to the southern residents, are taken in the southeast Alaska troll fishery, so impacts from that fishery are extremely low.
Consumers of seafood, retailers and restaurants should feel confident that the Alaska troll fishery is not depleting the prey of southern resident orcas, nor is it reducing the orcas’ abundance.
The WFC lawsuits remind me of the “fish wars” of the past, when people were fighting over smaller and smaller shares of the resource. Instead, if salmon and orcas are to survive, we need to work together to find solutions to the problems of habitat loss, pollution and climate damage, all of which are impacting both salmon and whales. Here’s a summary of organizations working in this space:
- Save our Wild Salmon is a coalition of up to fifty organizations working together positively to find solutions to increase wild salmon populations.
- There’s also SalmonState, which advocates for science-based decision making, precautionary management, and for Alaskans to have a voice in what happens to our wild salmon. Here is their response to the lawsuit.
- There is Salmon Beyond Borders, an organization of Alaskans and Canadians who are protecting salmon that use the transboundary rivers.
- Southeast Alaska Conservation Council also stands with Southeast trollers.
- In Washington, there are the Regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups, which were designed to benefit and improve cooperative efforts to increase salmon populations.
Fishermen’s livelihoods depend on healthy salmon runs. As a result, many fishermen are conservationists by nature. Conflicts between conservation-minded people and organizations only serve to undermine opportunities for strengthening fisheries. The environmental movement should commit itself to projects that will improve the resource to sustainably benefit fish, fishermen, and whales.