NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, May 30th, 2023

Scrapping the Alaska king salmon troll season will hurt fishing communities without helping our endangered southern resident orcas

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.”

II. Con­t­a­m­i­nants

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.

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  1. Thank you for this, Diane. See­ing one of the world’s least impact­ful, most envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound & sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-backed sus­tain­able fish­eries under one group’s attack has been appalling. The sci­ence is clear: this issue is not about a lack of prey. The stocks SE AK trollers fish on are not from Puget Sound’s crit­i­cal areas of con­cern. NOAA them­selves have stat­ed shut­ting SE AK’s salmon troll fish­ery down will not help the SRKW. Yet the audac­i­ty of a group exploit­ing an ani­mal in per­il for their own gain… while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly suing to remove hatch­eries that fur­ther increase the num­ber of Chi­nook avail­able & hon­or Wash­ing­ton’s trib­al treaty respon­si­bil­i­ties… Unbelievable.

    As a life­long SE AK salmon troller AND envi­ron­men­tal­ist, I’ve been heart­ened to wit­ness the diverse, uni­fied response as more peo­ple see NOAA’s actu­al data. (And come to under­stand the dis­tinc­tion between trolling — a small-scale, hook-&-line fam­i­ly fish­ery, boats aver­ag­ing 38 feet — from trawl­ing, Seat­tle’s cor­po­rate-owned fac­to­ry drag­gers, ships up to 300 feet long.) Con­ser­va­tion groups, trib­al nations, sports groups, work­ing water­fronts & com­mu­ni­ties have issued res­o­lu­tions of sup­port. All rec­og­nize this rul­ing not only dev­as­tates coastal com­mu­ni­ties, it threat­ens the Pacif­ic Salmon Treaty that man­ages com­mer­cial, sports, trib­al, & sub­sis­tence fish­eries in Alas­ka, Cana­da, Wash­ing­ton, & Ore­gon… all at the dev­as­tat­ing cost of not actu­al­ly help­ing to turn the tide for the SRKW.

    There’s no ques­tion the SRKW need help. Unlike the groups work­ing togeth­er for the well­be­ing of all — salmon, Chi­nook, habi­tat, & coastal com­mu­ni­ties — the WFC’s law­suit does­n’t con­tribute to that help. Thank you for speak­ing to this.

    # by Tele Aadsen :: May 31st, 2023 at 12:43 PM
  2. Excel­lent arti­cle with more infor­ma­tion than I’ve seen else­where. Thank you for its quality.

    # by Abigail B. Calkin :: June 1st, 2023 at 9:23 AM
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