Policy Topics

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.

Diane Jones

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