The population of Southern Resident Killer Whales has declined by about 25-percent in the last two decades, and now numbers 72 individuals — a loss attributed to the decline in king salmon,  their primary prey. (Flickr photo/Ashley Coates)

An environmental organization has asked a federal judge to halt commercial salmon trolling in Alaska this summer, to protect an endangered population of killer whales in Puget Sound.

The Wild Fish Conservancy filed an injunction in the United States District Court for Western Washington on April 16.



The injunction petition is the latest move by the Wild Fish Conservancy, which filed notice back in January that it intended to sue the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — or NOAA — over the agency’s failure to allow enough king salmon to return to area waters to feed Southern Resident Killer Whales. 

The Conservancy filed the full suit in March (3-18-20).

Kurt Beardslee is the founder and director of the Duvall, Washington-based organization. H e says that the injunction doesn’t mean Alaska trollers are solely to blame for the decline of the killer whales — whose numbers are now down to 72 individuals — rather, it’s an effort to force NOAA Fisheries to comply with the terms of the Endangered Species Act.

That’s why the Wild Fish Conservancy didn’t appeal to the Alaska Board of Fisheries, or the Pacific Salmon Commission — the organizations with direct control over salmon management.

“We just went right to our federal government, which both states (Washington and Alaska) lean on,” he said. “So I felt that was the appropriate way to go. The data were there. NOAA already had its decision. NOAA already said that overharvest was occuring.”

That data is NOAA’s 2019 Southeast Alaska Biological Opinion. The injunction argues that the document is inherently unlawful “because it relies on uncertain mitigation to offset certain and immediate harm from the fisheries to Southern Killer Whales.”

The injunction would block the commercial king salmon season — scheduled to begin on July 1 — until the lawsuit is resolved. The Wild Fish Conservancy claims that 97-percent of the king salmon harvested by Alaska trollers in the summer opener come from elsewhere — a figure the state says is more like 30-80 percent, depending on the year.

There are almost  1,600 troll permit holders who live in Southeast Alaska. Amy Daugherty, director of the Alaska Trollers Association (ATA), says trollers aren’t a party to this suit — not yet, anyway.

“But we’re not actually just waiting,” said Daugherty. “We are very, very seriously considering being an intervener ourselves, hoping that other industry members support us.”

Note: Shortly after Daugherty’s interview for this story, her membership voted to intervene in the suit.

Daugherty says her members are generally in shock — first over the lawsuit, and now the injunction. The fleet has taken major reductions in its harvests in recent years, primarily out of concern for the health of salmon stocks.

At times, it has looked as if king salmon trollers were the endangered species.

“We want to fish,” said Daugherty. “Our fishery is the backbone of Southeast Alaska economically. We are 85-percent resident, small family businesses. We have challenges — which are the markets in this day and age — but we have to fish, even under the reduced allowances of the last treaty agreement.”

That’s the Pacific Salmon Treaty, where the US and Canada every ten years hash out an agreement on the overall king salmon harvest. In 2018, treaty negotiations were at the front-and-center of trollers’ concerns; now, the global pandemic has bottomed-out markets. Kurt Beardslee, with the Wild Fish Conservancy, says the Southern Resident Killer Whales can’t wait for a solution.

 “Actually, if there were ever a time to do it, this may be the time also for fishermen,” he said. “I know many of the processing plants are reducing their productivity. Some aren’t even working because of covid. We have to change the cycle, and I think this year is as good as any, if not better.”

The ATA’s Daugherty wants the state to come to the defense of her membership, and she’s been encouraged by the conversations she’s had so far. In an email to KCAW, Commissioner of Fish & Game Doug Vincent-Lang says that the department is “exploring our options to intervene in the case.”

Daugherty just hopes it’s not too late. She thinks there is far more at stake than the summer king salmon season.

“This legal matter is broader than just trolling,” said Daugherty. “I believe that all salmon fishermen, and anyone who bycatches salmon, is at risk. Including sport fishermen — they need to realize that this is a pretty broad net in the lawsuit itself.”

A spokesman for NOAA Fisheries declined KCAW’s request for an interview, saying that the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.