A Southern Resident killer whale preys on salmon in the Salish Sea near Seattle. The Alaska Trollers Association has filed two major objections to the December 13 “Report and Recommendation” from US Magistrate Michelle Peterson, one of which is that shutting down trolling in Alaska wouldn’t benefit the whales, who reside in one of the most densely populated urban environments in the Northwest. The ATA argues that adopting the Report and Recommedation would not “appreciably reduce the likelihood of both survival and recovery of Southern Resident killer whales or destroy or adversely modify their designated critical habitat.” (Su Kim/NOAA Fisheries)

Alaska’s governor says he’ll appeal a pending federal court ruling that threatens to shut down the Southeast king salmon season.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy was unequivocal when answering a question from a listener during Alaska Public Media’s “Talk of Alaska” on Tuesday (1-31-23).

The Duvall, Washington-based Wild Fish Conservancy filed suit against the National Marine Fisheries Service in US District Court in 2019, arguing that a flaw in the agency’s environmental analysis left a small population of endangered killer whales in Puget Sound exposed to further harm, due to the interception of their primary food source: king salmon, also known as chinook.

In barest terms, the proposed remedy to correct this alleged oversight by NMFS involves shutting down the Southeast Alaskan salmon troll fishery, until the full impact of the chinook harvest on Southern Resident Killer Whales can be assessed.

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game intervened in support of the National Marine Fisheries Service; so did the Alaska Trollers Association. It hasn’t gone well. Although a federal judge in 2020 declined to impose an injunction against the Southeast troll fishery, the latest “Report and Recommendation” in the US District Court of Western Washington in December, 2022, by US Magistrate Judge Michelle Peterson, leaves open the possibility that the Wild Fish Conservancy could prevail. The ruling includes a proposed order vacating the Incidental Take Permit, or “ITS,” issued by NMFS that allows the Southeast troll fishery to harvest chinook year-round. If a judge signs off on the recommendation, trolling for king salmon in Southeast might be off-limits for ten months of the year – making the fishery uneconomic and unviable for many trollers.

Although the state joined the lawsuit, it’s been relatively quiet about the case. No fighting words, at least in public. That changed on Tuesday morning (1-31-23) when Juneau troller, and 4-decade plus fisherman, Tom Fisher posed the question directly to Gov. Dunleavy on Alaska Public Media’s “Talk of Alaska.”

“My question is, will the state commit all resources necessary to take this court case to Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals? And if necessary, the Supreme Court?” Fisher asked.

“Yes. The answer is yes,” Dunleavy responded. “Because this is another example of opportunities being curtailed in Alaska. And again, I think we do fisheries better than the Feds did when we were territory. So the answer to that is yes.”

“We very much appreciate the governor’s conviction on pursuing this lawsuit to the end,” said Amy Daugherty, director of the Alaska Trollers Association.

“You know, it’s just so frivolous, and so harmful to all of Southeast and our way of life here. So it’s such good news.”

Daugherty says her job has changed dramatically since the Wild Fish Conservancy filed suit three years ago. The existential threat to Southeast trolling – which is somewhere between 700 and 800 small businesses across the region – has grown, as the suit has progressed. She says the issue has not been overhyped. 

“I think (the threat to SE trolling) it’s extremely valid,” Daugherty said. “It’s extremely justified to be very concerned about the current situation. The Wild Fish Conservancy has a lot more means certainly than the Alaska Trollers Association. And they seem to be applying it with absolute conviction. So we’re just doing everything we can: We’re getting a lot of resolutions, we’re getting new money every day, a lot from fishermen, a lot from organizations, processors, stores even. And we’re just hopeful that there will be some common sense, you know, brought forward through this process.”

The Wild Fish Conservancy’s Response to the December 13 Report and Recommendation

“I want to emphasize that Alaskan fishers are not to blame for NOAA’s chronic mismanagement of this fishery, and we are sympathetic to the burden this decision may pose on Southeast Alaskan communities. However, it’s critical to also acknowledge that for decades this fishery has harvested majority non-Alaskan Chinook at unsustainable levels with cascading and coastwide consequences for fishing communities throughout British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington.

Emma Helverson, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. Learn more about the WFC’s position on the December 13 Report and Recommendation.

It’s unclear what the immediate impact of a ruling in favor of the Wild Fish Conservancy would have on Southeast trolling, given the this newly-reelected governor’s interest in fighting the suit to the bitter end. During the same “Talk of Alaska,” Gov. Dunleavy didn’t just go to bat for trollers, he reaffirmed a commitment to the industry as a whole, and to subsistence harvesters on Alaska’s interior river systems whose way of life is threatened by a still-unexplained collapse of king salmon and chum runs.

“I would say that this is priority number one when it comes to resources for this administration for the next four years,” Dunleavy said, in response to another caller. “And you know, missing a fishing season – two or three fishing seasons – has a detrimental effect not just as you said on food, but also on the fact that it’s difficult to pass down the ways of life and the culture if you can’t bring the kids out the fish camp…. So we’re gonna do everything we can to turn this around because Alaska is fisheries.”

A final decision by the US District Court of Western Washington on the December 13 “Report and Recommendation” in the case of the Wild Fish Conservancy versus the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA), et. al., is pending.