Sitka Rep. Rebecca Himschoot (r.) introduces her resolution in support of the Southeast Troll Fishery, during a hearing of the House Special Fisheries Committee on February 14, 2023. Staff member Thatcher Brower (l.) provided supporting details. (KTOO/Gavel to Gavel)

A legislative resolution in support of Alaska’s salmon troll fleet has cleared its first hurdle, although it has a way to go before seeing a full vote of the Alaska House and Senate.

House Joint Resolution 5 is the first piece of legislation introduced by Sitka Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, who was elected to a first term last November, and was sworn in this past January.

Note: The US District Court of Western Washington could issue a final Report & Recommendation on the Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit any day. Additional reporting on this story, including comment from the Conservancy, is coming shortly from KFSK in Petersburg.

HJR5 was heard in the House Special Fisheries Committee on February 14, Valentine’s Day. Rep. Himschoot used the day as a springboard to focus attention on Southeast trollers, whose livelihood has been jeopardized by a lawsuit in the federal court in Seattle.

“I want to start by wishing everyone a Happy Valentine’s Day,” Himschoot opened. “And if there’s one thing Alaskans love, it’s our fishermen. So we’re going to talk about some fishermen today.”

Himschoot and co-sponsor Ketchikan Representative Dan Ortiz are the only two Southeast Alaskans on the Special Fisheries Committee. Himschoot explained the significance of the troll fleet to the other members.

“You’ll find trollers in every community of Southeast Alaska,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s a community without at least one troller no matter how small the community. So it’s a very important fishery for Southeast Alaska. And 85% of the trollers in the fleet are Alaska residents. So these are people who are hook-and-line fishing. When they put their line in the water, it’s a very sustainable fishery, they’re going to pull up a salmon. So this incredible homegrown fleet of fishermen doing the hard work that brings in about $85 million to our economy in Southeast Alaska is under attack. And they’ve been attacked by the Wild Fish Conservancy. There’s a lawsuit that started in 2019. And this resolution is going to urge state and federal agencies to continue defending our trollers.”

Although the Southeast king salmon fishery is the target of the lawsuit, the defendant is the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees the management of the nation’s commercial fisheries. In broad terms, the Wild Fish Conservancy argues that NMFS violated the Endangered Species Act when it failed to fully account for the impact of Alaska trolling on the food supply of a population of endangered killer whales in Puget Sound. Although experts believe that NMFS can correct this supposed error, it’s now in the hands of a federal judge in Washington whether or not to shut down trolling for king salmon in Alaska until it is remedied.

Other members of the committee tried to tease out a better understanding of the problem. Committee chair Sarah Vance of Homer asked Alaska Trollers Association director Amy Daugherty if harm to killer whales was an ongoing concern.

“Has there been concerns about impact to the orcas prior to this?” Vance asked.

“Never,” Daugherty responded. “In fact, it’s our understanding that every other orca population up and down the coast is healthy, and in fact increasing, except for this localized Puget Sound population.”

This is probably the most incongruent aspect of the lawsuit for trollers, who regard themselves as an environmentally sensitive fishery: Shutting down commercial trolling for king salmon in Alaska may not have any effect at all on killer whales in Puget Sound.

Sitka troller, environmentalist, and fisheries advocate Eric Jordan could barely contain his frustration.

“This existential threat to close down our Southeast troll fishery and fundraising charade by the Wild Fish Conservancy is a brutal assault on us that won’t save one orca,” Jordan said. “ It is the most vicious, misguided assault I have witnessed and a lifetime of experience with fisheries conflicts.”

Tad Fujioka, board chair of the Seafood Producers Cooperative in Sitka, argued that the Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit failed to accurately trace the problem for Puget Sound’s killer whales. If it did, the line would lead right back to Puget Sound.

“The lack of salmon isn’t really the problem that Southern Resident Killer Whales face,” he explained. “If it was, we wouldn’t see that the Alaska and British Columbia orca pods growing so steadily. If our fishery was the reason for trouble, the local orcas would be suffering a lot more than the ones hundreds of miles away. The real problem for Southern Residents is the pollution in Puget Sound. There are 5 million people that live in the Puget Sound area, and with all the heavy pollution and road runoff it makes the local fish toxic. The Washington Department of Health recommends that people eat no more than two servings of Puget Sound king salmon per month. And of course the local killer whales eat a whole lot more than that. And that’s made them some of the most contaminated marine mammals anywhere in the world.”

The House Special Fisheries Committee unanimously passed House Joint Resolution 5 out of committee. Its next stop is the Rules Committee, where it could be scheduled for a floor vote.