Rep. Rebecca Himschoot brings HJR5 to the floor of the Alaska House on March 1, 2023. Reading a lengthy list of the towns who’ve passed similar resolutions, Himschoot said “all of these communities could be impacted by a catastrophic stoppage — an unnecessary stoppage — of the troll fishery due to this lawsuit which the state and federal governments are working on with the trollers.” {Image capture/KTOO Gavel}

Alaska’s Congressional Delegation has filed an amicus brief, in a federal lawsuit that threatens to shut down salmon trolling in Southeast Alaska this summer.

The brief is meant to be friendly guidance for the court, but at least one of Alaska’s senators is not feeling especially friendly about the possible threat to an Alaskan way of life.

The amicus brief from Alaska’s Congressional Delegation comes just as some major players have stepped up in support of trollers, including the two largest hatcheries in Southeast Alaska, and the full House of Representatives.

Lawyers for Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, and Representative Mary Peltola, filed the brief on March 6 in the US District Court of Western Washington. The lawsuit was brought three years ago by the Seattle-based Wild Fish Conservancy against the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Conservancy argues that Southeast salmon trollers in Alaska intercept king salmon crucial to the survival of an endangered population of killer whales in Puget Sound, in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The court is now considering whether or not to vacate the permit that allows the summer and winter troll fisheries in Alaska to operate, until the violation has been remedied.

An amicus brief doesn’t argue either side of the case, but is more like friendly advice to the court. During a recent visit to Wrangell, however, Sen. Dan Sullivan was not feeling very amicable toward the Wild Fish Conservancy.

“This lawsuit is ridiculous,” he said. “Think about what they’re trying to do: shut down this fishery. Estimates are that could impact Southeast by $100 million for orca problems in Puget Sound. They’re not asking for the fishery in Puget Sound to be shut down. They’re not asking about the pollution in Puget Sound. They’re looking at shutting down our fishery here. Idiotic — and an abuse of the Endangered Species Act.”

The amicus brief itself takes a more measured tone, and suggests that cure is worse than the disease. The National Marine Fisheries Service is already rewriting the 2019 Biological Opinion that the Wild Fish Conservancy first took issue with, and is bringing it into line with the Endangered Species Act.

NMFS is going to protect the killer whales; the amicus brief asks the court to protect the humans who’ve depended on this fishery for over a century.

Or, to paraphrase the legalese: 

“The harm that vacatur would cause outweighs any deficiency in the (Incidental Take Statetment) ITS, because the asserted violation has been largely remedied (by NMFS) … and the economic impacts of the (proposed) remedy will be damning to an entire way of life that has existed for generations… and will devastate the troll fishing communities of SEAK(Southeast Alaska).”

A final Report & Recommendation on the matter is pending, in front of US District Court Judge Richard A. Jones. In addition to vacating the Incidental Take Statement that allows king salmon trolling in Alaska, Jones will also decide whether or not to suspend a Washington hatchery program intended to make more prey available for the Southern Resident Killer Whales.

KSTK’s Sage Smiley contributed to this story.

Southeast hatchery programs, Alaska House, come to trollers’ defense

On March 1, the Alaska House debated Joint Resolution 5, in support of the Southeast Alaska Troll Fishery.

The measure was sponsored by Rep. Rebecca Himschoot of Sitka, and had the full backing of Sarah Vance, from Homer, who chairs the House Special Committee on Fisheries.

“This is an opportunity for us as the legislature to stand united in saying we want to defend our fishery, and our rights as sovereign over the state of Alaska in these continued unnecessary lawsuits that are attacking individual Alaskans and their ability to provide for themselves,” Vance said.

Kodiak Representative Louise Stutes also sits on the Special Committee on Fisheries. She argued that if Alaska failed to defend this lawsuit, it would certainly be defending many more.

“This is a very slippery slope we’re on and we absolutely need to defend the sovereignty of our resource here in the state,” Stutes said.

The resolution passed the full House, 35-1, with Representative David Eastman of Wasilla opposed.

The following day, on March 2, another organization came together in support of Southeast Trollers: The board of the Sitka-based Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association voted to contribute $75,000 to the trollers’ legal defense fund. This came on top of a contribution of $25,000 made in 2022.

NSRAA general manager Scott Wagner said it took about an hour of discussion for his board of 22 trollers, seiners, and gillnetter to agree that supporting one gear group in this case meant supporting them all. 

“I think the overarching concern with this lawsuit is that it has potential to affect all fisheries down the road, you know,” Wagner said. “If they’re successful targeting one, I don’t envision they’re going to stop and not target others moving forward.”

NSRAA’s sister organization in Ketchikan, the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, followed suit a couple of days later, and also contributed $100,000. Both SSRA and NSRAA are nonprofits, funded by an enhancement tax on fishermen, and by sales of their own fish – called “cost recovery.”

There is no war chest. Wagner says the nonprofit hatcheries will have to raise the money to fight the lawsuit through their existing revenue streams.

“We have to increase our fundraising, which we do through cost recovery, which means catching more fish and selling them as an organization for revenue, which means that there’s less fish for the commercial fishermen to catch,” Wagner said. “So it’s coming out of their own pocket.”

As yet there is no timeline for a resolution to the Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit. A final decision is pending before a federal judge in the US District Court of Western Washington.