The population of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales in Puget Sound has dropped to around 70 individuals. Many are skeptical that a judge’s ruling to close commercial trolling for king salmon in Southeast Alaska this winter will have any impact on the long-term survival of these animals. (NOAA photo/Holly Fearnbach)

There have been a number of rapid-fire developments since the US District Court of Western Washington ruled on May 2 that the National Marine Fisheries Service had violated provisions of the Endangered Species Act, and vacated the “Incidental Take Statement” that authorizes the Southeast Alaska summer and winter troll harvest of king salmon.

Monday, May 8: Alaska asks for a “partial stay” of the ruling

The State of Alaska is asking for a “partial stay” of a federal court order forcing the closure of commercial salmon trolling for king in Southeast Alaska this summer, pending an appeal.

The motion for a partial stay was filed on Monday (5-8-23) in the US District Court of Western Washington, which last week ruled that the Southeast Alaska king salmon fisheries in both summer and winter were operating in violation of the Endangered Species Act, and depriving a small population of killer whales in Puget Sound of a critical component of their diet.

The state of Alaska immediately filed notice that it intended to appeal to the US 9th Circuit.

The state was joined by the Alaska Trollers Association in asking for the stay, arguing that “if the summer and winter troll fishery seasons are closed, this will have a direct, immediate, and irreparable impact on the economic, cultural, and social fabric of Southeast Alaska.”

The state and the trollers are intervenors in the lawsuit on behalf of the defendant, the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is responsible for ensuring the compliance of Alaska’s fisheries with federal law. NMFS (“nimfs”) hasn’t indicated any intention to appeal the ruling, and instead issued a statement assuring Southeast trollers that the other species they target – coho and chum – were unaffected by the Court’s order. Additionally, the agency was “working expeditiously” to resolve the conflict with the Endangered Species Act. 

The lawsuit was originally brought by the Wild Fish Conservancy of Duvall, Washington, to protect Southern Resident Killer Whales, which has just over 70 animals remaining. Expert opinion differs on whether the closure of king salmon trolling in Southeast will have any effect on their long-term survival.  

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game has yet to determine how and when the commercial troll fishery would open this summer if the Court refuses to grant the stay.

Alaska is asking for a decision by May 26.

Thursday, May 4: KCAW’s Robert Woolsey outlines lawsuit issues on Alaska News Nightly

Listen to the interview.

Wednesday, May 3: Alaska’s Congressional Delegation condemns judge’s ruling

All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation released statements strongly condemning Tuesday’s ruling from the US District Court of Western Washington which – if left unchallenged – will force the closure of the king salmon troll fishery in Southeast Alaska this summer.

Alaska’s senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, wrote “This is a disastrous decision for Southeast Alaska that will only serve to harm those small boat troll fishermen who are trying to provide for their families. This lawsuit should have been dismissed months ago, but now threatens devastating restrictions that will harm hundreds of Alaskans and dozens of coastal communities—all while doing nothing to actually benefit the Puget Sound orca population.”

The lawsuit was filed in early 2020 against the National Marine Fisheries Service by a Washington state conservation group, the Wild Fish Conservancy, which argued that the interception of king salmon in Southeast Alaska was harming a small population of threatened orcas, known as “Southern Resident Killer Whales.”

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan called the judge’s ruling “outrageous,” writing ““What’s most remarkable about this case is that the judge and Wild Fish Conservancy totally ignore much more likely causes of the orca decline, like the toxins, pollution, noise disturbance, and vessel traffic that have undoubtedly wreaked havoc in the Puget Sound region.”

Alaska’s lone member of the US House, Rep. Mary Peltola, joined the senators, writing, “If this order is allowed to stand, Southeast Alaska will suffer a devastating loss, putting thousands of jobs at risk in communities that depend on this sustainably-managed fishery.”

In March of this year, the delegation filed an amicus brief with the US District Court, in support of Southeast troll fisherman. Other interveners in the suit are the Alaska Trollers Association, and the State of Alaska. The Alaska Legislature this spring passed a resolution in support of the fishery; the governor has said he’d appeal the case to the US Supreme Court, if necessary.

Tuesday May, 2: US District judge affirms recommendation to close Southeast Alaska summer and winter troll fisheries

A US district judge in Washington state has affirmed a controversial recommendation that could shut down summer trolling for king salmon in Southeast Alaska this summer.

Judge Richard A. Jones signed the two-page order on Tuesday (5-2-23) which now requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to remedy a violation of the Endangered Species Act, concerning a threatened population of killer whales in Puget Sound.

In addition, the ruling vacates the “Incidental Take Statement” under which the National Marine Fisheries Service manages the commercial harvest of chinook salmon in Southeast Alaska during the summer.

The lawsuit was brought against NMFS by the Duvall, Washington-based Wild Fish Conservancy in early 2020.

In a news release, the Alaska Trollers Association – which intervened in the suit on behalf of NMFS – says it will work with the State of Alaska to appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and likely ask for a stay of the order.

Director Amy Daugherty wrote: “The ATA will continue to fight for the way of life of its members and the communities of Southeast Alaska.”