Southeast AK troll fishery closed to protect whales

Closure threatens hundred of jobs and a $30 million industry.

by | May 3, 2023

Filed Under Environment | Salmon

Lawsuit claims trollers take too many salmon needed by endangered orcas

From Northern Journal by Nathaniel Herz and Max Graham
May 2, 2023

Southeast AK troller Credit: Max Graham

A federal judge issued an order Tuesday that appears to close an iconic Southeast Alaska salmon fishery for at least the summer season — a decision that threatens hundreds of jobs and a $30 million industry in response to a conservation group’s lawsuit.

[Read more: A lawsuit targets a Southeast Alaska salmon fishery to save 73 orcas. Critics say the Washington-based plaintiffs should look closer to home.]

The lawsuit, filed by the Washington state-based Wild Fish Conservancy, seeks to protect endangered orcas off the coast of the Lower 48 and British Columbia — whales that feed on some of the same salmon harvested by Southeast Alaska troll fishermen.

Participants in the lawsuit said that if adopted, a preliminary, 40-page recommendation by a federal magistrate in December would have the effect of closing the chinook fishery, in which some 900 permit holders harvest roughly 200,000 salmon each year. 

But the ruling wasn’t final until Tuesday, when a Seattle-based federal district judge, Richard Jones, issued a two-page order upholding the magistrate’s recommendation.

“I’m in a mild state of shock,” said Amy Daugherty, executive director of the Alaska Trollers’ Association, which intervened as a defendant in the lawsuit. “Of course we are disappointed.”

Daugherty said her organization plans to appeal the ruling.

Orcas in Puget Sound Credit: NOAA Fisheries

The order from Jones does not explicitly call for the closing of the summer chinook fishery. Instead, it vacates a key federal authorization that allowed the state of Alaska to open the fishery without violating the Endangered Species Act. 

Board members of the trollers’ association in the lawsuit said their interpretation of Jones’ ruling is that it would cancel the summer troll chinook harvest, which can generate as much as 40% of some trollers’ annual income. The summer troll fishery runs from July through September.

But one key question is how Jones’ decision will affect trollers’ harvest of coho and chum salmon, which makes up the rest of their catch. Tuesday’s order did not specifically address cohos and chums, but some fishermen feared it could have the effect of closing those harvests, too, because trollers could still accidentally hook chinook while fishing for the other species.

A spokesperson for the National Marine Fisheries Service, which is named as the primary defendant in the case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An official from the Wild Fish Conservancy also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trollers typically fish alone or with a single deckhand on their small boats, and most live in communities across Southeast Alaska. Their harvests also helps sustain processing plants and processing jobs around the region. 

Unlike net fishermen, trollers catch salmon one at a time, on individual hooks. Careful treatment and icing keeps fish fresh and allows troll-caught salmon to sell at a higher market price: Filets are shipped around the country and can fetch $40 a pound at high-end grocery stores.

Numerous local governments and industry players throughout the region contributed to a legal fund defending the fishery against the lawsuit. And Alaska’s entire Congressional delegation, GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy and the state Legislature all weighed in on the trollers’ behalf.

“We will vigorously defend our fisheries from this unjustified ruling,” Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said in a text message Tuesday. “We are reviewing the opinion and considering our options and will release a statement soon.”

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About Laine

Laine Welch has covered the Alaska fish beat for print and radio since 1988. She also has worked “behind the counter” at retail and wholesale seafood companies in Kodiak and on Cape Cod.

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