Judge weighs shutting down Southeast Alaska Chinook fishery for Puget Sound killer whales

A young southern resident killer whale chases a Chinook salmon in the Salish Sea near San Juan Island, Washington, in September 2017. Image obtained under NMFS permit #19091. (NOAA)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Fishermen in Southeast Alaska could see their season cut short if a federal judge issues an injunction requested by a Washington environmental group to protect the food supply of a subpopulation of orcas.

The Wild Fish Conservancy filed a lawsuit against NOAA Fisheries earlier this year claiming that it violated the Endangered Species Act for failing to protect Southern Resident killer whales. The group more recently requested an injunction to halt the troll fishery for Chinook salmon in Southeast Alaska.

"Southern resident killer whales are starving, while Chinook are in decline from the Yukon to California," Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy said. "So they're both not doing very well at all, and the Chinook fishery in Southeast Alaska is definitely having an impact on both."

The Southern Resident killer whale is a distinct population segment that was listed as endangered in 2005 and as of June 2019 has a population of 76 whales, according to the Marine Mammal Commission. NOAA says the population spends the summer and fall each year in Washington's Puget Sound.

According to NOAA, the three main causes of decline are reduced quantity and quality of prey, persistent organic pollutants that could cause immune or reproductive dysfunction and noise and disturbance from vessels.

While the Southern Resident killer whale has failed to recover, throughout the greater northeast Pacific Ocean, resident killer whales have nearly tripled in abundance since the early 1970s, and consume an estimated 2.5 million adult Chinook salmon each year - more than the annual harvest of Chinook salmon by commercial, recreation and subsistence fisheries. A study by University of Washington researchers published last December concludes that the decrease in body size of Chinook salmon over the past 50 years can be linked to the resurgence in killer whales.

"We are getting blamed for harvesting their food source, which really isn't the cause of the problem," Amy Daughery, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association said. "The problem as we see it, is the exponential population growth in Seattle, which has lead to a lot of toxicity and pollution and habitat loss in that area. And so these whales are really struggling, this one population. The Northern killer whales that we see off the coast of Southeast Alaska are doing very well. In fact they've increased."

The Alaska Trollers Association joined the defense of the lawsuit as an intervenor. Daugherty says that trollers have seen their Chinook harvest decrease by two-thirds in the last 22 years, and that if a judge were to grant an injunction halting the fishery it would deal a blow to communities from Ketchikan to Yakutat.

According to the state's Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, there were 1,877 permits issued for salmon hand and power trolling in 2019. More than 85% of those permits were held by Alaska residents.

The lawsuit has drawn criticism from Alaska fishing and environmental groups and last week the Petersburg Borough Assembly voted to contribute to the defense of the lawsuit.

If the injunction is granted, the fishery would be shut down in federal waters, which is grounds outside of 3 miles from shore.

Beardslee says the problem with the troll fishery is that it harvests from a mixed stock of fish, meaning that the fish caught in the ocean originate from a broad range of rivers.

"The Pacific Salmon Commission, their own data shows that 97% of Chinook salmon caught in Southeast Alaska are not from Alaska. They're from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, and that's a big problem," Beardslee said. "If they're not caught in Alaska, they're going back to their rivers and that would not only be feeding Southern Resident killer whales as it enters their habitats, but would also help with recovery of Chinook in many of our systems."

Beardslee says his group's goal is not to shut down the fishery, but reshape it to where instead of fishing mixed stocks in the ocean, commercial fishermen fish either in-river or close nearby.

"Fishermen are not at fault. This is fisheries managers, state and federal fisheries managers that put fishermen in a place to fish that is causing the problem," Beardslee said. "If fishermen all the way down the coast moved from the ocean to in or near their rivers of origin and fished, we would have a far, far healthier Chinook population, and along with that comes the recovery of killer whales - Southern Resident killer whales."

Though there is no exact date on when there will be a decision on the request for an injunction, it is expected before July. Daugherty says regardless of the decision, she expects it to be appealed.

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