By James Brooks
Alaska Beacon 

Alaska legislators worry that killer whales and a federal judge may doom a key fishery


The Alaska House of Representatives voted 35-1 on Wednesday to approve a letter urging state and federal officials to fight a lawsuit that could shut down a major king salmon fishery in Southeast Alaska.

“This fishery has come under attack,” said Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, I-Sitka, and the sponsor of the letter, House Joint Resolution 5, which now goes to the Senate.

The resolution has broad bipartisan support in the Alaska Legislature, where lawmakers view the issue as one about an outside group attacking Alaskans’ way of life.

“This resolution is much more than about Southeast Alaska fisheries … it’s about defending our state resources and our right to our own fishery,” said Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, speaking in support of the resolution on Wednesday.

Since 2020, the Washington state-based Wild Fish Conservancy has been fighting the National Marine Fisheries Service in court, arguing that the agency acted illegally when it approved a 2019 document that provides Endangered Species Act coverage for all of Southeast Alaska’s salmon fisheries. That document allows fishermen to catch salmon also sought by endangered species.

The Wild Fish Conservancy wants to preserve killer whales that live in or near Puget Sound; that group of whales, known as Southern Resident Killer Whales, was listed as endangered in 2005.

Those whales consume king salmon that live part of their lives in Southeast Alaska waters, and king salmon are highly prized by fishermen. Commercial trollers, mostly in small boats, use hooks and lines to catch kings to sell.

McDowell Group, now known as McKinley Research Group, has estimated that 1,450 fishermen — including crew and boat owners — participate in the Southeast troll fishery, which has an economic impact of $85 million.

About 44% of that economic activity is from the king salmon harvest, McDowell estimated.

In court, attorneys representing Wild Fish Conservancy have argued that the amount of king salmon taken by commercial fishermen is so large that it impacts the survival of the whales and prevents their population from growing.

After a preliminary ruling by a U.S. District Court judge in 2021 favored the Wild Fish Conservancy, a Magistrate Judge was assigned to conduct further analysis. The resulting report, released in December, reached a similar conclusion and recommended voiding the document that provides Endangered Species Act protections for the winter and summer Chinook salmon troll fishery.

That would leave only a two-month spring fishery, which fishermen say is too small to make a living and would result in the effective closure of the fishery.

The district court judge in charge of the case has yet to make a final determination.

The state of Alaska and various fishery groups have sided in defense of the federal fisheries service, and in late February, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said on statewide talk radio that he would appeal a negative decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.

The resolution passed by the House this week offers legislative support for the cause and calls on the state’s congressional delegation to work to keep the fishery open, even if the judge rules it closed.

Cities across Southeast Alaska have passed similar resolutions of support, and the city of Sitka went so far as to approve a $25,000 donation to the Alaska Trollers Association, which is fighting the lawsuit as well.

In a visit to Wrangell this week, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said it’s possible that a closure of the fishery could turn into an economic disaster, but he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“This lawsuit is ridiculous,” Sullivan said in comments first reported by KSTK-FM in Wrangell. “Think about what they’re trying to do: shut down this fishery. Estimates are that it 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 is a donor-funded independent news organization in Alaska.


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