Lawsuit could shut down commercial troll fisheries in Southeast

Southeast trollers and communities are awaiting a federal judge's decision on a lawsuit that could close down the region's chinook troll fishery. If the lawsuit prevails, Southeast trollers would be denied access to the highest-priced salmon available to the commercial fleet.

The lawsuit seeks to ensure more of the salmon make it to an endangered population of killer whales in Washington state.

The Southeast winter troll fishery is underway and will close March 15; the summer season is slated to open on July 1, pending the judge's ruling.

On April 16, 2020, the Wild Fish Conservancy, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service, claiming that its 2019 environmental analysis failed to allow enough chinook, or king salmon, to return to Puget Sound and feed southern resident killer whales.

If the suit is successful, Southeast troll fisheries could be shut down or restricted until the environmental analysis is redone and accepted by the court, if the court orders a new review. Or the fishery could be closed if the case stretches into an appeal.

Southern resident killer whales are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Their population was at only 73 to 74 whales as of July 2021, distributed in three pods off the coasts of Washington state and British Columbia, according to the federal Marine Mammal Commission. Southern resident numbers peaked in the mid-1990s at 96 to 98 whales after a national ban on their killing and capture for marine parks.

The Environmental Protection Agency cites loss of prey as one of the primary causes for the animals' decline, followed by pollution and disturbance from vessels.

Last December, U.S. Federal Magistrate Judge Michelle Peterson recommended the U.S. District Court in Washington state shut down the summer and winter seasons of the Southeast Alaska chinook troll fishery until overfishing concerns could be addressed.

The decision is now before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones, with a verdict expected in the coming months. "We're just sitting here, waiting for a judge," said Brett Stillwaugh, the Alaska Trollers Association's representative in Wrangell.

If the judge rules in favor of the Wild Fish Conservancy, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said the state will appeal the court ruling. The Alaska Trollers Association is also an intervenor in the case, defending the fishery.

Even a temporary shutdown of Southeast fisheries could have a substantial impact on the area's economy. "If we appeal, it'll potentially be shut down for two years if the appeal is successful," said Stillwaugh. "Two years away - that pretty much destroys much of the markets that have been built up for the product. It's a big economic problem."

More than 1,000 power trollers, largely independent fishing families operating small vessels, rely on the Southeast troll catch for much of their livelihoods. There are more than 40 salmon power troll state permit holders in Wrangell, with more holding hand troll permits.

"I was here in the mid-90s when the logging industry went down," said Stillwaugh. "It devastated the economy." He anticipates that a fishery shutdown would have similarly devastating impacts. "I'm not sure where we would go from there," he said. "Myself, personally speaking ... if this comes down, I'm probably going to have to move away and go find work somewhere else. ... A lot of families here, I don't know what they'd do."

Hans Radtke, a consulting economist in Oregon who focuses on fisheries, estimated that the Southeast commercial troll salmon fishery generated an average annual harvest income of around $28.8 million between 2017 and 2019 in his expert testimony in court on the behalf of the conservancy.

NOAA has admitted that Southeast chinook harvest levels have been unsustainable for the past 10 years, said WFC Executive Director Emma Helverson, and mitigation efforts have been insufficient. "Unfortunately, we're at this point now where (southern resident killer whales) are very credibly on a path to extinction. With the acknowledgement (from NOAA) so clear that this harm was occurring, we felt we had no other option" than to seek a legal remedy, she said.

"There is a point in a population ... where recovery is not possible," she continued. "Are we OK losing this species? If we continue harvesting at these levels, these chinook populations may go extinct, which are the populations these fisheries depend on."

Amy Daugherty, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, contends that the Wild Fish Conservancy's suit is a "categorically illogical" political move that would destroy trollers' livelihoods while providing no appreciable benefit to southern resident killer whales or chinook. "They have real toxicity issues in the Puget Sound," she said. "They have all kinds of vessel disturbance."

She claims that a shutdown would bring only 400 additional fish to the Puget Sound annually and that "every other population of orcas up and down the coast is thriving."

Members of the Trollers Association also point to fisheries in Canada and on the Puget Sound as culprits for the declining abundance of chinook. "That's just ridiculous to destroy our economy and they're still going strong," said Stillwaugh.

Michael Weiss, of the Center for Whale Research, an organization that studies southern residents and is not associated with the Wild Fish Conservancy, claims that while loss of prey is the primary factor driving the whales' population decline, it's difficult to pin the problem on any particular fishery.

When food is plentiful, killer whales store toxins in their blubber, meaning that pollution is a much more significant issue when whales are underfed to begin with. The same goes for human disturbance, which makes it difficult for whales to forage. "If there's more fish to find, disturbance is less of a problem," Weiss said. Other orca populations in the area may be doing better, but they eat seals, not chinook. "It does seem like it comes down to the prey issue."

That said, "we definitely don't have the evidence to lay the blame for their lack of food at the feet of Southeast Alaska trollers," he added, citing dams and habitat destruction as other factors impacting chinook populations in the Pacific Northwest. But he believes Southeast fisheries management should be changed to focus on individual stocks rather than the "antiquated" aggregate abundance measure.

"It really should be managed in a way that reflects that the fish that could be taken are potential southern resident prey," he said. "Certainly, some kind of change would probably be good."

Helverson of the WFC believes that fisheries managers, not Southeast Alaska trollers, are to blame and hopes that the government will provide trollers with financial aid if the lawsuit succeeds. "We believe that the government failed these fishers and has a responsibility to ensure that their livelihoods are not put at risk because of this poor management decision," she said.

In recent weeks, the Alaska Trollers Association has appealed to a variety of municipal governments and organizations seeking funds for its legal defense. The Ketchikan Gateway Borough assembly is considering a $25,000 contribution and the Sitka assembly is also considering a $25,000 contribution, in addition to a previous $5,000. The Sitka-based Seafood Producers Cooperative donated $59,000. The Petersburg assembly donated $2,500 in June 2020 and approved an official message of support on Feb. 6.

Stillwaugh plans to meet with Borough Manager Jeff Good to request $7,500 from the Wrangell borough.


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