Assembly supports Alaska trollers in fight against lawsuit to stop chinook fishery

At its special meeting last Friday, the borough assembly unanimously approved a resolution supporting the Alaska Trollers Association in its fight against a lawsuit that could shut down the Southeast Alaska commercial troll fishery of chinook, or king salmon, this year.

Though the association also requested a $7,500 donation to the fishery’s legal defense, the assembly did not approve funding for the cause.

The Wild Fish Conservancy filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2020. The Washington-based nonprofit alleges that the 2019 environmental analysis that informed the federal agency’s fisheries management strategy was flawed and failed to allow enough chinook to return to Puget Sound to feed southern resident killer whales.

During the assembly meeting, Brett Stillwaugh, Wrangell representative in the Alaska Trollers Association, asked the borough to consider a $7,500 contribution to the association’s legal fund to aid in the fishery’s defense.

The Petersburg assembly donated $2,500 in June 2020 and approved a message of support on Feb. 6. The Sitka assembly approved a $25,000 contribution Feb. 14, in addition to its previous $5,000. Pelican, Port Alexander and Craig have also pitched in. Assemblies in Ketchikan and Juneau have approved statements of support but no money.

Though Wrangell assembly members expressed strong support for the trollers’ cause, some were hesitant to make a financial contribution while the suit is still in the courts and a verdict is forthcoming.

“I’m not sure what our funding would go to, or what Alaska Trollers Association would use that for,” said Assemblymember Bob Dalrymple. “My impression is they’re probably getting ready for an appeal. And maybe that’s another time to get back a little more specific on funding needs for that.”

“We have gone down this road before with class-action suits,” said Mayor Patty Gilbert, “so I am hesitant … of contributing any money at this stage.”

The suit is in the hands of Seattle-based U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones. A verdict is expected in the coming months and could affect the Southeast fishery’s upcoming summer season, which opens July 1. It could restrict the season or halt it entirely while the fishery’s impact on the southern resident population is reviewed.

The Alaska Trollers Association and Gov. Mike Dunleavy have stated their intent to appeal if the ruling comes down on the side of the Wild Fish Conservancy.

Stillwaugh, addressing the borough assembly at its regular meeting Feb. 14, noted that “85% of troller permits are Alaska resident-owned.”

”We are facing being shut down after 100 years of sustainable fishing,” he added. “Our small boat artisan fishery 1,000 miles away (from Puget Sound) is catching an average of 400 Puget Sound kings a year. Meanwhile, the Washington state sport fishery catches 84,000 Puget Sound kings. … I’m here representing ATA (Alaska Trollers Association) to ask for a resolution in the Wrangell Borough Assembly in support of our ongoing fight with Wild Fish Conservancy.”

The Conservancy contends that the Southeast fishery harvests chinook at unsustainable levels while relying on unreliable mitigation methods to offset its environmental impact. “These chinook are being harvested outside of the range of the (killer) whales, regardless of their status under the ESA (Endangered Species Act), and at levels that federal fishery managers acknowledge are unsustainable for the long-term survival and reproductive success of both wild chinook and the southern resident population,” read a 2021 Conservancy press release.


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