Fishermen tell federal official loss of king troll season will be 'a disaster'

More than 100 salmon trollers packed a Sitka meeting on June 7 with sharp questions about the future of their fishery, facing what could be an unprecedented full shutdown of this year’s chinook trolling season.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m also scared as heck,” said Eric Jordan, a lifelong fisherman and Sitka resident at the standing room-only meeting with federal National Marine Fisheries Service officials.

The closure of the king salmon fishery in Southeast would be economically devastating, according to many in the region who rely on the valuable fish for their annual income.

A federal judge in Washington state effectively shut down the fishery in May in response to a lawsuit brought by Wild Fish Conservancy, a Washington state-based organization. The suit contends that the fishery should be closed to protect endangered killer whales in Puget Sound, which feed on chinook salmon.

Southeast Alaska’s summer troll fishery would typically open July 1. The state has requested that a federal appeals court decide whether the fishery will open by June 23 to give fishermen time to get ready for the season. But some in the industry say that will already be too late.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is doing “everything we can” to respond to the lawsuit, including work on a new review, called a “biological opinion,” that could address some of the judge’s concerns, said Jon Kurland, the Juneau-based regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Alaska, told the audience.

But, “I’m honestly not sure whether we can get there by July 1,” he advised the group.

“We’re all sort of incredulous that the suit is focusing on Southeast Alaska fisheries when there are a lot bigger threats that southern resident killer whales are facing than what’s happening in these fisheries,” Kurland said.

Matt Donohoe, president of the Alaska Trollers Association, has fished out of Sitka since 1976. He said the loss of income from the king salmon closure would hit trollers hard.

“It’ll be a disaster,” he said. “There’s a bunch of people who don’t know how they’re going to feed their families next winter.”

King salmon typically provide 40% of Southeast trollers’ annual income. The prized fish, also known as chinooks, can fetch around three times as much as coho salmon and six times as much as chum salmon.

The first weeks in July are when trollers catch the most king salmon in a season and earn a big chunk of their annual paychecks. But many operate on tight margins: There are insurance expenses if they go fishing and maintenance costs for their boats — Southeast fishermen say without king salmon, it may not be worth it to go trolling.

Adding to the uncertainty are concerns that the judge’s order means trolling for other types of salmon may not be possible. Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game explained that fishermen could be liable if they inadvertently caught a king salmon while trolling.

“We are working our tails off to try to figure out a way whether we can still conduct coho and chum salmon troll fisheries without the retention of chinook salmon,” he said.

Uncertainty over whether the season will open is forcing fishermen to make hard choices. Moses Johnson was going to upgrade his boat and invest in halibut shares this summer. Not anymore.

“Since this lawsuit came up, I put everything on hold,” said Johnson, a lifelong Sitka fisherman who trolls for kings in the winter. “Because that’s a large portion of income I may be without. What can I do?”

About 40% of the almost 1,000 Southeast power troll permit holders are based in Sitka. About 5%, or less than 50, list a Wrangell mailing address on their state fisheries permit. There are more than twice as many hand troll permit holders in the state, and in Wrangell, though their catch harvests are substantially lower than the power trollers.

A 2019 study found that trolling contributes around $85 million per year to Southeast communities’ economies, once all the economic activity from related industries is added together.

In the smallest Southeast communities, trolling provides a major source of cash economies. Ninety miles north of Sitka sits the tiny boardwalk community of Pelican, with a population of 98 recorded in the 2020 U.S. Census. Around 58% of Pelican households have a troll fishing permit.

Seth Stewart owns Yakobi Fisheries, a local fish plant that processes hand-caught salmon for wholesale and retail. He said trolling accounts for roughly 80% of his business’s annual income.

“We don’t really have the revenue stream we need to keep our business open” if trolling doesn’t go ahead, he said. “So we would have to shut our doors.”

The plant employs 35 to 40 people in Pelican in the summer and 12 residents year-round. Stewart, who grew up commercial fishing, said there would be few alternatives for fishermen who have spent $30,000 for a power trolling permit.

“If we don’t have trolling, it takes out half of the economy in Pelican,” he said.

Jeremy Woodrow, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said there could also be reputational damage from the court fight, and negative stories about the impacts of king salmon fishing on killer whales — making buyers less likely to want to purchase Alaska seafood.

The loss of the king salmon troll fishery could impact high-end restaurants, where the fish is particularly prized.

“When that’s not available, something else is going to replace that product on the menu. And once you get pushed off that menu, it’s really difficult to get put back on the menu,” Woodrow said.


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