In 'major victory' for Southeast trollers, federal appeals panel reverses closure
Chinook salmon fishery to open as planned Saturday
June 28, 2023
A federal appeals panel issued a last-second ruling June 21 that will allow this summer’s Southeast Alaska troll chinook salmon fishery to open as scheduled Saturday — reversing a lower court ruling that would have kept the $85 million industry off the water.
“It’s a major victory,” Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said in a phone interview. “We can go fishing.”
The panel, in a five-page ruling, said that the entities defending the fishery — the Alaska Trollers Association, the state of Alaska and the National Marine Fisheries Service — met the legal standard required to grant a stay of the lower court ruling.
The decision, the panel said, was based on the likelihood that those entities could show that “the certain and substantial impacts” of closing the harvest on the Alaska salmon fishing industry outweigh the “speculative environmental threats” posed by allowing the fishery to take place.
The Washington-based environmental group that sued in an effort to shut down the harvest, the Wild Fish Conservancy, argued that allowing the fishery to continue would harm a population of 73 endangered orca whales that live off the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia.
The southern resident orcas depend on chinook for most of their diet. But the two sides in the case sharply disagreed about how much closing the Southeast troll fishery would help.
One expert working with Wild Fish Conservancy argued that up to 97% of Alaska-caught chinook originate from rivers in Canada, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. She said the National Marine Fisheries Service is allowing harvests in Southeast “at levels that will lead to the continued starvation of southern residents, causing the species to hasten its decline toward extinction.”
But a scientist working with the Alaska Trollers Association said the share of Alaska-caught chinook that originate outside the state could be as low as 75%. He testified that if chinooks are spared from harvest by Alaska fishermen, many would still be eaten by predators or caught in other fisheries instead of being eaten by the orcas.
Defenders of the troll fishery argue that habitat degradation and pollution in the orcas’ home region, including in Puget Sound near Seattle, are bigger factors in the whales’ decline.
Emma Helverson, Wild Fish Conservancy’s executive director, said in a prepared statement that the organization was “disheartened” by the ruling, which she described as “pausing the landmark and comprehensive decision” that the lower court made “after three years of careful consideration of the science and arguments.”
She added: “It is unfortunate that the Ninth Circuit determined the short-term economic interests of a few should be prioritized over the continued existence of these species and the current and future generations of First Nations, tribal nations and communities throughout the Pacific Northwest.”
The legal dispute began in 2020. After dozens of legal filings, a Seattle-based federal district judge, Richard Jones, issued a ruling early last month that had the effect of closing the summer chinook harvest.
Specifically, Jones’ decision invalidated a key document published by the National Marine Fisheries Service that said the trollers could harvest chinook without harming the Southern Resident orcas — a necessary finding under the Endangered Species Act.
The trollers’ defenders appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and asked for a stay of Jones’ decision while the two sides’ underlying arguments play out.
The June 21 court ruling quickly reverberated across Southeast Alaska, where the troll industry employs some 1,500 skippers and crew, sustains jobs in processing plants and generates tax revenue for communities throughout the region.
Cody Angerman, the plant manager at Pacific Seafood in Wrangell, said a shutdown would have been “catastrophic to a lot of people, families and businesses. Our facility (would) certainly feel the hit because it’s basically the removal of a whole subspecies of salmon that we can’t buy and/or sell. This is a product we are reliant on to provide to our customers and a product our fishermen are reliant on having the ability to sell.”
The loss of any of their fisheries, he said, has a “trickling effect.” Had the shutdown occurred, Pacific Seafood would have adjusted its operations to find other profitable avenues.
The news of the court ruling to allow the fishery to open spread quickly through Southeast.
“I’m in my office, crying, trying to confirm this with everybody,” said Celeste Weller, who manages sales and fish processing at Yakobi Fisheries in Pelican. “I started out in fishing as a deckhand, and then I trolled my own boat. My boyfriend is a troller; most of my friends here are trollers. My boss who runs the company, he started out trolling. It’s personal. It’s business. It’s everything for us right now.”
In the Prince of Wales Island town of Craig, population 1,000, there are between 20 and 30 trollers, said Mayor Tim O’Connor, who’s also the vice president of the Alaska Trollers Association.
A closure, he added, “would have thrown most of these small communities into a complete tailspin.”
While trollers also harvest coho salmon during the summer season, chinook typically make up between 40% and 50% of the fleet’s yearly harvest value, according to a 2019 study.
“This is a very key portion of their annual income,” O’Connor said.
Trollers usually fish alone or with a single deckhand. They use hooks and lines to catch one fish at a time, and supply high-grade salmon filets that can fetch $40 a pound at grocery stores across the country.
Weller, of Yakobi Fisheries, said there’s “absolutely” still a market for the king salmon that trollers will be allowed to harvest when the season opens next week.
“I’ve got my whiteboard with my orders behind me, and it’s thousands and thousands of pounds,” she said.
Trollers now face a scramble to plan for the summer harvest, after weeks of uncertainty about whether they’d be able to fish at all.
“They’ll be ready,” said O’Connor. “This gives them enough time to scramble.”
This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter produced by Alaska journalist Nathaniel Herz, firstname.lastname@example.org.