Alaska’s troll-caught Chinook salmon is prized throughout the world as the highest quality salmon in the marketplace, thanks to the extreme care that trollers use when they catch each individual salmon with their hook and line. Troll-caught Chinook is also the poster child for Alaska’s sustainable small-scale fisheries due to its low impact on the marine ecosystem and minimal bycatch.
Additionally, Alaska’s troll fishery keeps many of Southeast Alaska’s rural coastal communities economically afloat, providing year-round fishing jobs for families who have few income alternatives. Southeast Alaska’s archipelago contains 24 small communities, often with populations less than 500 souls.
But these days this small-boat, Alaska-family based fishery is under attack by the Washington-based Wild Fish Conservancy, which is suing the National Marine Fisheries Service over the impact of Alaska’s troll fishery on the Pacific Northwest’s Chinook salmon and Southern Resident Killer Whale (SRKW) populations. The Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit doesn’t just threaten the future of Southeast Alaska’s troll fishery, it feeds a dangerous narrative that jeopardizes the future of fishing communities throughout the U.S.
It also distracts from the real issues that threaten the sustainability of our wild fish populations, such as habitat loss and changing ocean conditions.
Since 1985, Alaska has been party to and is committed to upholding its end of the Pacific Salmon Treaty even though Alaska’s Chinook harvests have been consistently reduced with each renegotiation of the treaty. Despite Alaska’s investment and hard work to manage in compliance with the Pacific Salmon Treaty, the Wild Fish Conservancy deliberately promotes the story that Southeast Alaska’s troll fleet causes harm to the Pacific Northwest’s Chinook and SRKW.
Making the situation even more frustrating is the fact that Alaska’s trollers have been on the frontlines of salmon conservation for decades, advocating to stop old-growth logging in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, block large-scale mining in the U.S. and Canada’s transboundary rivers, and take down the Columbia River’s four lower Snake River dams.
Conservation is our bottom line. Shutting down Alaska’s troll fishery would eliminate some of the most active and vocal salmon advocates, putting the Northwest’s Chinook at even greater risk.
To go after Southeast Alaska’s Chinook troll harvest as the way to increase the SRKW’s principal prey also perpetuates the false narrative that commercial fishermen are causing the decline of wild salmon, when much bigger unaddressed threats, such as destruction of critical salmon habitat, are the major culprits. Likewise, it is well known scientifically that industrial toxins, water pollution, vessel traffic, and noise disturbance are the threat to SRKW – not fisheries, and especially not Southeast Alaska’s hook-and-line troll fishery that operates 1,000 miles away from the SRKW’s territory.
Transferring the burden and cost onto Alaska’s fishing families isn’t the answer, and no data suggests that shutting down Southeast Alaska’s Chinook troll fishery will help SRKW and save the Northwest’s Chinook. In fact, Lynne Barre, who has led the SRKW recovery program at the National Marine Fisheries Service since 2002, points out in her October 2022 written declaration that the Wild Fish Conservancy oversimplifies and overestimates the impacts of shutting down Southeast’s troll fishery, failing to account for the mobility of both Chinook and orca populations and their fluctuating migratory pathways.
There are no shortcuts when it comes to restoring wild salmon. We have seen everywhere else in the world that without healthy habitat and free-flowing rivers and streams, you cannot have healthy wild salmon. As fishermen who spend countless days on the water out in the elements observing the natural world, we know this, and we know it will take working together to address the complex issues that drive salmon declines throughout the Pacific.
We should be leaning into the threats of habitat damage, dams, urban development, toxic water pollution, and climate change rather than fighting over who’s catching whose fish. And rather than letting Wild Fish Conservancy paint misleading narratives about Alaska’s fisheries through its misguided lawsuit, we need to talk to our decision-makers about real solutions to help ensure our fisheries are sustainable for generations to come.
Linda Behnken, is a commercial fisherman and executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.
Amy Daugherty is executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association.