A lawsuit filed against National Marine Fisheries Service in 2020 reared its head in a Washington district court on Aug. 8, and it could spell changes in fisheries management for Southeast Alaska trollers.
The case stems from a suit brought by the Wild Fish Conservancy that challenges the biological rationale in setting allocations of Pacific Salmon Treaty chinooks that Southeast trollers catch.
The premise of the case is that NMFS, in its biological opinion, did not consider a portion of the commingling stocks as forage fish for a pod of 74 killer whales in Puget Sound, rendering the agency out of compliance with the Endangered Species Act.
Like other legal battles between the fishing industry and environmental groups, this case stems from differing interpretations of the data.
The Wild Fish Conservancy contends that 97 percent of the troll-caught chinooks originate in drainages outside of Alaska. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, meanwhile, estimates those numbers between 30 and 80 percent, and that the percentages vary each year.
Though some feared that a subsequent injunction filed by the conservancy could stop the fishery after the initial case was filed in 2020, that didn’t happen.
“Just after the WFC initially filed over two years ago, they followed that up with an injunction which was thrown out a few months later by the same court (9th Circuit),” says Amy Daugherty, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association, in Juneau. “So we continue to fish with this uncertainty held over our heads until it is addressed administratively through the agency or judicially, via an appeal.”
The district court judge’s ruling in favor of the conservancy calls for more analysis of the fishery and its possible impacts on Alaska-caught chinooks as killer whale fodder. Whether the analysis refers to tightening language within the management plan to bring it into compliance with the ESA or mandates changes in the management of the fishery itself remains to be seen, and the battle will likely simmer in the courts.
“We remain hopeful the outcome will impact us minimally,” says Daugherty, “as it should, since it's clear in the data that curtailing the troll fishery further will not improve the rampant toxicity and crowding in the Seattle area waters, where these ESA killer whales reside.”
At the end of August, trollers still had 24,000 treaty chinooks remaining in the Guideline Harvest Level of 193,150 for the winter, spring and summer trolling seasons. The summer troll season began on July 1 and officially ends on Sept. 20, and with it the potential for some uncaught chinooks.
Part of this year’s dynamic is that terminal hatchery runs of chum salmon near Sitka have lured trollers from federally-managed, outside waters to the nearshore areas near the hatcheries, according to Grant Hagerman, the troll fishery biologist with the ADF&G, in Sitka.
“They’ve been targeting chums since the end of July,” he says. “It’s a record year for sure; there are over 930,000 chums, and there are almost 260 vessels participating.”
At the going rate of more than $1 per pound, Hagerman notes that preliminary revenues for the troll fleet have climbed past $8.2 million. The estimated value of the summer troll chinook fishery meanwhile, stands at around $7.4 million so far this year.
“The value of the hatchery chum fishery has exceeded the value of the chinook fishery,” he says. “That’s unprecedented.”
Meanwhile, the numbers for other gear types in the Southeast Alaska salmon season continue to roll in, but with less than a month left for some fisheries the harvest of some species could fall short of the pre-season forecast.
ADF&G’s predictions last spring called for a harvest of around 8.4 million chums, 789,000 sockeyes, 241,000 chinooks, 1.8 million cohos and 16.5 million pinks. According to the ADF&G Blue Sheet published on August 28, the fleet of seiners, gillnetters and trollers had landed 6.7 million chums, a little over one million sockeyes, 225,000 chinooks, 665,000 cohos and 10.5 million pinks.
On August 30 Hagerman reported that most of the seine fishing for pinks had come to an end, but cohos would be coming to the nearshore waters where gillnet catches would pick up through mid-September. Meanwhile, the sockeye season has been going strong and will also continue into September.
“It’s been super good on the sockeye fishing,” says Luke Williams, a gillnetter from Haines. “I’ve talked to some of the guys, and they said it’s been one of the best fishing seasons they’ve ever had.”
Williams adds that the ex-vessel price of $2.15 per pound for sockeyes caught in nearby Lynn Canal has done its share to make it a banner season.
“I think with the price this high it has made a big difference too.”