Juneau City Leaders Hint At Opposing Lawsuit That Could Shut Down Southeast Alaska King Trolling Fishery (Update)

The Southeast Alaska king salmon fishery has been a source of controversy and outrage in the last year after a federal judge upheld a Wild Fish Conservancy challenge that the region’s king salmon fishing harvest threatened the Puget Sound and Columbia River wild Chinook stocks. Now, the city of Juneau is fighting back against the legal action that could shut down king salmon trolling in the region’s waters.

Here’s more from the Juneau Empire:

At the Assembly Committee of the Whole meeting Tuesday night, members unanimously voted to move a resolution to the full Assembly that would affirm the city’s opposition to a pending ruling in a lawsuit that seeks to halt Southeast summer and winter Chinook troll fishery, originally filed in 2019 by a Seattle-based environmental group, Wild Fish Conservancy. The resolution will now move to the Assembly for a final vote.

The group argued that the Southeast Alaska troll fishery is causing irreversible harm to an endangered population of orcas, called southern resident killer whales, that travel through Washington’s Puget Sound area, due to the whale’s lack of prey, specifically wild king salmon that are caught by the fishery.

The lawsuit claims the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association knowingly authorized the commercial salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska to reach levels that were sure to negatively impact the whale species, whose population is down to 73 whales, and in doing so the NOAA violated the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

Update: The Alaska Trollers Association and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association released the following statement:

Juneau, AK – On Tuesday, the Alaska State Legislature’s House Special Committee on Fisheries received testimony and passed a resolution (HJR 5) that calls for state and federal agencies to defend Southeast Alaska’s troll fishery from a potential closure this year due to a lawsuit that a Washington-based organization, the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC), has filed against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The lawsuit alleges that Alaska’s Chinook troll fishery imperils the Southern Resident Killer Whales and aims to shut the fishery down, leaving nearly 1,500 fishermen without a job. Alaska’s trollers have intervened in the case, calling attention to the WFC’s misguided claims and the well-documented impacts that habitat loss, water pollution, urbanization, and vessel traffic are having on the Puget Sound’s salmon and orca populations. 

The resolution was introduced by freshman legislator Rep Himschoot of Sitka, a sitting member of the House Special Committee on Fisheries. During the hearing, the committee heard from local fishermen, community leaders, and fishery experts on the economic impacts of Southeast Alaska’s troll fishery as well as the devastating impacts of a fishery closure to the region’s economy and fishing families. 

“In our community, trolling is a huge portion of our income, and in particular in the winter months when all the summer activities – all the lodges are shut down, all the sports fishermen are gone – there’s nothing else,” said Casey Mapes, Yakutat resident and lifelong commercial fisherman. “Out of my troll income, king salmon is probably two thirds of what I make in a year’s time.”

“Fishing is now the mainstay of Craig’s economy since logging is all but gone on Prince of Wales Island. Commercial salmon trolling is a significant portion of our fishing fleet. Our fleet on Prince of Wales is over 100 boats with 120 charter boats also operating out of Craig each year… We stand to lose all of this if this Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit is successful,” shared Tim O’Connor, Mayor of Craig and commercial fisherman.

After hearing all of the oral testimony, the House Fisheries Committee unanimously voted to move the resolution forward out of the committee; it will next be voted on by the House then the Senate before becoming final. The Alaska Trollers Association and Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association celebrated the committee’s vote.

“We thank Representative Himschoot and the rest of the Fisheries Committee for standing with the thousands of fishing families in Alaska who depend on Southeast Alaska’s troll fishery, which provides more jobs for Alaska residents than any other fishery and is especially important to those who live in Alaska’s smaller, remote communities. Trollers are doing everything  we can to fight this misguided lawsuit and defend our state’s economy, but we can’t do it alone and hope that the State Legislature will move to pass this resolution swiftly,” said Amy Daugherty, Alaska Trollers Association Executive Director.

“The Southeast fleet is  grateful to our State’s lawmakers for their leadership and for stepping up to help protect our way of life. As was discussed at length during the committee’s hearing, this lawsuit could have major implications for not just Alaska’s troll fleet, but Alaska’s seafood industry as a whole. The lawsuit discounts Alaska’s decades of sustainable fishery management and our fleet’s proven commitment to salmon conservation. We hope that the rest of the legislature will rally behind this resolution and do all that it can to ensure Alaska trollers can head out on the water this summer and continue to deliver the premium, sustainable seafood product valued by markets around the world,” said Jeff Farvour, Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association Board Member and commercial fisherman.

The House Fisheries Committee’s resolution follows a string of supportive letters, resolutions, and donations from Southeast Alaska communities, businesses, and fishing associations, including Southeast Conference, United Fishermen of Alaska, United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association, Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, City of Pelican, City of Craig, Port Alexander, Ketchikan, Yakutat, Wrangell, Seafood Producers Cooperative, Sitka Sound Seafoods, OBI, SSRAA, and AKI with more in the works from other communities and organizations. On January 24th, the City of Sitka passed a resolution of support then on February 14th finalized a commitment to donate $25,000 for the Alaska Trollers Association’s legal fund.