King salmon troll fishery takes another hit

The lucrative king salmon troll fishery in Southeast came one step closer to being shut down when a federal judge in Seattle ruled last week that the National Marine Fisheries Service/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries did not sufficiently take into account rules surrounding the Endangered Species Act and the impact that king salmon removals in Southeast has on critically endangered orca whales in Puget Sound. The ruling could shut down the fishery for the summer or longer.

The State of Alaska and the Alaska Trollers Association immediately appealed the decision and asked that it be stayed pending the appeal.

The lawsuit was filed by Wild Fish Conservancy, based in Washington state, and has been winding its way through the courts for three years.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones in Seattle ordered NMFS to revisit a biological opinion that’s required for the fishery to take place, lack of which could cancel the summer and winter king salmon seasons, with the summer season slated to begin July 1. The combined seasons can cover as many as 10 months of the year, depending upon catches, and affects nearly 1,500 fishing families.

On their website, ATA said this week that Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced the chum and coho salmon fisheries will proceed as scheduled, but without the retention of king salmon. King salmon are the mainstay of the Southeast troll fishery, with the fish being noted for their high fat content and careful handling, often ending up in white tablecloth restaurants and fetching $40 per pound in high-end grocery stores.

Alaska’s congressional delegation, which had filed an amicus brief in the suit, swiftly condemned the ruling, with Sen. Dan Sullivan’s office releasing a statement saying, “What’s most remarkable about this case is that the judge and Wild Fish Conservancy totally ignore much more likely causes of the orca decline, like the toxins, pollution, noise disturbance, and vessel traffic that have undoubtedly wreaked havoc in the Puget Sound region. This is the latest example of how extreme environmental groups weaponize and abuse the Endangered Species Act to devastate Alaska’s small businesses and entire communities.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski added, “Common sense and sound science must guide efforts to protect species. This uniquely awful decision blames Alaska for Washington’s problems, and suggests that an end to sustainable fishing in Southeast Alaska can cure decades of destructive environmental practices in Washington. If you want my ‘biological opinion,’ this is beyond ridiculous and cannot stand. The delegation will stand together, along with the State of Alaska, to fight this ruling.”

It comes at a time when commercial and most recreational king salmon fisheries are shut down in California and Oregon, additional areas where the mainstay of the orca diet originates. None of the kings that Puget Sound orcas feed on originate in Alaska rivers, and genetic studies have found that around 2% of kings caught in Alaska are bound for Puget Sound where the whales feed on them.

There is also a popular sport fishery in Puget Sound for juvenile king salmon, known as “jacks” in Alaska and “blackmouth” in Puget Sound.

Indigenous tribes along the Shasta River in California are working with federal and state agencies to return genetic stocks of kings from that river system that have been thriving in New Zealand for over a century in hopes that fish that have adapted to leaping up falls will have a better chance at navigating the waters passing the Shasta dam, rather than hatchery-raised fish.

Cristy Fry can be reached at