Trolling for king salmon in Southeast AK.  Credit: Northwest Fishing News

Nearly 1,600 trollers who fish for king salmon in Southeast Alaska could be beached this summer over a lawsuit to protect killer whales – in Puget Sound, Washington.

KCAW/Sitka reports that on April 16 the Wild Fish Conservancy filed an injunction against NOAA Fisheries in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington.  The injunction would block the king salmon season scheduled to begin on July 1 until the lawsuit is resolved.

The Conservancy claims NOAA has failed to allow enough king salmon to return to Puget Sound to feed endangered resident killer whales. Their lawsuit says that 97-percent of the kings caught in Southeast’s troll fishery are from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. Alaska data show catches range from 30-80 percent, depending on the year.

Amy Daugherty, director of the Alaska Trollers Association (ATA), said her group is in shock and has intervened in the lawsui

“We want to fish. Our fishery is the backbone of Southeast Alaska economically. We are 85-percent resident, small family businesses. We have challenges — which are the markets in this day and age — but we have to fish, even under the reduced allowances of the last treaty agreement.

Chinook catches are determined by treaty agreements every 10 years by the US and Canada. Alaska trollers have cut their share by more than 22 percent since 2009.

The lawsuit hits at a time when fishermen already are facing ruined markets from COVID-19 impacts. The Wild Fish Conservancy’s Kurt Beardslee told KCAW that makes it a good time to call off fishing.

 “Actually, if there were ever a time to do it, this may be the time also for fishermen. I know many of the processing plants are reducing their productivity. Some aren’t even working because of covid. We have to change the cycle, and I think this year is as good as any, if not better.”

Beardslee added that the injunction doesn’t mean Alaska trollers are solely to blame for the decline of the Puget Sound killer whales whose numbers are now down to 72 animals. Rather, he said it’s an effort to force NOAA Fisheries to comply with the terms of the Endangered Species Act.

The trollers’ Amy Daugherty points out that the lawsuit affects more than the summer fishing season.

“This legal matter is broader than just trolling. I believe that all salmon fishermen, and anyone who bycatches salmon, is at risk. Including sport fishermen — they need to realize that this is a pretty broad net in the lawsuit itself.”

The Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang told KCAW the department is “exploring our options to intervene in the case.”