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Alaska salmon season back on after court halts closure that sought to protect orcas

A pod of orcas swim past a row of waterfront houses with trees and the Olympic mountains behind them.
Elaine Thompson
In this Jan. 18, 2014, file photo, endangered orcas swim in Puget Sound and in view of the Olympic Mountains just west of Seattle, as seen from a federal research vessel that has been tracking the whales.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday halted a lower court ruling that would have shut down southeast Alaska’s chinook salmon troll fishery for the summer to protect endangered orca whales that eat the fish.

The ruling by a three-judge 9th Circuit Court panel means the summer chinook, or king, salmon season will start as usual next week for an industry that supports some 1,500 fishery workers in southeast Alaska.

The opinion said the state and others who were part of the appeal established a sufficient likelihood that certain and substantial impacts of the lower court’s decision “outweigh the speculative environmental threats.” The ruling will allow the fishery to continue while the appeals court considers the lawsuit more broadly.

The ruling “recognized the absurdity of closing down a vital economic industry for an issue that is already being remedied by the federal government,” Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor said in a statement. “Thanks to the 9th Circuit, fishing season is on come July 1.”

Last month, U.S. District Judge Richard Jones in Seattle ruled in favor of Wild Fish Conservancy and ordered the National Marine Fisheries Services to redo a biological opinion that’s required for the fishery to take place. The winter chinook season could also have been impacted by Jones' decision.

The conservation group said it would help provide more food for starving whales and help struggling king salmon populations along the West Coast, since most of the salmon caught in southeast Alaska spawn in rivers to the south.

In a statement Wednesday, Wild Fish Conservancy said it was “disheartened” by the ruling. It warned of unfathomable economic, ecological and cultural costs of losing West Coast Chinook salmon and Southern Resident killer whales, a population of orcas that spend summer and fall in Washington State’s Puget Sound.

“It is unfortunate that the Ninth Circuit determined the short-term economic interests of a few should be prioritized over the continued existence of these species and the current and future generations of First Nations, Tribal Nations, and communities throughout the Pacific Northwest,” the group said.

Tad Fujioka, the chairman of the Seafood Producers Cooperative, said the troll fishermen in his cooperative would have likely faced a 50% pay cut if not for the appeals court's decision, leaving them with little since their margins are normally so narrow.

“It’s a big, big relief for me and all the trollers and all the people in the southeast who depend on the troll fishery,” Fujioka said. “In small villages trolling is one of the few things that you can do that provides year-round employment.”

Trolling is a hook-and-line fishery that involves towing baited hooks and lures.

About a third of southeast Alaska trollers are citizens of Native tribes who use traditional knowledge to support their families and commuities, according to a brief filed with the appeals court Friday by 16 tribes and two other Native organizations.

Troll-caught chinook also help Native families offset high grocery prices in a place where goods like meat and produce can run two to three times higher than elsewhere.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, said the broad support that came from the state's congressional delegation, tribes and commercial fishers showed the importance of the issue and ultimately defeating the lawsuit.

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican, said there would have been substantial financial harm possibly totalling over $100 million if fishing were not allowed this summer.

“It’s great that the court recognized the irreparable harm this frivolous lawsuit would have on hardworking fishermen who have done nothing wrong,” he said. “It is patently ridiculous to believe a small boat, hook and line troll salmon fishery hundreds of miles away from Puget Sound is having more of an impact on the sustainability of Puget Sound orca whales than toxins, pollution, noise and vessel traffic in their own backyard."

In 2019, NOAA Fisheries approved the most recent decade-long plan for the commercial troll fishery for chinook in southeast Alaska, with harvest limits set during negotiations between the U.S. and Canada.

King salmon are the largest and most expensive of the Pacific salmon species, and the southeastern fishery provides them to restaurants and grocery stores around the world.

They also make up the bulk of the diet for endangered orcas in the waters of the Salish Sea between Washington state and Canada. Due to overfishing, dams, development and pollution, chinook runs in the Northwest are at a small fraction of their historical abundance, and the local orca population has suffered in turn. Just 73 whales remain, inbreeding is a severe problem, and scientists are warning of extinction.

In court filings, the state of Alaska said the fishery has little effect on the whale population, and salmon also face other predators on the 700-mile (1,100-kilometer) journey, including Canadian commercial and recreational fisheries, tribal fisheries, a separate population of killer whales and Steller sea lions.

“The 9th Circuit got it right when it found that Alaska’s fishing interests outweighed the ‘speculative environmental threats,’” Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy said in a statement.

The state of Alaska was joined in the appeal by the Alaska Trollers Association and the federal fisheries service.

The federal fisheries service said it would not comment Wednesday on the ruling. A message seeking comment was sent to the conservancy group.

In April, officials canceled commercial and most recreational king salmon fishing off California and much of Oregon for the second time in 15 years after the fish returned in near record-low numbers to California’s rivers.

Updated: June 22, 2023 at 5:02 PM PDT
Changes headline. Adds comment from Wild Fish Conservancy. Edits for AP Style.
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