Hawaii & Alaska
The lawsuit, aimed at protecting killer whales, also known as orcas, could threaten the entire Southeast Alaska troll salmon fishery. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

AK - Opponents line up to condemn lawsuit shuttering valuable Alaska king salmon fishery

A new ruling aimed at protecting endangered orca whales could put a critical Alaska fishery in jeopardy.

A ruling in a Washington state district court has ruled in favor of an NGO-led effort to close a lucrative Southeast Alaska king salmon troll fishery in the summer and winter while the federal government revises a plan aimed at protecting endangered killer whales.

The decision came last week in a US District Court from Judge Richard A. Jones, who agreed Southeast Alaska’s winter and summer troll fisheries be shut down while the biological opinion is looked at.

The fleet has a total economic impact of $34 million (€31 million) annually, according to the City and Borough of Sitka.

Southeast Alaska’s troll fishery directly employs 1,500 fishermen and is consistently one of Southeast Alaska’s top three most valuable fisheries in the rural area, according to the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association.

The group, which represents vessels harvesting in the Southeast region, says the fishery generates $148 million (€134 million) annually in economic outputs that include restaurant sales, consumer purchases, transportation jobs and other benefits accruing throughout the West Coast of the United States and beyond.

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Longtime court battle over threat to whales

The lawsuit stemmed from a 445-page biological opinion on the issue that was released by NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2019.

In that opinion, NMFS, the agency overseeing fisheries and aquaculture in the United States, said the Southeast Alaska commercial salmon troll fishery would have no significant impact on fish available for the Southern Resident orcas, according to the news site Cordova Times.

The lawsuit, filed NGO Wild Fish Conservancy, called on the court to review that 2019 opinioin, citing a need for among other things better document how a hatchery supplementation program to increase available food for orcas was impacting wild populations.

The Alaska Trollers Association said in response to the recent ruling to close the fishery while the opinion is reviewed will "cause irreparable harm to the communities of Southeast Alaska with no measurable benefit to Southern Resident Killer Whales."

The association added it is prepared to appeal the ruling, with condemnation also coming from NOAA as well as Alaska's Congressional delegation and state lawmakers.

NOAA said in a satement last week that it is "working expeditiously to address the court's order."

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