Commercial troller fishing

The commercial troll fishing vessel Kelly Rose fishes on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, at Mountain Point.

Staff photo by Dustin Safranek

Tom Fisher, a commercial troll fisherman and the president of the board of the Southern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association, has been catching salmon out of Ketchikan and surrounding communities since 1973. When he heard that a federal judge in Washington made a ruling this Tuesday that could shut down the small boat troll fishery in Southeast Alaska, Fisher was "flat dumbfounded."

"Currently I'm at my boat in Wrangell," Fisher told the Daily News during a phone interview on Thursday. "I was slated to get hauled out of the water today, I've cancelled my haul-out. I've canceled some work that I was going to have done."

Fisher said that in May, commercial troll fishermen typically are "shelling out our money, getting our boats ready to go fishing." Fisher estimates that he would have spent $2,000 to haul out his boat this week and said he would typically be stocking up on gear ahead of the summer troll season. Commercial troll permits are valued at about $30,000, and Fisher estimates he's invested $125,000 in his fishing boat.

"The judge's ruling on Tuesday took all that value and pretty much zeroes it because who would want to buy a trolling boat or permit if they can't fish?" Fisher said. "I'm 63 years old and I'm sitting here looking at my livelihood washing out the door. It's just utterly dumbfounding to me."

 On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones nullified a key document that authorizes the Southeast Alaska troll fishery to operate during summer and winter months despite the fishery's potential impact on several chinook salmon stocks that are listed under the Endangered Species Act, as well as the endangered southern resident killer whales that live in the Puget Sound area and prey on migratory chinook.

In a divisive lawsuit, Jones ruled in favor of the Washington-based Wild Fish Conservancy, which claims that hook-and-line trollers in Southeast are harming some endangered chinook stocks that originate in Washington and Oregon, and that a decline in chinook salmon populations passing through the Puget Sound is a primary driver for the falling population of southern resident killer whales. There are currently 73 known individual orcas in the population, which was listed as endangered in 2005, down from a peak of 98 in 1995.

Opponents of the WFC lawsuit say that it is misguided and could flatten a regional economy that's nourished by the hook-and-line commercial troll fishery, which has a low impact on the chinook population and a negligible impact on orcas in Puget Sound.

Tom Fisher agrees.

"It's not the Alaska trollers' fault that there were damns put on the Columbia River; it's not the Alaska trollers' fault that there's a concrete jungle in Puget Sound," Fisher said. "When you degrade your habitat, you can't expect to have these magnificent, wonderful creatures called the king (chinook) salmon swimming in there. ... I could go down and spoon-feed those whales, and it's doubtful they're going to survive."

Fishermen and government leaders are unsure how exactly Jones' Tuesday ruling will hit the summer troll fishery, which is set to begin July 1.

The WFC lawsuit does not threaten to shutter the spring troll fishery that runs from about April through June because the fishery is managed to target chinook salmon produced in Southeast Alaska hatcheries. During winter and summer fisheries, a large majority of the chinook that fishermen harvest come from rivers and hatcheries outside of Alaska, including some endangered stocks that spawn in Washington and Oregon.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang told the Daily News that he thinks the judge's ruling is limited to directed troll fisheries on chinook, so troll fishermen could still target coho, chum and pink salmon during the summer and winter.

Vincent-Lang said that after Jones issued his decision Tuesday, the State of Alaska filed an intent to appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court and filed a "stay" that asks the court to suspend the judgement in favor of WFC until the state's appeal can be heard and decided upon.

Meanwhile, federal fisheries managers are working to correct a key document that authorizes trollers to catch chinook salmon. National Marine Fisheries Service is the division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that, according to the lawsuit, is violating the ESA and National Environmental Protection Act by authorizing the State of Alaska to open troll fisheries under a "biological opinion" it penned in 2019.

The document justifies the Southeast troll fishery's "take" of a small number of endangered chinook and balances the potential impact that trollers' take of migratory chinook could have on endangered orcas in Puget Sound.

Vincent-Lang said that the West Coast division of NMFS will address shortcomings that the court identified in the 2019 biological opinion.

"They're reevaluating the science that's associated with the prey needs of killer whales as well as the impact that different fisheries have for listed salmon stocks in Puget Sound, so they're updating that from what was done five or six years ago when they did that (2019) BiOp," Vincent-Lang said. "We're convinced that new science is going to come to slightly different conclusions about the impact Southeast Alaska fisheries have."

Vincent-Lang said that the Alaska Division of NMFS will review associated NEPA documents that explain how NMFS would financially support the production of more chinook in Washington and Oregon hatcheries to "meaningfully increase" prey availability for the southern resident orcas.

Judge Jones' Tuesday decision says that NMFS should continue operating the "prey increase" hatchery program that is meant to mend any harm done to orcas in Puget Sound by offsetting the Southeast troll fishery's take of chinook from the lower U.S.

Wild Fish Conservancy filed a counter-injunction this week that says NMFS should shut down the prey increase program because hatchery-bred chinook interfere with wild and endangered chinook stocks, a claim WFC made in the original lawsuit.

Vincent-Lang said that at this point, he feels "confident" in the state's case, and confident that the appellate court will make a different decision than Judge Jones.

"We're doing everything we can to make sure we get this fishery on the water on July 1," Vincent-Lang said on Friday.

If Jones' ban on chinook trolling stands, Vincent-Lang said the department is hopeful that the ruling will only impact directed chinook fisheries. That way, summer trolling for other species could still go on.

"If summer troll fisheries for chinook were closed and there was just a coho salmon fishery beginning to operate, we think that fishery probably could operate," Vincent-Lang said. "Before we make that decision, we have to have some more legal advice."

Eric Jordan, a lifetime fisherman and fish policy advocate in Sitka who's been trolling since 1974, said that he believes Fish and Game is "being aggressive on behalf of the troll issue while recognizing conservation and allocation constraints created by the Board of Fisheries."

"Fish and Game has some creative latitude," Jordan told the Daily News during an interview on Friday. "It's called in-season management, where managers can adapt to situations biological, political, legal, or whatever, as much as possible."'

Jordan hopes that managers will allow fishermen to target chum, coho and pink salmon during the summer and winter, despite the possibility that fishermen could hook some chinook as bycatch.

While trolling for hatchery-bred chum salmon that are returning to Deep Inlet in Sitka Sound, Jordan said he catches fewer than one chinook per 1,000 chum salmon that he lands.

"We know as trollers that when we're targeting chum with the right gear and systems, we hardly catch any king salmon," Jordan said. "If there's a possibility to let us target chum salmon, they know any bycatch is going to be minimal."

Jordan called out the "unjust" nature of a lawsuit. He said there's a lot of grief going on among troll fishermen "who are facing untold financial and emotional devastation."

"This is a situation where rich people who can afford to fly to Alaska, hire a guide or bring their own fancy yacht up here will still be fishing king (chinook) salmon," Jordan said. "Whereas Alaska Natives, trollers and hand trollers that are barely scraping out a living and have been for 100 years can't fish for kings."

The lawsuit does not challenge the government's justification for any other fisheries that intercept endangered subspecies of chinook salmon.

"It's just unjust," Jordan said. "The largely Seattle-based trawl fishery that's killing tens of thousands of king salmon off the west coast of Alaska is not restricted a bit by this court case."

Jordan called for government relief in communities where trolling is central to the economy, including mental health support, financial support and loan forgiveness for fishermen, tender vessel operators, seafood processors, gear supply companies and all other stakeholders.

"People are devastated," Jordan said. "They don't know how they're going to make their boat payments, their permit payments. They're wondering whether to tie the boat up and find other employment."

Tom Fisher said that he and other trollers "all have pits in our stomachs."

"As trollers and independent businessmen, we're used to being in control of our own destinies, and to all of a sudden not have that control is pretty frightening," Fisher said. "All I know for sure is that I have from now until the end of the spring season to fish for hatchery chinook."