By now, Southeast Alaska residents have grown accustomed to legal actions that seek to block resource use in this region.
Quite often filed by outside entities, such lawsuits have long targeted timber harvesting on the Tongass National Forest, for example. More recently, lawsuits and petition requests have targeted the harvest of wolves.
Agree or disagree with the goal of a particular legal action, it’s not a stretch to say that most are wielded as a blunt, all-or-nothing weapon with little regard for nuance or likely side-effects.
The lawsuit brought by the Washington-based nonprofit corporation Wild Fish Conservancy falls in this category.
Under the guise of assisting the Southeast Resident Killer Whale population in Puget Sound, the Wild Fish Conservancy seeks to shut down the winter and summer commercial troll fishing seasons in Southeast Alaska, at least for a while.
The stated reason is that the commercial troll fleet catches king salmon that originate in Pacific Northwest waters, king salmon that might otherwise be food for the endangered killer whales in Puget Sound.
While it is true that the Southeast Alaska troll fleet harvests some of the king salmon in question, the Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit, like many others of its type, is a blunt weapon of little nuance and oblivious to side-effects.
A serious effort to address issues regarding the Southern Resident orcas would be wise to start much closer to their actual Puget Sound home.
As the Alaska Trollers Association and Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association note, these orcas primarily reside in an environment rife with pollution, habitat loss, industrial toxins and human-caused disturbances that include a heavy volume of marine traffic. The Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit does not target these factors.
Meanwhile, the Northern and Alaska Resident orca populations have grown since the 1980s, according to an ATA and ALFA report. Fisheries managers have increased chinook returns to the general area, and the “Columbia and Snake River summer and fall populations harvested in the Alaska troll fishery have been resilient,” with general returns during the past 10 years much higher than during the time spanning from the 1980s to the 2000s.
Despite these factors, the Wild Fish Conservancy seeks to shut down commercial small-boat fisheries that operate many hundreds of miles away from the orca population in question, saying that the National Marine Fisheries Service’s “biological opinion” that allows for the troll harvest of chinook has failed, in part, to “adequately evaluate whether the Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries will, directly or indirectly, reduce appreciably the likelihood of both the survival and recovery of ESA-listed species in the wild by reducing the reproduction, numbers, or distribution of the species.”
The lawsuit seeks to halt the fisheries until NMFS “complies” with the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
Targeting Southeast Alaska trollers has the feel of picking on an easy, distant target to garner some headlines while avoiding the tackling of thornier, more difficult and more relevant issues closer to home.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit’s side effects of economic loss on troll fishermen and troll fishery dependent communities will be very real if the federal judge decides in the Wild Fish Conservancy’s favor.