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Lawsuit targets Alaska salmon management to protect southern killer whales

A conservation organization based in Washington state is threatening to sue the federal government over the management of Alaska’s chinook salmon fisheries.

The Wild Fish Conservancy claims that management strategies in Alaska approved by the government pose a threat to the survival of several salmon runs in Washington, and the killer whales who depend on them.

The Wild Fish Conservancy filed notice on January 9, stating its intentions to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for violating the Endangered Species Act, and jeopardizing the existence of southern resident killer whales.

The Conservancy argues that an important food supply of the whales — endangered stocks of chinook salmon originating in Puget Sound, the lower Columbia River, the Willamette River, and Snake River — is being depleted by the commercial troll and sport harvest in Southeast Alaska.

Kurt Beardslee is the director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. Chinook — or king salmon — are managed under treaty between the United States and Canada, overseen by the Pacific Salmon Commission.

“The Pacific Salmon Commission has been collecting wonderful data for many years,” said Beardslee, “and we’ve been watching it over time, and consistently, roughly 97-percent of the chinook caught in Southeast Alaska in the troll fishery are not from Alaska. They’re from British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon.”

It’s widely understood that many chinook salmon harvested in the Gulf of Alaska originated elsewhere — but the 97-percent figure Beardslee cites will be disputed by Alaska, if it were to become party to the suit. In a prepared statement, state fisheries scientist Dani Evenson writes, “The purpose of the Pacific Salmon Treaty is two-fold: to share the available harvest and to share the burden of conservation when stocks are depressed.”

While Alaska is not a party to the suit, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game is the lead research agency for chinook salmon in the Gulf. Here’s the department’s reaction to news about the potential litigation.

"The Southeast Alaska salmon fishery falls under the purview of the Pacific Salmon Treaty," said Dani Evenson, ADF&G Fisheries scientist. "The purpose of the Pacific Salmon Treaty is 2-fold: to share the available harvest and to share the burden of conservation when stocks are depressed. Management of the southeast Alaska chinook salmon is delegated to the State of Alaska. The state’s management conforms to treaty stipulations. The Treaty contains harvest control rules to constrain chinook fisheries along the western seaboard. Southeast Alaska fisheries took a 15 percent harvest reduction under the 2009 version of the Treaty and an additional 7.5 percent reduction under the 2019 version. These cuts to our fisheries were to provide fish to the spawning grounds for stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act in the Pacific Northwest, though we only catch them in small numbers. ESA-listed chinook stocks are considered a rare occurrence in Alaska’s waters."

Alaska salmon trollers in 2009 took a 15 percent reduction in the chinook harvest under the treaty. Ten years later, they took another 7.5 percent hit — in part to protect the endangered salmon stocks that the Wild Fish Conservancy is concerned about.

But Evanson says those runs are small, and Alaska trollers are not the reason they’re depressed.

“We only catch them in small numbers,” said Evenson. “ESA-listed chinook stocks are considered a rare occurrence in Alaska’s waters.”

Evenson says that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game has a robust monitoring program for chinook — including the use of DNA sampling to determine origin — but she was unable to provide the latest composition of Alaska’s chinook harvest. However, a report published by the department online in 2016 suggests that the proportion of out-of-state chinook is nowhere near 97-percent of the total Alaskan harvest, and actually falls anywhere between 30- and 80-percent depending on the year.

Nevertheless, king salmon in the Gulf of Alaska remain in crisis, and the strict conservation measures the state rolled out in 2017, likely will be tightened in 2020.

Kurt Beardslee and the Wild Fish Conservancy are not alone in their belief that further measures are needed. What those measures entail, however, could be up to the federal courts.

“If in fact we really want to recover salmon on a coastal scale,” Beardslee said,”we’re going to have to make some changes. And I don’t believe these changes are necessarily going to be bad for fishermen. I actually think if we fish on or near our rivers of origin, and we fish with selected gear, it will help rebuild our stocks on a coastal scale.”

The Wild Fish Conservancy is based in Duvall, Washington. It has about 3,000 members.  The Conservancy’s letter of intention to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service also names US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross.

If the Conservancy decides to pursue the case, it will have to file the full lawsuit within 60 days.

KCAW reached out to NOAA Fisheries for comment on the issue. Spokesperson Michael Milstein responded that the agency had just received the letter, and was still assessing it.

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