Judge Asked to Halt Salmon Fishing in Alaska

Southern Resident killer whale eating a Chinook salmon. (Center for Whale Research)

(CN) — A Seattle judge should shut down a southeast Alaska Chinook salmon fishery on July 1, attorneys argued Thursday, because the fish that survive there will later feed endangered Southern Resident killer whales starving for a lack of Chinook salmon.

Wild Fish Conservancy sued National Marine Fisheries Service and the U.S. Department of Congress in March, claiming the federal government let Alaska set a permissive fishing season that will push the endangered whales of the Salish Sea closer to extinction.

Southern Resident killer whales live in the sea near Seattle, in three extended, matrilineal families called pods. Their numbers never fully rebounded after aquariums that later became SeaWorld captured a third of them in the late 1960s.

Unlike transient killer whales, which roam larger areas and eat marine mammals, resident whales eat only fish — mostly Chinook salmon. Scientists say a lack of prey is the main factor causing the whales’ decline. Nine species of Pacific Northwest Chinook are listed as either threatened or endangered. And many of those fish travel thousands of miles in their years at sea, before returning to the rivers and streams of their birth to spawn. Those travels take past state and national boundaries, and past a series of predators — both in the ocean and in boats.

In southeast Alaska, 97% of the Chinook salmon caught by fishermen were born elsewhere. The fish they take never make it back to their home waters, where they could have been dinner for the 73 remaining Southern Resident killer whales — a genetically distinct group of orca that are starving due to a lack of their main prey.

Kurt Beardslee, executive director for Wild Fish Conservancy, told Courthouse News that catching salmon in the ocean, where numerous runs born hundreds of miles from each other all mingle, tosses carefully calibrated fishing regulations out the window.

“We have to go back to how we fished 150 years ago: in or near the fishes’ rivers of origin,” Beardslee said. “Stop fishing in the ocean, where have no idea whose fish they are.”

Fishing in a river means the only salmon present are either juveniles headed out to sea, or fully mature adults, headed back home. But in the ocean, fishermen can catch salmon at any age. Chinook stay in the ocean for up to nine years — longer than other species of salmon. Scientists worry that selectively harvesting the largest fish from a wide array of generations is changing their age structure.  Over time, Beardslee said, that means the entire species skews smaller.

“The more you fish in the ocean, the more you are impacting fish that have a propensity for staying in ocean and becoming large,” Beardslee said in a phone interview. “It’s a major problem. Those are the fish we are missing, and the ones the whales need.”

Bigger fish also carry more eggs back home, and can dig deeper nests, called redds, that are more likely to produce abundant, healthy juvenile fish.

The Alaska Trollers Association, an intervenor in this case, claims the problem lies at the other end of the Chinook lifetime: Pacific Northwest rivers that are heated by dams to temperatures lethal to fish. It says it is already heavily regulated, having recently given up 7.5% of previous Chinook harvest rates in a renegotiation of the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

On Wednesday, attorneys for Wild Fish Conservancy asked U.S. Magistrate Judge Michelle L. Peterson to halt the fishery now, via preliminary injunction. Peterson, a Trump appointee, took arguments under advisement from the conservancy, the government and Alaska Trollers Association. She did not indicate when she would rule on the motion.

Arguing on behalf of the Wild Fish Conservancy, Brian Knutsen said Thursday that part of the problem is that fishing in Alaska is regulated by an entirely different governmental body than the one that regulates fishing on the West Coast. And the federal government lets the state regulate fishing in federal waters beyond three miles from Alaska’s shores.

“Southern Resident killer whales are declining due in large part to a lack of prey,” Knutsen said. “There’s no dispute that the approval of harvests in Alaska contributes to that lack of prey.”

But U.S. AttorneyFrederick Turner told Peterson the conservancy’s lawsuit shouldn’t stand because it is an organization dedicated to promoting fish, not whales.

“Plaintiff lacks standing as it pertains to Southern Resident killer whales,” Turner said on behalf of the government. “It cannot be that a party that files a complaint based on harm to fish, it cannot turn around and seek relief based on the harm to whales.”

Knutsen suggested that argument ignored the ecological reality of overlapping interdependence.

“Southern Residents have played a key role in shaping the evolutionary significant units of salmon in the Pacific Northwest,” Knutsen said. “We want health salmon runs to be available for angling and other harvest opportunities. And so that healthy salmon runs are available to the predators in the ecosystem.”

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