Fairbanks Daily News Miner: Judge orders closure of Southeast troll fishery to protect orcas

A Washington state-based federal judge ordered a closure of Southwest Alaska’s troll fishery for the summer after voiding an environmental review that authorized the fishing activity.

 Judge Richard Jones sided Tuesday with the Washington-based nonprofit Wild Fish Conservancy, who filed a lawsuit in order to protect orcas on the coast of Lower 48 states and British Columbia.

 In his two-page order, Jones ordered the troll fishery closed pending a review of the 2019 Southeast Alaska Biological Opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service to to remedy the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act violations previously found.

 Jones also ordered parts of the 2019 report that authorizes the taking of Southern resident killer whales and chinook salmon to be vacated.

 While Jones’ order doesn’t outright close down the fishery, it stipulates the state cannot open a fishery unless it complies with the Endangered Species Act.

 Lawsuit participants argued in court documents that if a 40-page report and its recommendations from Magistrate Judge Michelle Peterson were enacted, it would effectively close down the Chinook troll fishery, which generates $29 million annually and employs hundreds. The summer troll fishery runs from July to September.

 Wild Fish Conservancy argues that the troll fishery drastically impacts the orca population because it harvests the chinook salmon the killer whales feed on.

 Troll fisheries operate by catching fish on single hooks, rather than with nets like larger fishing boats. Trollers also operate on smaller boats, either individually or small groups.

 Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration issued a statement Tuesday saying it will intervene on the fishery’s behalf and ask for the ruling to be set aside during the appeals process.

 Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor, in a prepared statement, called the ruling a radical step.

 “We’ll continue to pursue every available avenue in defense of Alaska’s fisheries,” Taylor said. “We understand the critical importance of this fishery to the affected fishermen and communities across Southeast.”

  Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the state has a “a responsibility to look out for our fisheries and the Southeast coastal communities and families that rely on them.”

 Vincent-Lang added, “The State of Alaska abides by the terms of the Pacific Salmon Treaty and the Biological Opinion that is tied to it, and it is troubling that this ruling singles out our fisheries.”

 Alaska’s congressional delegation, along with several local governments and fishing industry organizations, have sided with trollers on the matter.

 In its filing with the courts, the Alaska Department of Law argues that closing the king salmon troll fishery has little impact on impacted species, such as orcas, “considering the gauntlet of predators between the fishery and the identified pod of whales.”

 The Alaska delegation blasted the decision in a joint statement Wednesday, noting it will be devastating blow to Southeast Alaska’s economy.

 Sen. Dan Sullivan said a Washington-based judge’s decision on an Alaska fishery was “outrageous” and called it “the latest example of how extreme environmental groups weaponize and abuse the Endangered Species Act.”

 “What’s most remarkable about this case is that the judge and Wild Fish Conservancy totally ignore much more likely causes of the orca decline, like the toxins, pollution, noise disturbance, and vessel traffic that have undoubtedly wreaked havoc in the Puget Sound region,” Sullivan said.

 Murkowski said the lawsuit “blames Alaska for Washington’s problems, and suggests that an end to sustainable fishing in Southeast Alaska can cure decades of destructive environmental practices in Washington.”

 “If you want my ‘biological opinion,’ this is beyond ridiculous and cannot stand. The delegation will stand together, along with the State of Alaska, to fight this ruling,” Murkowksi said.

 U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola said she agreed with groups “this lawsuit is frivolous and incapable of protecting a whale population that faces much greater threats such as pollution and habitat loss in its home region near Seattle.”

By:  Jack Barnwell
Source: Fairbanks Daily News Miner