Court recommends halting Alaska's salmon harvest
December 28, 2022
SEATTLE — In a massive international and coast-wide decision for wild Chinook and Southern Resident killer whale recovery, Seattle’s federal court issued a landmark opinion Dec. 13 recommending terminating unsustainable commercial salmon harvest that has persisted for decades until new environmental reviews of those fisheries occur. Overfishing was found in a previous ruling to illegally harm the recovery of both endangered Southern Resident killer whales and wild Chinook salmon across the Pacific Northwest.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michelle Peterson issued a report and recommendation on Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit, agreeing that halting the summer and winter seasons of the Southeast Alaska Chinook troll fishery is the most appropriate remedy. The judge found the federal government’s inadequate biological opinion should be remanded back to NOAA for the agency to address violations of environmental law.
In August, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Jones issued a summary judgment based on a report and recommendation by Magistrate Peterson confirming that NOAA violated the law by improperly relying on undeveloped and uncertain future mitigation to offset ongoing overfishing authorized by NOAA.
In their recent analysis of this fishery’s impact on threatened and endangered species, NOAA admits that over the last decade and continuing, Chinook harvest is occurring at levels that are unsustainable for the long-term survival and reproductive success of both threatened wild Chinook populations and endangered Southern Resident killer whales.
“The benefits to wild Chinook and Southern Resident recovery from the Court’s action cannot be overstated,” said Emma Helverson, executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “If adopted by the district judge, this recommendation will result in the first scientifically-proven recovery action in the Pacific Northwest to immediately provide Chinook for starving killer whales. The decision will also recover and restore the larger and more diverse life histories of wild Chinook these whales evolved to eat, which are fundamental for rebuilding both populations.”
While these Chinook are certified by major U.S. seafood certifiers as “sustainable wild caught Alaskan Chinook,” approximately 97% of all Chinook harvested in the Southeast Alaska troll fishery originate from rivers throughout British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. These Chinook are harvested prematurely, before they migrate into southern waters where the Southern Resident killer whales encounter them. In 2021 the fishery of concern harvested approximately 160,000 Chinook, many of which were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
This action supports the coastwide recovery of Chinook stocks by allowing more wild Chinook to return and spawn in rivers in B.C., Washington and Oregon.
“I want to emphasize that Alaskan fishers are not to blame for NOAA’s chronic mismanagement of this fishery, and we are sympathetic to the burden this decision may pose on Southeast Alaskan communities,” said Helverson. “However, it’s critical to also acknowledge that for decades this fishery has harvested majority non-Alaskan Chinook at unsustainable levels with cascading and coastwide consequences for fishing communities throughout British Columbia, Oregon and Washington. In addition to the unparalleled benefits to killer whale and Chinook recovery, the court’s decision will restore more control to communities over the recovery of their local Chinook salmon populations, particularly tribal people and First Nations.”
Southern Resident killer whales were listed as endangered in 2005. There are 73 individuals in the population, an alarming decrease from nearly 100 only 25-years ago.
The magistrate judge’s report and recommendation and any objections from the defendants will be considered by the district judge presiding over the case for a final ruling.