Destroying a fishery will not save Southern Resident Killer Whales

“Taking legal action to shut down a scientifically managed and authorized troll salmon fishery will do little or nothing for the endangered SRKW but will certainly economically damage family fishermen and their small coastal communities.”

By Dr. Wally Pereyra

In less than two weeks, a Seattle-based federal judge will decide the fate of some 1,600 Southeast Alaska salmon trollers—fishermen who are already looking at the lowest allotment of Chinook in 20 years, largely due to the past three Pacific Salmon Treaty agreements that have cut, by two-thirds, their allocation of these high-value, sought-after fish.

If you haven’t been following the trade press or Alaska media in the past few weeks, you may not know that this group of largely rural Alaska fishermen are today facing the unthinkable: being put out of business—collateral damage as the result of a lawsuit filed by a Washington state-based NGO, the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC), against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

In the lawsuit, WFC seeks a Preliminary Injunction to stop the Southeast Alaska summer troll fishery, alleging that NMFS has failed to allow enough king (Chinook) salmon to return to Puget Sound to feed endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW).  If the Court grants the injunction and closes the Chinook salmon trolling fishery in Southeast Alaska (effective July 1, 2020), disastrous consequences would result not just to the fishermen but to Alaska’s rural economy, already hard-hit by COVID-19, and the loss of tourism and oil revenues.

For this reason, the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance (NWAA), where I serve on the Board of Directors, stands in solidarity with the Alaska Trollers Association, SalmonState, and the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in seeking comprehensive solutions facing the SRKW population and maintaining the already-approved troll fishery. 

We believe that all of us in the business of providing consumers with high-quality, nutritious seafood should work together to find innovative solutions to complex problems.  More than ever, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear to all of us that we in the seafood business need to work together to ensure a food-secure future.

A few facts about this fishery:  The SE Alaska troll salmon fishery is highly regulated, authorized and permitted under the Salmon Fishery Management Plan (FMP) of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has delegated regulatory authority to the State of Alaska in accordance with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act, the Pacific Salmon Treaty, and other applicable federal laws.  This complex web of regulations not only ensures that the Chinook salmon populations are sustainably managed, but also ensures that the regulations take into account other considerations such as essential fish habitat, wild salmon and fishery impacts to other animal populations, including killer whales. 

While the numbers of fish available to harvest have declined over the past two decades (and keep declining because of management and Treaty decisions), the fishery has been a significant contributor to the SE Alaska economy.

Many smart scientists are working on this issue, and most will agree on one thing: Many factors contribute to the present situation facing these whales. Notably,  the Salmon Fishery Management Plan (FMP) states that the most important causes for the decline and extirpation of Chinook salmon populations are habitat degradations, such as dams on the Columbia River system, urbanization (e.g., Greater Seattle), agriculture land use, water diversions, mining, and logging. 

For those of us who have worked in fisheries management and various commercial fisheries for decades, one thing is clear: The current situation of the SRKW is certainly not the result of the sustainably managed SE Alaska salmon troll fishery.

Since 1990, the Salmon FMP has been amended 11 times to address changes in the law, new information, and new analyses.  This amendment process is robust and provides for stakeholder input at multiple levels.  It is disingenuous for the WFC to attempt to shut down this valuable fishery at the 11th hour rather than work for changes through the open FMP amendment process and those of the State of Alaska.

As noted, sustainable harvests from fishing are a minor impact by comparison to those from habitat degradation. 

Why, then, is WFC seeking to totally shutdown the SE Alaska troll fishery with devastating impacts to these rural fishermen, their families, and coastal communities?  Such a shutdown of the fishery would be of minor benefit to the SRKW but most certainly would have severe economic consequences to the fishermen, their families, and their communities.

With COVID-19 already destroying the livelihoods of so many in the commercial fishing and aquaculture industries, it is vital that all stakeholders including WFC, search for newer and more creative (and less harmful) solutions to the problems they seek to fix.

As someone who has been involved in the Alaska fishing industry for more than 50 years, largely in the pollock fishery, I have lived through many misguided campaigns aimed at destroying or harming our industry; and it always dismays me to see the vast amounts of money and time that have been spent by participants in this highly regulated fishery, simply trying to stay in business.

We who are in the business of putting sustainable protein on the family dinner table have always welcomed the participation of environmental and marine conservation organizations, and on many, many occasions we have worked side-by-side with such groups.  The environment is just as important to us as it nurtures the resources from which we gain our livelihood.

In reflecting on the current legal controversy I would personally like to offer the WFC a better solution to the problem they raise of saving the SRKW, one that does not destroy a fishery that has traditionally been the economic backbone of Southeast Alaska, harming countless fishing families in the process.  

So here is what I am suggesting to the leadership of WFC. 

If you really want to help the whale population, please consider withdrawing your lawsuit and preliminary injunction request, and instead work with all stakeholders to:

  1. Take steps to increase hatchery Chinook production;
  2. Continue efforts to restore riparian habitats and reduce ecosystem degradation to improve the survival of wild Chinook salmon populations; and
  3. Immediately initiate a SRKW supplemental feeding program of lipid-rich farm-raised salmon. 

This third point has been raised before, and we only have to turn back the clock a few decades to the orphan whale calf who came to be known as “Springer.” During the time that Springer lived near the NOAA-NMFS Manchester site, she was fed a diet of omega-3-rich farmed Atlantic salmon. When eventually released, Springer did very well, and has since given birth to two offspring.  Since both farmed Atlantics and most Chinook salmon share a similar lipid profile, feeding Springer farmed Atlantics was obviously a suitable Chinook salmon substitute.  

The WFC legal documents allege that the “Southern Resident Killer Whale population is at an increasingly high risk of extinction primarily due to insufficient prey (Knudsen Declaration – 108-10, 266)”.   Accordingly, WFC  should support measures to provide farm-reared lipid-rich salmon to SRKW populations.  Such a feeding program is needed to alleviate a short-term extinction risk while other longer-term programs to increase natural and hatchery production of Chinook salmon prey for the SRKW are identified and implemented.

Additionally, the WFC makes a big issue out of the delay in implementation of NMFS’s proposed mitigation measures to increase hatchery production of Chinook salmon. This concern on their part should elicit whole-hearted support from them to initiate an immediate program to implement a directed feeding program with lipid-rich salmon.

It would be helpful for all concerned if the WFC would join with other stakeholders working to improve the freshwater and marine habitats which our salmon and other farmed marine resources such as oysters and clams need to survive and flourish.  That is a long-term solution that everyone can support. 

Taking legal action to shut down a scientifically managed and authorized troll salmon fishery will do little or nothing for the endangered SRKW but will certainly economically damage family fishermen and their small coastal communities.

About the author

Dr. Walter T. (Wally) Pereyra has been instrumental in developing the North Pacific groundfish fishery, beginning with the US-Soviet Joint Venture known as Marine Resources Company. Prior to joining the fishing industry, Dr. Pereyra spent 15 years as a groundfish scientist with the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.  In addition to working for commercial enterprises, Dr. Pereyra served for nine years as a member and Vice Chairman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. He was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Fisheries Institute, serving as its Chairman during his last year. In addition, Dr. Pereyra was also a member of the federal MPA Federal Advisory Committee to the US Secretaries of Commerce and Interior.  Dr. Pereyra has recently served as a Board member of the Seattle-based conservation organization, Snow Leopard Trust, as well as the nonprofit SeaShare, which is dedicated to channeling surplus seafood to food banks.  He is currently serving on the Board of Directors of the Northwest Aquaculture Alliance as well as on the Advisory Board to the UW College of the Environment. 

Image: Dr. Walter T. (Wally) Pereyra