Alaska Delegation Urges Court to Drop Deceptive Lawsuit Threatening Southeast Alaska Troll Fishermen

WASHINGTON—U.S. Senators Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski (both R-Alaska), and Representative Mary Sattler Peltola (D-Alaska), filed an amicus brief with the U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington this week supporting Southeast Alaska troll fishermen in a case that threatens to shut down their small boat troll fishery on the pretense that their salmon harvest is a primary contributor to the population decline of Southern resident killer whales hundreds of miles away in Puget Sound. The lawsuit does not consider the potential impacts of similar fisheries in Oregon and Washington. 

On December 13, 2022, a Seattle-based magistrate judge ruled largely in favor of the Wild Fish Conservancy, an extreme environmental group challenging the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in the case. If the District Court upholds the magistrate judge’s ruling, the decision could shut down the Southeast Alaska fishery and upset the careful balance struck between conservation, harvest sharing and promoting sustainable fisheries. A shutdown would be detrimental to Southeast coastal communities and hard-working Alaska fishermen.

In their amicus brief, the congressional delegation notes that Congress allocated millions of dollars in recent years for a hatchery-based “prey increase program” supporting Chinook salmon numbers to provide additional food sources for Puget Sound orcas and to offset any minimal impact caused by the Southeast troll fishery. Mitigation measures like the prey increase program are evaluated and accounted for when harvest limits are adopted by the binational Pacific Salmon Commission.

“Our state’s small boat, hook-and-line troll salmon fishermen—the ultimate small business owners—are under assault by a Lower 48 environmental group, known for its extreme positions, claiming our fishery is endangering the continued existence of Puget Sound orcas hundreds of miles away,” said Senator Sullivan. “What’s most remarkable about this case is that the magistrate judge and the 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. In Alaska, we are no strangers to extreme environmental groups filing meritless, deceptive lawsuits with no regard for how these lawsuits hurt our fellow Alaskans. Over the last several weeks, I’ve met with fishing industry leaders, the NOAA administrator, and the NMFS administrator to encourage them to vigorously defend our fishermen and this fishery against this lawsuit in court for as long as it takes, and to ensure our fishermen have a season and are not tied up at the dock while we work through this. Both the NOAA and NMFS administrators have assured me that they will. We will fight this frivolous, shameful lawsuit with everything in our power, and work to ensure Alaska’s sustainable fisheries are supported with science-based management. I also want to thank so many other Alaska stakeholders—the State, our Legislature, and several Southeast communities—who are also very focused on fighting this lawsuit.” 

“Fishing is fundamental to Alaskans. And to have our Southeast troll fisheries at risk of being shut down because of litigation from a Washington-based environmental organization is flat out wrong. While we work to understand the effects of changing climate on our oceans and fisheries, we must work together to ensure those most impacted have the tools and ability to adapt. Shutting down small-boat fisheries that are vital to Alaska’s coastal communities is not the answer. Our Southeast Alaska fisheries—many of which are family-run operations—are understandably panicked by these potential closures and the cascading impacts they could have on the region,” said Senator Murkowski. “Our Alaska delegation is united in defending our fishermen and our coastal communities from outsiders who threaten our Alaskan way of life.”

“This lawsuit is misguided and unhelpful for the salmon and whales,” said Representative Peltola. “The proposed ‘solution’ of shutting down a critical fishery is among the least effective and most painful ways to address the killer whale population challenges. It completely ignores the most likely causes of the whales’ population struggles, which include pollution, ship traffic, and habitat degradation. It would do significant damage to small-boat fishing families who rely on this fishery to make a living, while also negatively impacting the Pacific Salmon Treaty and tribal fishing rights. I’m as critical as anyone about the shortcomings of our fisheries management, but this lawsuit doesn’t contribute to the science or management efforts at all—instead, it just threatens a single user group with economic ruin. I will continue to work with scientists, managers, stakeholders and local leaders to find ways forward that protect this crucial resource and keep fishermen fishing whenever we can.”

The State of Alaska and the Alaska Trollers Association are interveners in the lawsuit. On March 2, the Alaska House of Representatives passed a resolution urging state and federal agencies to defend the Southeast troll fishermen in court. The Alaska fishermen have also received resolutions of support from the City of Wrangell, the City of Sitka, and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, among others.

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