NOAA completes impact analysis of Alaska troll fishery on Southern Resident Killer Whales

NOAA Fisheries is currently finalizing documents in response to a lawsuit that nearly shut down the commercial Chinook salmon fishery in Southeast Alaska in 2023.

The announcement is the latest development in an ongoing legal battle between the environmental organization Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) and the U.S. government. WFC sued NOAA Fisheries in 2020, arguing that commercial Chinook salmon catches and government-funded breeding programs deprive Southern Resident Killer Whales of prey and starve them in the process. In 2021, a district court ruled in WFC's favor, finding deficiencies in official documentation and an analysis required to permit commercial fishing operations.

The legal battle became even more troubling for salmon fishermen and government officials in Alaska in May 2023, when the district court overturned a bycatch declaration that was a legal requirement for the opening of the troll fishery for Chinook salmon in Southeast Alaska. With the fishery set to be canceled before it opened, government officials appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

At the request of the State of Alaska, the Ninth Circuit granted a stay allowing the planned opening of the commercial troll fishery while NOAA Fisheries corrected its analysis.

NOAA Fisheries said it is currently finalizing two separate environmental impact statements – one on the impacts of its catch enhancement program and a second on a bycatch statement for the Southeast Alaska salmon fishery – as required by the court. The agency expects to release those documents in late summer or fall 2024.

The agency said in its announcement that if its analysis supports a ban on incidental take of species such as southern resident killer whales, it would issue an incidental take statement that would exempt southeast Alaska salmon fisheries from the ban.

On July 18, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is scheduled to hold a hearing on an appeal of its decision allowing the fishing season to continue. However, according to a draft management plan released in June by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the summer troll fishery is scheduled to open as usual on July 1.

The WFC continues to campaign to legally protect Alaska Chinook salmon and stop government hatchery programs, which the organization believes harm wild salmon populations. In April, the group sued government officials, arguing that they are not adequately protecting wild salmon from hatchery programs as required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). In a separate effort, the WFC won a partial victory in May when NOAA Fisheries announced it would launch a full investigation in response to a WFC petition to determine whether Alaska Chinook salmon should be included in the ESA.

“This is an encouraging first step toward what we hope will be an early listing of the Chinook deer in Southeast Alaska under the ESA,” said Nick Gayeski, senior ecologist at the WFC, in a statement. “The listing should provide greater protection from harm in the near term to the many endangered Chinook populations in this region and spur the development of scientifically credible recovery plans.”