For Immediate Release
Emma Helverson, Executive Director, Wild Fish Conservancy, 484-788-1174, [email protected]
Kurt Beardslee, Director of Special Projects, Wild Fish Conservancy, 206-310-9301, [email protected]
Brian A. Knutsen, Kampmeier & Knutsen, PLLC, 503-841-6515, [email protected]
December 16, 2022— 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 on Tuesday that recommends terminating unsustainable commercial salmon harvest that has persisted for decades until new environmental reviews of those fisheries occur. That 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.
On Tuesday, 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. Simultaneously, the judge found the federal government’s inadequate biological opinion should be remanded back to NOAA in order for the agency to address violations of environmental law.
In August, U.S. District Court Judge Richard A. Jones issued a stunning summary judgment based on a previous 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 most recent analysis of this fishery’s impact on threatened and endangered species, NOAA admits that over the last decade and continuing today, 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 overharvest of the whales’ prey has been ongoing for decades.
“The benefits to wild Chinook and Southern Resident recovery from the Court’s action cannot be overstated,” says 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 harvested in Southeast Alaska marine waters and currently 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 actually originate from rivers throughout British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. Currently, these Chinook are harvested prematurely, before they can migrate back 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.
For the first time in decades, Magistrate Peterson’s recommendation to terminate this fishery would finally allow these Chinook to migrate back down the coast and pass through the Southern Resident killer whales’ key foraging areas. Similarly, this action would support the coastwide recovery of wild Chinook stocks by allowing far 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,” says Emma Helverson, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “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. Currently, there are only 73 individuals in the population, an alarming decrease from nearly 100 only 25-years ago. Reduced prey availability, specifically large and abundant Chinook, has been identified by killer whale experts and NOAA as the primary cause of their decline.
“With less fishing in Alaskan waters, more Chinook can return to spawn in their home rivers in British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon,” said Dr. Deborah Giles, Science and Research Director at Wild Orca. “An increase in larger, mature fish is essential—not just for the whales—but for the survival of these imperiled Chinook populations, whose future also hangs in the balance. A recovery for Chinook benefits all fishers, whales, and humans alike.”
“Despite the clear evidence, for too long government agencies, certifiers, and the media have been unwilling to acknowledge and address the unsustainable salmon harvest management in this fishery and others that is harming the recovery of the Southern Resident killer whales and the wild Chinook they depend on,” says Helverson. “The Court’s finding is playing an important role in bringing science and policy closer together for the benefit of wild salmon, killer whales, and coastal communities.”
In the coming months, 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.
Wild Fish Conservancy is represented in this matter by Kampmeier & Knutsen, PLLC, of Portland, Oregon and Seattle, Washington and by Corr Cronin, LLP of Seattle, Washington
kampmeierknutsen.com | corrcronin.com
Header Photo: Southern Resident Killer Whale J19 “Sachi” leaping in Puget Sound, August 2022 (Wild Orca, Taken under NMFS permit # 26288, wildorca.org)
- Magistrate Judge’s Report and Recommendation on Relief
- First Declaration of Dr. Hans Radtke: Economic Impacts
- Third Declaration of Dr. Deborah Giles: Southern Resident Killer Whale Status
- Third Declaration of Dr. Robert Lacy: Updated Population modeling for Southern Resident Killer Whales
- Third Declaration of Dr. Gordon Luikart: Updated information related to hatchery risks
- Press Release: Bombshell Court Victory: Chinook Harvest Harms Southern Resident Killer Whales and Wild Chinook Recovery
- Celebrating a Landmark Legal Victory for Southern Resident Killer Whales and Wild Chinook Recovery
- Historic win for orcas, epic fail for NOAA Fisheries managers – Wild Orca
- Judge faults federal plan to protect orcas from Alaska salmon harvests | The Seattle Times
- Judge blasts ‘mitigation’ that would imperil both orca and salmon | Courthouse News Service