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Lawsuit Over Southeast Alaska
Fisheries Makes Waves Locally

by Derek Firenze
The Leader, March 2, 2023

Instead of fishermen, Murphy believes the conservancy should be targeting
habitat restoration projects like removing the Snake River Dams.

Local fisherman Kat Murphy kisses the first Chinook caught on her boat 'The Grace' in 2018. A legal battle over Alaskan waters is creating a stir in Port Townsend.

The Wild Fish Conservancy, a Washington-based nonprofit, has been pushing litigation forward that could cancel operations of Southeast Alaska troll fisheries this year.

Local fisherman Kat Murphy, owner of Katfish Salmon Company based in Port Townsend, has spoken out against the lawsuit in an open letter that's been catching attention.

The conservancy's lawsuit alleges the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is in violation of the Endangered Species Act for failing to protect Southern Resident killer whales and wild Chinook. Specifically, the suit states that the federal agency's authorization of the Southeast Alaska Chinook troll fishery contributes to the extinction of the endangered population of orcas found in Puget Sound and of wild Chinook.

"Vilifying a small-boat salmon fishery over 1,000 miles away does nothing to address any of the threats face in their own habitat. Puget Sound's habitat degradation, urbanization, pollution, industrial toxins, vessel traffic (incessant whale watching tours day-after-day being primary in this), and human-caused disturbances, are the primary factors limiting the recovery of the," Murphy wrote in her message, "A Letter to my Community."


Murphy catches all her fish one at a time with a hook and line and refutes the claims, in conjunction with the Alaska Longline Fisherman's Association and the Alaska Trollers Association who have started a petition in response to the ruling.

"Why are they targeting us? They know that we are not as organized, we don't have a strong lobby, we don't have a lot of money, and we're easy pickings," Murphy said in an interview with The Leader.

"I feel that they're using us to show their donors that they're achieving something and they're achieving nothing except for the devastation of many people's livelihoods," she said.

Unlike many who fish in that area and sell to Alaskan companies, Murphy direct markets her fish to the local community here on the Olympic Peninsula.

"We are feeding people a beautiful protein source that we want to keep sustaining for the future," she said.

Murphy contends that fishermen like herself are actually some of the most committed to environmental sustainability.

"They're actually removing a barrier of environmental protection," Murphy said. "We all can see beyond our own mortality and want to be able to provide for future generations. And the way that we are managed indicates that this is possible."

That management is exactly what's at issue in the lawsuit.

The Pacific Salmon Treaty is a mutual international agreement surrounding fishery management between the U.S. and Canada regulating fisheries that occur in the ocean and inland waters of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, the Yukon, and southeast Alaska, including the rivers that flow into these waters. One of the goals of the treaty is to prevent overfishing and provide for the best possible salmon production.

The NOAA participates in the negotiations to ensure the agreements are consistent with resource management laws like the Endangered Species Act through issuing an analysis called a biological opinion, or bio-op.

The most recent bio-op for the treaty, however, is being contested.

"NOAA admits in their bio-op that the level of harvest is too high, that over the last 10 decades, and continuing through this new negotiation, the harvest levels are not sufficient to meet the needs of killer whales," said Emma Helverson, executive director for the Wild Fish Conservancy said in an interview with The Leader.

"NOAA basically admits in their bio-op that the parties of the treaties could not agree to reduce harvest to levels that would not push killer whales and four different populations of Chinook closer to extinction," she added.


On Dec. 13, a judge ruled in Wild Fish Conservancy's favor.

"NOAA is going to have to go back and correct these violations," Helverson said.

"They're going to have to correct their biological opinion and do that environmental review. So in the meantime, when the court has already said that we know this fishery is directly harming ESA listed species, what do we do? What do you do in the interim?

"We argued, based on the science and what's at stake, that you should curtail this fishery in the two seasons that have that greatest impact on killer whales and Chinook recovery. And in December the court agreed that because of the violations that was the appropriate remedy," Helverson said.

Though the fishing season is not yet here, the impacts of this decision are being felt now.

"It's already kind of affecting us," Murphy said.

"Living in a state of uncertainty, and being unable to plan for regularly scheduled maintenance, and I have insurance payments coming up that I have to pay for," she said. "And then all of a sudden there's no king fishery? It's a big hit and I don't know if I'll be able to keep providing fish for my community if I'm no longer able to target king salmon."

Instead of fishermen, Murphy believes the conservancy should be targeting habitat restoration projects like removing the Snake River Dams.

"We're wasting all of this money fighting this lawsuit when really we should all be just be trying to work together to remove these four lower Snake River dams. There's 5,000 miles of pristine river wilderness above them. It just makes no sense to me how they're going about what they're trying to do," Murphy said.

While the Snake River Dams remain a major obstacle, Helverson argues her group is doing all they can.

The Wild Fish Conservancy has about 45 habitat restoration projects going on at the moment, according to Helverson, a number of which are in Jefferson County.

"There's not a silver-bullet approach that we fix one thing and we're going to fix salmon recovery. We've made a lot of mistakes, and we do need to be restoring habitat, we do need to be taking down dams, we do need to be looking at harvesting and hatchery impacts. We need to be following all of these problems at the same time or we're never going to be successful," Helverson said.

Derek Firenze
Lawsuit Over Southeast Alaska Fisheries Makes Waves Locally
The Leader, March 2, 2023

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