‘It’ll be a disaster’: Southeast Alaska fishermen fear looming closure of king salmon fishery

State officials are scrambling to open the fishery after it was effectively closed by a federal judge — but damage has already been done.

More than 100 salmon trollers packed a Sitka meeting Wednesday night with sharp questions about the future of an iconic Southeast Alaska fishery, facing what could be an unprecedented full shutdown of this year’s chinook trolling season.

“I’m optimistic, but I’m also scared as heck,” said Eric Jordan, a lifelong fisherman and resident of trolling stronghold Sitka at the standing room-only meeting with federal National Marine Fisheries Service officials.

The closure of the king salmon fishery in Southeast Alaska would be economically devastating, according to many in the region who rely on the valuable fish for their annual income.

A federal judge in Washington state effectively shut down the fishery in May in response to a lawsuit brought by Wild Fish Conservancy, a Washington organization. The suit contends that the fishery should be closed to protect endangered killer whales in Puget Sound that feed on chinook salmon.

Southeast Alaska’s summer troll fishery would typically open July 1. The state has requested that a federal appeals court decide whether the fishery will open by June 23 to give fishermen time to get ready for the season. But some in the industry say that will already be too late.

The National Marine Fisheries Service is doing “everything we can” to respond to the lawsuit, including work on a new biological opinion that could address some of the Seattle judge’s concerns, said Jon Kurland, the Juneau-based regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Alaska, at a Wednesday night meeting meant to give trollers a chance to ask questions.

But “I’m honestly not sure whether we can get there by July 1.”

“We’re all sort of incredulous that the suit is focusing on Southeast Alaska fisheries when there are a lot bigger threats that southern resident killer whales are facing than what’s happening in these fisheries,” Kurland said.

Fishermen were confused and frustrated by the judge’s decision because trolling is considered to be one of the most sustainable ways to commercially harvest salmon. Fishermen clip hooks onto metal lines as they’re lowered into the water. When they are brought back to the boat, each fish is dispatched individually and put on ice. The careful way the salmon is caught makes them prized by high-end restaurants.

[A conservation group’s lawsuit already closed an iconic Alaska fishery. Now, it’s pushing for Endangered Species Act protections for king salmon.]

Matt Donohoe, president of the Alaska Trollers Association, has fished out of Sitka since 1976. He said the loss of income from the king salmon closure would hit trollers hard.

“It’ll be a disaster,” he said. “There’s a bunch of people who don’t know how they’re going to feed their families next winter.”

King salmon typically make up 40% of Southeast trollers’ annual income. The prized fish, also known as chinooks, can fetch around three times as much as coho salmon and six times as much as chum salmon.

The first weeks in July are when trollers catch the most king salmon in a season and earn a big chunk of their annual paychecks. But many operate on tight margins: There are insurance expenses if they go fishing and maintenance costs for their boats — Southeast fishermen say without king salmon, it may not be worth it to go trolling.

Adding to the uncertainty are concerns that the judge’s order means trolling for other types of salmon may not be possible. Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game explained that fishermen could be liable if they inadvertently caught a king salmon while trolling.

“We are working our tails off to try to figure out a way whether we can still conduct coho and chum salmon troll fisheries without the retention of chinook salmon,” he said.

Paul Marks, a Juneau-based troller, was on his 42-foot boat Friday in Auke Bay, preparing the gear he would need to fish for king salmon. Like many Southeast trollers, Marks runs a small operation — often fishing alone or with one of his family members.

“It’s a pretty big hole in the pocket,” he said about the potential loss of income from king salmon. “Are they going to cover our wages? It’s a $30 million industry — who’s gonna cover that?”

Marks, who has fished his whole life, said he has taken a job as a deckhand for the summer but that it would not “scratch the surface” of what he would usually earn from trolling. He doesn’t know if he will be able to keep fishing.

Uncertainty over whether the season will open is forcing fishermen to make hard choices. Moses Johnson was going to upgrade his boat and invest in halibut shares this summer. Not anymore.

“Since this lawsuit came up, I put everything on hold,” said Johnson, a lifelong Sitka fisherman who trolls for kings in the winter. “Because that’s a large portion of income I may be without. So what can I do?”

Alaska coastal communities share 50% of commercial fishing tax revenue with the state. Raw fish tax, as it’s colloquially known, is a significant funding source for some municipal governments.

Sitka received $1.8 million in raw fish tax revenue last year that went directly to maintaining the city’s five harbors. Melissa Haley, the City and Borough of Sitka’s finance director, said she doesn’t have the data to separate out how much of that came from trolling, but she said the loss of the fishery would be significant to the city’s treasury and to its economic activity.

“Everyone in Sitka knows someone who trolls and they tend to be long-term community members who live in the community year-round,” she said. “I think the impact to those families is going to be very significant and it will impact the community.”

Around 40% of 961 power troll permit holders are based in Sitka. But in smaller Southeast communities, the proportion of trollers is much higher.

The City of Craig — with a population just over 1,000 — has more than double the number of trollers per capita that Sitka does. The Prince of Wales Island community, which has lost a quarter of its population since 2000, has watched logging jobs disappear, and there are fears fishermen will be next.

“It’ll affect the schools, it will affect the city and affect the businesses — businesses will start to fold up and pull out,” said Craig Mayor Tim O’Connor, who is a troller himself.

Trolling for king salmon in winter helps tide fishermen over until summer — that fishery would also be closed by the judge’s order. The summer season would typically see deckhands hired, but fishermen said if a federal appeals court opens the fishery with one week’s notice, there may not be enough time to hire crews.

A 2019 study found that trolling contributes around $85 million per year to Southeast communities’ economies, once all the economic activity from related industries is added together.

Three businesses buy fish in Craig, and others that sell the materials needed to maintain the city’s fishing fleet — those will suffer without trolling, O’Connor said. Fish processors provide entry-level jobs for young people looking to get into the seafood industry, and the jobs of some Craig residents who don’t own boats would be at risk too.

“For a community that’s only got 1,000 people in it, losing 15 to 20 jobs like that is a significant loss,” O’Connor said.

In the smallest Southeast communities, trolling provides a major source of cash economies. Ninety miles north of Sitka sits the tiny boardwalk community of Pelican, with a population of 98 recorded in the 2020 U.S. census. Around 58% of Pelican households have a troll fishing permit.

Seth Stewart owns Yakobi Fisheries, a local fish plant that processes hand-caught salmon for wholesale and retail. He said trolling accounts for roughly 80% of his business’s annual income.

“We don’t really have the revenue stream we need to keep our business open” if trolling doesn’t go ahead, he said. “So we would have to shut our doors.”

The plant employs 35 to 40 people in Pelican in the summer and 12 residents year-round. Stewart, who grew up commercial fishing, said there would be few alternatives for fishermen who have spent $30,000 for a power trolling permit.

“If we don’t have trolling, it takes out half of the economy in Pelican,” he said.

Jeremy Woodrow, executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said there could also be reputational damage from the court fight, and negative stories about the impacts of king salmon fishing on killer whales — making buyers less likely to want to purchase Alaska seafood.

The loss of the king salmon troll fishery could affect high-end restaurants, where the fish is particularly prized.

“When that’s not available, something else is going to replace that product on the menu. And once you get pushed off that menu, it’s really difficult to get put back on the menu,” Woodrow said.

State and federal officials are scrambling to show a federal appeals court that trolling for king salmon in Southeast Alaska has a minimal impact on Puget Sound killer whales. Vincent-Lang, the Fish and Game commissioner, said the hope is to submit a new biological opinion to correct errors flagged by the judge by July 1 — but that may still not necessarily get the fishery reopened.

Without a summer trolling season, fishermen say, some will be pushed to sell their trolling permits and their boats. Donohoe said others will keep their fingers crossed.

“That’s what most people will do,” he said. “They’ll run up credit card debt to get through the year and hope there’s a solution.”

Fishermen, like Marks in Juneau, fear for the future of a type of fishing that has existed in Southeast Alaska for more than a century.

“My daughter loves fishing. She always wants to go trolling, so I always take her out — take her whenever I can. Now I won’t be able to do that this year because there’s no opener,” Marks said. “All of us in our own right are conservationists because we want to keep handing this down to the next generation.”

Sean Maguire reported from Juneau and Michelle Theriault Boots reported from Sitka.

[Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Sitka’s finance director, whose name is Melissa Haley, not Michelle Haley.]

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Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at smaguire@adn.com.

Michelle Theriault Boots

Michelle Theriault Boots is a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News. She focuses on in-depth stories about the intersection of public policy and Alaskans' lives. Before joining the ADN in 2012, she worked at daily newspapers up and down the West Coast and earned a master's degree from the University of Oregon.