Southeast Alaska troll fishery has deep local ties - Salish Current
March 7, 2023
Southeast Alaska troll fishery has deep local ties
Pete Granger and Norman Pillen

A troll fisher makes its way through Fair Weather Grounds off Southeast Alaska. Fishermen and related groups say a lawsuit aimed at shutting down the area and others in the region to small-boat, hook-and-line chinook troll fishing would negatively impact Whatcom families and businesses, yet not meet its intended goal of saving the Southern Resident killer whales. (Courtesy photo)

March 7, 2023
Southeast Alaska troll fishery has deep local ties
Pete Granger and Norman Pillen

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

While Alaska might be more than 1,000 miles away, Washington shares a lot more with the 49th State than most people realize. This is especially true in the fishing industry, where the relationship between Washington and Alaska runs deep and ripples throughout Washington’s economy and communities. 

We are seeing the complexities and the nuances of this relationship play out right now in a lawsuit that the Seattle-based Wild Fish Conservancy brought against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in 2020 with the goal to shut down Southeast Alaska’s small-boat, hook-and-line chinook troll fishery in the misguided name of saving the Southern Resident killer whales (SRKW). 

Shutting down Alaska’s troll fishery will not bring us any closer to addressing the deeper, complex issues that are driving the decline of our local orca and salmon populations. Instead, it will have devastating impacts on hundreds of fishing families and businesses that rely on Alaska’s troll fishery for their income and jeopardize the economic stability of Washington and Alaska’s coastal communities.

Blaming Alaska’s troll fishery for the SRKW’s decline might sound like an easy solution, but the reality is not that simple — nor does it follow the well-documented science pointing to the habitat loss and degradation, toxic water pollution and dams here the Northwest that are harming our local salmon populations — and with them the SRKW. 

Just last month, the State of Washington released its 2022 State of Salmon in Watersheds report which provides a sobering snapshot of the status of Washington’s salmon populations and the pressures feeding their declines. The report reinforces the major impact that habitat loss (much of it driven by Washington’s booming population) is having on Washington’s salmon.

Currently, 115 Southeast Alaska troll fishery permit holders live in Washington and migrate to Alaska each summer to make their income. In addition, there are many seafood processors, distributors and transportation companies based in Washington that rely on Southeast Alaska’s troll fishery as a key source of revenue — not to mention the restaurants, retail stores and fish markets that are committed to sourcing only troll-caught salmon because of its trusted reputation for sustainability and premium quality. Combined, Southeast’s troll fishery generates $148 million annually in economic outputs for all of these different business sectors in the Northwest and beyond (SeaBank 2022).

Seafood Producers Cooperative (SPC) is one of those businesses. Founded in 1944, SPC has around 400 fishermen-member owners with a state-of-the-art processing plant in Sitka that employs 100 seasonal and resident workers, and an office in Bellingham where their sales and accounting staff work from. SPC has the distinction of being the longest surviving and largest operating seafood cooperative in the country. Alaska’s troll fishery makes up about 50% of their annual production on average and is integral to their goal to provide the highest quality salmon to wholesale and direct-to-consumer buyers.

The Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County is another local entity that relies, in part, on the future survival of Alaska’s troll fleet. The coalition works hard to promote the vitality and economic benefits of Whatcom County’s working waterfronts and has over 130 business members, including a number of trollers who homeport in Bellingham and fish in Alaska’s troll fishery each summer, not to mention the myriad of local marine service companies that supply, build, repair and service Alaska’s troll boats.

It’s perhaps ironic that Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit threatens some of the biggest salmon stewards and advocates out there: fishing families and communities in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. For decades, trollers have been on the frontlines of fighting old-growth logging in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and supporting removal of the four lower dams on the Snake River in the Columbia River Basin. 

This commitment to sustainability stems from the intimate relationship between trollers and salmon; trollers catch each salmon individually with a hook-and-line before carefully removing it and placing it on ice. That’s why troll-caught salmon is a premium quality product that truly honors and fully maximizes every single salmon caught. 

As fishing families and businesses that rely on clean and intact waterways, healthy ecosystems and sustainable fisheries, our future is tied to the health of the orcas and wild salmon. It’s time to stop passing the blame around and instead realize that we’re all in the same boat and start pulling in the same direction. We need collaborative partnerships that promote what’s best for the salmon, including doubling-down on restoring critical salmon habitat and addressing the root problems that have gotten us to this point. 

Alaska and Washington’s fishing families and businesses will continue to fight for what’s best for wild salmon and we hope that others will join us.

— Contributed by Norman Pillen and Pete Granger

We welcome letters to the editor responding to or amplifying subjects addressed in Community Voices. If you wish to contribute to Community Voices, please send an email with a subject proposal to Managing Editor Mike Sato (msato@rockisland.com) and he will respond with guidelines.

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