The scales of justice: Salmon fisheries in federal court, fighting to keep their lines in the water

Hosted by

The largest of the species, king salmon once weighed in close to 100 pounds. Now a typical fish is much smaller, closer to 30 pounds. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

More than 90% of wild salmon are caught in Alaskan waters, where the fish travel from the coasts of California, the Pacific Northwest, and British Columbia. As the total number of fish have declined, limits of a catch have naturally decreased. The Wild Fish Conservancy, based in Washington, sued over technicalities in the Endangered Species Act. The salmon have been deeply compromised by dams and pollution, says third-generation Alaskan and journalist Julia O’Malley. Because the fish swimming up from the Lower 48 may be potentially endangered, Alaskan fisheries must come up with a mitigation plan. A judge was compelled by the Conservancy’s complaint of how to enact such a plan. Alaskan fisheries recently won a last minute reprieve in a lawsuit that would have kept lines out of the water this fishing season. 

A pod of 73 endangered orcas in the region near Puget Sound feed on Chinook, also known as king salmon — the largest of the species, and whose populations are at historic lows. The orcas are in turn under threat of starvation,  not only because the salmon are less abundant, but because they are considerably smaller, dropping from a typical size of 60-100 pounds down to 30 pounds. As a result, the whales need to catch more of them to get the same amount of protein. Noise pollution and industrial runoff further compound the problem, interfering with the echolocation orcas use to locate salmon. 

Alaska has a 100-year-old fishing tradition, according to O’Malley. For better or worse, communities around the state operate on an extraction economy, whether it’s oil, timber, or fishing. 

“Because of lessons learned from the Lower 48 and other countries in Europe, the management of fishing has been relatively careful, science-based, and sophisticated for about the last 45 years,” she says. 

The connection between fishing and people hasn’t been broken. Indigenous people in coastal parts of the state continue to have access to fish. Fishing boats and crews are multi-generational, and many still catch with hook and line so there is no bycatch in their hauls. Many of those fishermen permit holders are Indigenous. 

“If you can’t fish, people can’t live in place. If you lose connection to place and animals, then you lose connection to culture,” O’Malley says. “The biggest outlying variable [to the oceans] is climate change. They can manage the fish carefully — they can’t manage the oceans.”