Op-Ed: Lawsuit could impact Whatcom County marine businesses


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 in the pacific northwest that are harming our local salmon populations, and with them, the SRKW. 

Just last month, Washington state released its State of Salmon in Watersheds 2022 report that provides a sobering snapshot of the status of Washington’s salmon populations and the pressures feeding their decline. The report reinforces the major impact that habitat loss (much of it driven by Washington’s booming population) is having on Washington’s salmon, with one-third of Puget Sound’s 2,500 mile shoreline lost due to armoring and 50 to 90 percent of land along Washington waterways lost or greatly modified by humans. The report leaves no doubt that the way to bring back Washington’s Chinook is by addressing these issues in our own backyard.

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 Washington seafood processors, distributors and transportation companies 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 only sourcing troll-caught salmon because of its trusted reputation for sustainability and premium quality. The southeast troll fishery generates $148 million annually in economic outputs for the business sectors in the northwest and beyond.

Seafood Producers Cooperative (SPC) is one of those businesses. Founded in 1944, SPC has about 400 fishermen-member owners with a state-of-the-art processing plant in Sitka, Alaska that employs 100 seasonal and resident workers, and an office in Bellingham for the sales and accounting staff. SPC has the distinction of being the longest surviving and largest operating seafood cooperative in the U.S. Alaska’s troll fishery makes up about 50 percent of its annual production on average and is integral to SPC’s goal to provide the highest quality salmon to wholesale and directly to consumers. 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 Bellingham trollers who fish in Alaska and 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 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 placing it on ice. That’s why troll-caught salmon fetches some of the highest prices in the marketplace; it’s 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. 

Arguing over who is catching whose fish hasn’t helped wild salmon in the past and it won’t help them now. 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. Alaska and Washington’s fishing families and businesses will continue to fight for what’s best for wild salmon and we hope others will join us.

Norman Pillen is president of Seafood Producers Cooperative and works out of both SPC’s Bellingham and Sitka offices. Pete Granger ia a commercial salmon fisherman in Washington state and on the Whatcom County Working Waterfront Coalition board.


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  • ScottLevy

    I maybe stumbling in the sentence structure here, but are the Seafood Producers Cooperative contending that they've been on the "frontlines of.... supporting removal of the four lower dams on the Snake River in the Columbia River Basin." If so, I would like to learn more about their past efforts. Just as much, I'd like to learn what they are currently doing in that effort.

    Together, we can tip the scales on the stubborn politics, held in a stranglehold by Palouse Wheat growers that save 10-15 cents per bushel, shipping their wheat to Portland, Oregon where it is then loaded on ocean going vessels to faraway markets in The Philippines, Korea and Japan.

    Is there some other reason why we should keep these dams? Authorized for construction in March 1945, the Army Corps of Engineers were instructed by Congress "to construct such dams as are necessary to provide slackwater navigation" on the Snake River of Washington state. Let's ask ourselves, do we still want them? I don't.

    Friday, March 17, 2023 Report this