A large container of salmon on a fishing boat.

A Seattle federal court judge has recently found that each year NOAA Fisheries authorized the Southeast Alaska Chinook salmon fishery, they broke the law by knowingly endangering species they’re charged with protecting. That’s because only 3% of the Chinook salmon caught in this fishery hail from Alaskan rivers, while 97% come from rivers in foraging grounds within the Southern Resident killer whales’ range.

Simply put, catching these salmon in Alaska denies future feeding opportunities for these whales. Premature capture also prevents endangered Chinook salmon from returning to spawn in their home rivers in BC, Washington, and Oregon, thus threatening future generations of genetically diverse Chinook salmon.

Some Chinook salmon populations have been on the Endangered Species list for over 30 years. Had active measures been taken decades ago, we would now find enough Chinook salmon in our waters for everyone; tribes, fisheries, and all wildlife that rely on a healthy ecosystem.

Such neglect now results in the court’s remedy: to halt this fishery. While this blunt tool is necessary to safeguard the future of these two iconic species, we recognize the hardship this delivers to fishing communities. However, fault and blame must be attributed to the government’s gross mismanagement—not the wildlife who have relied on this complex salmon-based ecosystem for centuries.

In 2021, Canada announced its Pacific Salmon Strategy Initiative. We applauded their action in compensating fishermen for removing their boats from the water to allow salmon to recover. Since then, Wild Orca has been campaigning for reciprocal action in U.S. waters.

In his testimony to the court, expert witness Dr. Robert Lacy estimated the Southeast Alaska fishery reduces potential prey available to the Southern Resident killer whales by around 6%, possibly more. Yet he also noted that just a 5% increase could halt their downward trend to extinction.

This is a historic opportunity to restore an imbalance in our ecosystem, support wild Chinook salmon and provide the additional food the Southern Resident killer whales need to survive and thrive. Now the government must provide reparations to fishers and the communities who have been adversely impacted. Yet at the end of the day, restoring Chinook salmon will undoubtedly be the best solution for all those who depend on the sea’s bounty, people and wildlife alike.