Wild Fish Conservancy is asking a federal judge to find that the National Marine Fisheries Service issued an inadequate BiOp in 2019 for southeast Alaska commercial Chinook fishing, and wants the judge to prevent the agency from increasing hatchery production until it studies the impacts of its plan to endangered orcas and threatened Chinook.

Plaintiffs in Wild Fish Conservancy v. Barry Thom et al. [20-417] initially asked U.S. District Judge Richard Jones in Seattle for an injunction to close Chinook fishing in southeast Alaska because of the impacts on endangered southern resident killer whales and to wild Chinook runs in the Snake River, lower Columbia River, upper Willamette River and Puget Sound. Jones denied the request for an injunction in March.

On May 5, the Conservancy filed a motion for a summary judgment seeking to prevent NMFS from continuing to implement its BiOp, developed through the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the Pacific Salmon Treaty, and a regional fishery management council.

"NMFS violated ESA mandates by approving salmon harvest levels that will continue to starve Southern Resident Killer Whales towards extinction, relying on undeveloped plans to increase hatchery production that, if implemented, would themselves inhibit recovery of threatened salmonids," their motion states, adding that primary causes of the declining orcas include harvest and hatcheries.

NMFS and defendant-intervenors Alaska Trollers Association and the State of Alaska responded in separate motions, saying that the process for setting commercial fishing is complex, and that NMFS thoroughly analyzed the impacts of fishing in its BiOp. They are asking the judge to deny the motion and issue a summary judgment dismissing the case.

In its motion, NMFS says that it considered the combined effects of commercial fishing in southeast Alaska on ESA-listed species, estimating it would reduce prey available for the endangered southern resident killer whales by 1 to 2.5 percent for inland waters, and by 0.2 to 12.9 percent for coastal waters, with 12.9 percent loss of Chinook occurring only one year, and at a time when orcas are not typically in coastal waters. Mitigation measures boosting hatchery production in the Nooksack, Dungeness and Stillaguamish rivers, and supporting a new hatchery program in mid-Hood Canal will likely produce 4 to 5 percent more prey in areas that are most important to the orcas, the agency wrote.

All parties asked the judge to hear oral arguments in the case.

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.