The Wild Fish Conservancy filed notice on Jan. 9 it intends to sue the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Marine Fisheries Service for authorizing what it calls an overharvest of Chinook salmon in the southeast Alaska troll fishery. The group claims the NMFS-approved harvest threatens endangered southern resident killer whales and wild Chinook.

The notice says that NMFS' biological opinion violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to ensure that commercial fishing plans in southeast Alaska will not jeopardize the continued existence of southern resident killer whales, or listed Chinook from Puget Sound, the lower Columbia River, the upper Willamette River and the Snake River.

"Most people don't realize that over 97 percent of the Chinook salmon caught in the ocean off Southeast Alaska are not from Alaska, they're actually from rivers in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon," Wild Fish Conservancy Executive Director Kurt Beardslee said in a news release. Using data from the Pacific Salmon Commission, the conservancy says only 3 percent of Chinook caught in southeast Alaska are from rivers in Alaska, while roughly half are from the Columbia River.

Chinook from Pacific Northwest rivers migrate along the coast from their home rivers for years, mingling with other salmon off the coast of Alaska before swimming through the feeding grounds of southern resident orcas to return to their home rivers, the news release says. "As the Chinook migrate south along the coasts of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, they are the much-needed primary prey for the 73 surviving Southern Resident killer whales," the release says.

NMFS' biological opinion (BiOp) concludes the southeast Alaska fisheries are not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of southern resident orcas or listed Chinook, and proposes increased hatchery production and habitat restoration as mitigation, the notice states. However, it says, neither plans nor funding are in place to carry out the mitigation, some of which could have harmful impacts on wild Chinook.

The notice gives NMFS 60 days to correct the BiOp or face a potential lawsuit.

Last April, the conservancy joined the Center for Biological Diversity in suing NMFS, alleging in a separate complaint that commercial and recreational fishing off the Pacific coast reduces Chinook abundance by between 18 and 25 percent. That lawsuit is on hold until May, when NMFS is expected to issue a new BiOp.

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.