As president of Seafood Producers Cooperative, a company that consists of hard-working, family-owned commercial fishing operations, with over 78 years of history in the industry, and as a fisherman myself with over 40 years of fishing experience, primarily trolling, I have to take offense at the direction the Wild Fish Conservancy has taken in putting the Southeast Alaska Salmon fleet square in their sights, and I see this as a narrow-minded solution to solving a misguided perception that further reducing king salmon harvests for our trolling fleet would solve any population concerns with the southern resident orcas.
While I happily support the preservation of any specie of concern, I believe the focus on the commercial trolling fleet is an intentional misdirection of effort in gaining political, popular and financial support for their group. The Alaska trolling fleet is the easiest target for these folks, as the median income for this fishery is one of the lowest in the industry and doesn’t have the financial might to afford high power attorneys to defend the livelihoods of our small, mostly family operated fishing businesses. I have heard the term “low-hanging fruit” used multiple times as our fisherman voice their concerns and frustration over this issue and I think as stated above it’s quite accurate. The real issues that this group doesn’t want to talk about concerning reduced king salmon stocks is No.1, loss of spawning habitat, (can you say dams?) Pollution, and bycatch in the trawl industry. It’s a lot easier to pick on the little guy than power company giants and big multi-national corporations. Virtually every major river system on the West Coast has been inundated with a multitude of dams, virtually eliminating the very best spawning habitat for these king salmon in the increasing demand for electricity needed to power their air conditioning, automobiles, latte machines and laptops from which they can hurl accusations at the troll industry for “harming Chinook recovery”.
These fish have sustained the troll fishery for over a hundred years and due to reduced quotas that are set by federal and state managers in the goal of conservation, our fleet has been fishing at the lowest harvest levels since 1911. We are firm believers in sustainability, and we take pride in our efforts to do what we can to protect these fish in the goal of maintaining a viable fishery for years to come, and work closely with our fisheries management folks to ensure that happens. Our salmon fishermen also pay an enhancement tax that comes off the top of their fishing proceeds to support hatchery production and fully 25% of the Chinook harvested this season come from hatcheries. And while I absolutely support the rebuilding of wild stocks, producing abundant hatchery production is the only real short-term solution to providing kings for both the commercial harvesters and the whales. Contrary to conservancy claims, I don’t believe an orca can tell the difference between a hatchery produced king and a wild one.
I am no whale biologist, but I believe common sense dictates that an apex predator, such as a 25-foot-long, 8,000-pound orca, is not going to pass up pink, chum, sockeye and coho salmon that are readily available, while starving to death waiting for a king salmon. I’m sure they would prefer a king, I know I would, but they are smart and capable animals. They will eat other things. Maybe this Wildlife Conservancy could focus their attention on the real issues here, like polluted rivers and inland waterways, with high levels of PCB’s found in necropsies of grounded killer whale carcasses in the sound, the ever-increasing vessel traffic in their home habitat, including “whale watchers” and the real culprits of reduced Chinook population, big industry.
• Norman Pillen is a 36-year member of Seafood Producers Cooperative and is currently the co-op’s president. Pillen was raised in Port Alexander and is a lifelong Alaska Commercial Fisherman with over 46 years of participation in longline, troll fisheries, tendering troll, gillnet and seine. Pillen is an ATA member ALFA board member.