Problems with the WFC, their Fish Traps and their Lawsuit

By Matt Donohoe, ATA President

On Fish traps

The Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) says it exists in order to protect wild fish. WFC lobbies to eliminate hatcheries while at the same time the WFC promotes in-river fish traps that depend on hatchery produced salmon and also impact wild salmon. WFC claims that their fish traps aid wild Chinook in successful spawning, but they overlook the fact that handling and sorting both impact the wild fish while they select out the hatchery fish.

Most Chinook passing through the fish trap are successful spawners. These fish have survived the ocean gauntlet for 3 to 6 years and should be left alone. What is the spawning success of wild fish that have passed through these in-river fish traps? Have any studies been done on this? How many hatchery fish avoid the WFC’s in-river fish trap? Escaped hatchery fish interbreed with the wild fish which return at the same time. Unlike Washington, Oregon and Idaho, Alaska does not permit hatcheries in front of or in rivers.

Old time Alaskans will tell you that much of the reasoning that prompted Alaska to become a state was because commercial fishermen wanted to ban fish traps. This led to the inclusion of the Natural Resources Article (Article VIII) in Alaska’s State Constitution. Before statehood,  fish traps were decimating Alaska’s wild salmon stocks. After fish traps ended, wild stocks in Alaska rebounded.


Because spawning Pacific Salmon stop feeding and consume their own mass as they approach their spawning grounds, fish caught in rivers are inferior in food quality to ocean caught salmon. Ocean caught Troll salmon are world renowned as the highest quality salmon. The ocean troll fishery could not have survived for over 100 years if it were not sustainable. In those 100 plus years, the fishing technique of trolling has not changed and trollers pride themselves as being the cleanest commercial fishery known to man.  

An environmentally camouflaged sport gear group and their sleight-of-hand 

If WFC wants Puget Sound salmon and killer whales to survive,  it should focus on their local problems: pollution, habitat loss, noise, and vessel congestion. Instead WFC blames a 100 plus year old, resident small boat artisan fishery located thousands of miles away. WFC blames a fishery in a place where Puget Sound Chinook or Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) don’t go. In so doing they are blaming folks that have fought pollution and habitat destruction for decades. It is because commercial salmon fishermen fought to protect wild fish that the State of Alaska, unlike Washington, banned fish farms and in-river hatcheries.

WFC Law Suit

In spite of record Columbia River Chinook returns, Orcas in Puget Sound remain endangered . . The WFC claims that this is because SEAK trollers catch Columbia River Chinook and therefore there’s not enough for killer whales. Orcas outside of the Salish Sea are thriving. Fish habitat in the fastest growing metropolitan area in North America (Seattle & Vancouver) is being decimated at record rates. 

WFC is supported in large part by the save the Southern Resident Killer Whales movement, whale watching folks, large industry, and in river fly fishermen. Ironically, some of WFC’s board consists of representatives of (or retired from) polluting industries that profited from habitat destruction. 

Are these whales sick and struggling to breed because of PCB poisoning? In their lawsuit or on their web site WFCdoes not mention poisoning by POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants) particularly PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). SRKW are the most PCB polluted mammals in the world. The Salish Sea (which includes Puget Sound) is a known as one of the worse areas in the U.S. for concentrations of PCB pollutants. Although manufacturing of PCB is banned in the US, it is still heavily used in industry, particularly in electronics. PCBs are found in thermal and electrical insulation, flame retardants, glues, laminates, and industrial lubricants etc. PCBs aren’t used much anymore but if they are not dredged from marine sediments they will persist in the environment for decades. 

Washington’s Department of Health recommended that human consumption of Puget Sound Chinook be limited to no more than one pound per month. Top predators such as SRKW accumulate PCBs in their body fat. They can eat up to 300lbs of PCB polluted salmon a day. Exposure to POPs is mainly through contaminated food or transmitted to future generations through the placenta or mother’s milk. Orca milk is 80% fat. Lactating Orca mothers are literally poising their nursing babies. WFC’s suit ignores this. Are Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) losing weight because they are sick or because there’s not enough prey due to SE Alaska trollers?

WFC does not mention harassment of SRKW.  Washington State’s commission on SRKW recommended a 3 to 5 year moratorium on commercial whale watching. In the face of lobbying by the area’s tourist industry (41.9 visitors spent $8.1 billion in Seattle and King County in 2019). It’s not surprising that the State ignored this recommendation from the Governor’s Task Force.

Seattle and Vancouver, both with growing heavy industries, are also a tourist destination and popular departure ports for the cruise industry. This results in lots of tourist dollars of which a large amount goes to Orca viewing. Noise and harassment from Navy training exercises, tourism, marine transportation, and recreational boats harass SRKW wherever they go. Organized consortiums of whale watching boats chasing every whale pod, spooks prey and confuses the whales. The whales use echo location to find prey and need a peaceful ocean to hunt, live and survive. 

The WFC does not mention the genetic pool of SRKW

In the 70s and 80s SeaWorld paid WA to take hundreds of Orcas out of the Southern Resident threatened population. Most of these where young females. Orcas were killed in the process. Taking future breeding females out of the gene pool is bad husbandry and the population has still not recovered. 

The WFC insists that SRKW only eat large wild King Salmon (not hatchery fish)

Hordes of sport fishermen high grade Chinook in Puget Sound. Except during Blackmouth season, when the sport fishery targets immature king salmon: they keep the big fish and release smaller fish. SEAK commercial trollers, on the other hand, keep all legal Chinook, big and small, until their short season closes. Contrary to WFC claims, for a few months every year in the fall “resident” Orcas come into Puget Sound and feast on chum salmon. WFC’s touted studies were flawed as they were only carried out when the Chinook were returning when it’s not possible to tell whether the fish are wild or hatchery by their poop, which the study was based on. 

Hope for the future.

In recent years the whales have spent less time in the Salish Sea – A problem for the whale watching industry but a successful move for the whales as Orcas have recently gained weight. In 2020 two cows gave birth to two calves. The now-world-famous Tahlequah (J35) is the female carried her dead calf for 17 days in 2018. WFC was quick to blame the death of this calf on starvation and not the actual probable cause of PCB pollution. They claimed that it was the fault of SEAK trollers by catching mostly Columbia River Chinook and almost no Puget Sound stocks that starved J35’s calf. 

In 2020 the artisan SEAK trollers once again fished their tiny treaty allocation on a noticeably quieter, healthy ocean. As in 2019 there were lots of Chinook in the North Pacific and a much better than predicted return to the Columbia River, a historic major source of SEAK’s Chinook harvest.