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A troller fishes in Sitka Sound, Alaska. A ruling from a U.S. judge in Seattle could effectively shut down commercial king salmon trolling in Southeast Alaska after a conservation group challenged the harvest as a threat to protected fish and the endangered killer whales that eat them.James POULSON/The Associated Press

A U.S. federal court ruling has halted a lucrative troll fishery off Alaska’s coast, saying the permits enabling the fishery did not properly protect the endangered southern resident killer whale population.

U.S. District Judge Richard Jones’s ruling vacated the permits and ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service to come up with a more precise biological opinion before new permits are issued.

The ruling is significant for British Columbia because thousands of wild chinook salmon have been intercepted in Alaska for years as they migrate to British Columbia and southern U.S waters, according to court documents. The halt imposed by the court will increase prey availability for the endangered species, say conservation groups.

Only 73 southern resident killer whales remain, most living off the coast of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.

“It’s a welcomed decision that is long overdue,” said Misty MacDuffee, wild salmon program director at Raincoast Conservation Foundation, a Canadian research and advocacy non-profit.

She said the ruling is a landmark decision. “It underscores the importance of conservation and responding to the crisis wild salmon is facing on the West Coast of North America.”

Between 90 to 97 per cent of all chinook harvested in the southeast Alaska troll fishery are on migration paths to rivers in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, according to Wild Fish Conservancy, which filed the lawsuit. The group drew its estimation from reports filed by the Pacific Salmon Commission, the Canada-U.S. body that oversees the treaty governing salmon fishing allocation between the two countries.

“This fishery has been contentious for a long time,” said Ms. MacDuffee. “They are not often harvesting Alaska salmon.”

She said the ruling would hopefully help rebuild and recover Canadian threatened and endangered chinook populations by allowing the migrating populations to reach their spawning grounds. “The proper thing to do is let those fish spawn.”

Soon after the decision, the State of Alaska and the Alaska Trollers Association announced in separate news releases plans to appeal the ruling.

“We have a responsibility to look out for our fisheries and the southeast coastal communities and families that rely on them,” said Alaska Fish and Game commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang in the state’s release. “It is troubling that this ruling singles out our fisheries.”

Besides the worsening availability of salmon prey, the whales face other threats, such as habitat destruction, pollution and noise and vessel impacts, according to court documents.

“Any chinook not caught in southeast must travel some 700 miles [1,125 kilometres] past Canadian commercial and recreational fisheries, tribal fisheries, northern resident killer whale and steller sea lions, which are also predators of large chinook, and southern U.S. fisheries to reach the southern resident killer whale,” Mr. Vincent-Lang said in the release.

A declaration to the court by Robert Lacy, a conservation scientist with the Chicago Zoological Society, estimated that closing the fishery would result in an increase of almost 5 per cent in chinook availability to the southern resident killer whales. Mr. Lacy’s declaration said the amount is just enough to allow this population to stabilize.

Although Ms. MacDuffee acknowledged that some fish may be intercepted by other fisheries, she said British Columbia’s chinook salmon catch will likely not increase because of catch limits set by the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

“Canada is only allowed to harvest a certain number of fish on migrating stocks,” she said. “So those fish should get passed through British Columbia and into the critical habitat of southern resident killer whales.”

The ruling isn’t expected to greatly affect sport fishing, said Owen Bird, executive director of the Sport Fishing Institute of BC. The non-profit advocates for anglers in the province.

“Recreational anglers in B.C. may see an increase in abundance but limits and possession limits won’t change,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The most likely benefactor of this change, should it stand, is salmon returning to streams and rivers in greater numbers anywhere south of Alaska.”

The United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union did not respond to a request for comment.

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