In the waters of Puget Sound outside Seattle, 73 beloved and endangered orcas, known as the Southern Residents, are on the hunt, clicking. Using sound like a searchlight, they patrol the chilly depths. When they locate a target, they dive, sinking sharp white teeth into their preferred food, the fatty coral-colored flesh of king salmon.
But in recent weeks, this ancient rhythm of the Pacific Northwest was being negotiated not just at sea but also in a federal courtroom in downtown Seattle, where on May 2 a district court judge issued an order effectively shutting down Alaska’s biggest king salmon fishery, one of the largest remaining in the world.
To the Wild Fish Conservancy, the Washington State-based environmental group that filed the lawsuit, the fates of the two totemic animals are intimately bound. The orcas need the salmon to eat, and if we stop fishing them, the conservancy argues, we save the whales.
But the State of Alaska, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Alaska Trollers Association — all defendants in the suit — argued that shutting down the fishery would have little impact on either, and won a last-minute reprieve that allowed Alaska fishermen to put their lines in the water when the season began on July 1. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco will decide what happens next.
Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, though, there is broad agreement that the king salmon, also known as Chinook, are in crisis. After decades of environmental pressures like dams and pollution, the king populations are at historic lows, and scientists are struggling to understand the escalating effects of climate change. The fish are also smaller than they have ever been. Gone are the taxidermied 70-pounders that ended up on the walls of fisherman’s bars.
Some argue that the only way to save the species is to stop catching and eating them at all — if even that would be enough.
“Everyone is fighting each other for the last king salmon,” said Mark Stopha, a retired fish biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game and a longtime fish seller in Juneau. “It’s something a lot bigger than fisheries management — there’s something that’s going on with the changing climate. We know the ocean’s getting warmer.”
While kings make up less than 1 percent of Alaska’s wild catch, they are the official state fish because of their wide-ranging economic importance, a vivid symbol of Alaska, with its cool waters and pristine habitat. Sport, commercial and subsistence king fishing has sustained generations of rural communities. The fish are central to Alaska Native culture.
Kings are also a bellwether for all of Alaska’s salmon fishing — which accounted for 97 percent of the wild salmon caught in the United States in 2022, according to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission.
Alaska’s vast maritime ecosystem is in a state of ominous volatility. Last year brought record catches of red salmon in Bristol Bay, but in the last few years along the 2,000-mile Yukon River, there are no longer enough kings or chum salmon to provide for Indigenous people who have fished them for thousands of seasons.
Anxiety among all sorts of Alaskans is acute, said Laine Welch, a journalist who covered Alaska fishing for 35 years.
“I have never seen such sustained interest and outrage from the people on the docks, the people in the supermarket, all the way up to the congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “It has not abated even a little bit. If anything, the cries are getting stronger.”
Closest to the Fish
On the Alaska Panhandle, small trolling boats — with crews of two or three who hook individual fish — are tied deeply to the survival of dozens of Indigenous villages and small towns.
Pelican, population 80, is one of those places. It sits on Chichagof Island, about 80 miles southwest of Juneau by seaplane, and its motto is “Closest to the fish.”
Main Street is a mile-long boardwalk, and most people travel by bicycle. The houses sit on stilts, at the foot of a mountain stacked with looming spruce trees. A sport fishing lodge and Yakobi Fisheries, a small fish processor owned by Seth Stewart, are the main employers.
Mr. Stewart was born at the Pelican clinic in 1981, and most of his family still lives in town. His grandfather and parents all fished out of Southeast Alaska, harvesting the king salmon as the fish made their annual return from the Gulf of Alaska to rivers in the Pacific Northwest to spawn.
He studied business because he wanted to get out of fishing, but by the time he graduated from college, he couldn’t wait to get back out on the water.
“That accomplishment is immediate, and you get to see what you’ve done with your hands,” he said.
It is much more complicated than it used to be, however. There are about 900 trolling boats in Southeast Alaska, with an estimated economic impact of $85 million. But the volume of kings caught in Alaska and sold to processors has been declining steadily for 40 years, according to McKinley Research Group. In 1985, for example, processors bought 13.2 million pounds. In 2021, that number was 2.6 million, down roughly 80 percent.
In a 2021 report, the Pacific Salmon Commission noted that king populations in the rivers around Seattle where they hatch had fallen 60 percent since 1984.
Yakobi’s biggest client is New Seasons Market, a grocery chain based in Portland, Ore., but they stopped buying kings in 2020. Mr. Stewart said. “The buyer was like, ‘Some of our patrons are concerned about whales in Puget Sound.’”
Down at the harbor in Pelican, Ajax Eggleston and a couple of crewmen were cutting bait a few weeks before the king season opened.
Mr. Eggleston, also born in Pelican, said, “Guys are scrambling, trying to find another way to make a living. General anxiety in southeast Alaska is through the roof. People are freaking out.”
He added: “The health of the species? It’s doomed, man. I’m not optimistic about the future of trolling. We’ll be eating bugs and farmed fish from New Zealand.”
Changes to the Menu
Renee Erickson, a James Beard award-winning chef, owns nine seafood restaurants in the Seattle area. In 2018, she saw a news report about a female orca known as Tahlequah that swam for days with its dead calf.
“I was serving Chinook salmon up until that moment and not really understanding that this was the main food source for these whales to survive,” she said.
Now, she serves only sockeye (also known as red salmon) from regions in Alaska where the catch numbers are high, and very occasionally, fish from Washington.
“I’m not a Chinook salmon fisherman, where that’s my livelihood,” she said. “It’s a really hard thing to have to imagine, but I don’t know what they’re going to do in 10 years when there’s no fish.”
She added, “I don’t want to be the person that serves the last Chinook salmon. That’s an impossible idea to me.”
Beau Schooler, the executive chef at In Bocca al Lupo in Juneau, fishes on a gillnet boat in the summertime for salmon for the restaurant.
“I think eventually there’s only going to be pinks and chum, and that’s all we’ll have, and I think it’s going to be sooner than we think,” he said.
Pink salmon is most often sold in cans, and chum is also known as dog salmon in Alaska because it used to feed sled dogs. More recently, chum has been marketed as Keta and Silverbrite, and Mr. Schooler has been experimenting with dry-aging it.
“We removed the scales and let them hang, firmed up the flesh, and served it as a poke,” he said. “It was awesome.”
Such culinary improvisation is necessary as king salmon has grown increasingly precious. At Pike Place Market in Seattle this week, it was selling for about $50 a pound. A whole king fetches five times as much as a barrel of crude oil, Alaska’s other chief export.
Jeremy Woodrow, the executive director of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, said that eating kings from Alaska is still sustainable and that the state’s fisheries are carefully managed, as they have been for more than 50 years.
He said that despite the diminishing numbers of fish overall, the state marine biologists monitor the salmon stocks to prevent overfishing, and that the lower numbers and the smaller sizes of kings may be the population “right-sizing” for a rapidly changing ocean environment.
“The amount of fish that is being harvested by Alaska fishermen is minuscule compared to the amount of wild Chinook salmon that are in the ocean,” he said.
The First Fishers
That reasoning, though, has broken down on the Yukon River, where an ecological disaster is still unfolding.
For generations, the mostly Indigenous communities along the river spent summers catching, cutting and putting up Chinook salmon for “subsistence,” a cultural practice of living off the land that offsets the high cost of food in remote communities.
Historically, people traveled to remote family fish camps to string nets and monitor fish wheels. But king salmon began declining some 15 years ago. People harvested chum salmon instead, but then chum numbers began to drop in 2018. For the last few years, there’s been almost no fishing at all, and Indigenous communities are eating salmon flown in from hundreds of miles away.
“To me, the communities on the Yukon River, they’re the canary in the mine,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
Tlingit & Haida is the largest federally recognized tribe in Alaska, and hundreds of its members fish, both in commercial troll operations and for subsistence. The council filed an amicus brief in support of the troll fishery.
The community has deep concerns about the health of king salmon, but the troll fishery targeted in the lawsuit over orcas is the least of them. Instead, Mr. Peterson said, people should worry more about climate change, habitat degradation, dams in the Pacific Northwest, the health of the fish that salmon eat and corporate-owned trawling boats that simply dump the dead king salmon that come aboard as bycatch back into the Bering Sea.
“This just seems to me if these folks were truly concerned, they would be looking at the real sources of the problem,” he said.
‘What’s Coming For Us’
For many king salmon populations and the Southern Resident orcas, humans may not be able to do enough now to reverse the consequences of decisions made decades ago.
Studies have found that orca bodies carry alarming levels of PCBs from coolants, flame retardants and lubricants that were banned in 1979. Those toxins accumulate in the whales’ blubber, and are also concentrated in mothers’ milk and passed down to their nursing young. The oldest Southern Resident, a female known as L25, is estimated to have been born in 1928 — her body a living almanac of nearly a century of humanity’s runoff.
There may be even worse news, though. The constant drone of boat noise interferes with the whales’ echolocation and ability to hunt. And since the mass captures that populated the arena pools of marine parks — 45 Southern Resident killer whales were taken from 1965 to 1975, reducing the population by 40 percent — their numbers have stayed permanently diminished. A recent study shows that they may now lack the genetic diversity to thrive. (There are other orcas doing better, including the Northern Residents that live up the coast.)
Some scientists say that even if the ocean were full of king salmon, the Southern Residents would still be in trouble.
But the ocean won’t be full of king salmon. Like the orcas, the kings are today at the mercy of years of human choices. In the Pacific Northwest and California, wild salmon runs have been decimated by dams, agricultural pollution and hatchery programs that harmed stocks of wild fish. Climate change has brought a new list of problems. Efforts continue to protect and restore fish populations, but a number of stocks have been listed as endangered.
While the troller lawsuit makes its way through the appeals process, the Wild Fish Conservancy said it will encourage consumers to stop eating wild king salmon from Alaska’s troll fishery and petition to have many of that state’s king runs listed as endangered.
“I think it’s easy to sit in Alaska and just see one side of that story, but from where we’re sitting, we’re seeing the other side and many people here are really concerned about Chinook going extinct and killer whales going extinct,” said Emma Helverson, the conservancy’s executive director.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said that none of the state’s runs are facing extinction.
Wild salmon survived for millenniums in rivers across the globe, through the earth’s warming and cooling cycles, but over the last few hundred years, they’ve disappeared from all but a few places on earth. In fact, roughly 70 percent of the salmon that people eat is farmed Atlantic salmon.
In April, Peter Westley, an associate professor with the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, gave a presentation about the state of salmon at Kenai Peninsula College, detailing the wide range of challenges for king salmon, from parasites in the warming Yukon River to competition from hatchery fish.
On the last slide, he named a final factor: hubris.
“I’m guilty of being arrogant and thinking that things are going to be just fine,” he said.
He was trained to believe that salmon are resilient and that if they are well managed in a healthy habitat, they will do well. Alaska has pristine habitat for the fish and decades of careful management. Yet the fish are declining.
“It makes me worry,” he said, “and makes me question whether we as Alaskans are truly willing to accept what’s coming for us.”