A federal judge proposed an order in December threatening to close Southeast Alaska’s troll fishery, a move that could spell financial trouble for fishermen, processors and other workers across the region, including about a dozen Chilkat Valley residents.

“It would be a pretty big disaster,” said Haines resident Brent Crowe, who runs a tender for the fishery. “It would put me out of business.”

The U.S. District Court magistrate judge’s recommendation is part of an ongoing lawsuit filed in 2020 by a Washington state conservation group alleging that commercial trolling in Southeast Alaska harms endangered orcas in Washington’s Puget Sound.

The conservation group, Wild Fish Conservancy, argues that the National Marine Fisheries Service violated the federal Endangered Species Act by allowing the Southeast king salmon harvest without taking into account its effects on the Southern Resident orca population. Some kings caught in Southeast migrate from Washington, Oregon and British Columbia, and the troll fishery operates under the Pacific Salmon Treaty, which was renewed in 2019 for another decade. Wild Fish Conservancy says Southeast’s kings are a critical food source for the Puget Sound orcas and have been overharvested by trollers for decades.

But the lawsuit’s defendants — including the Alaska Trollers Association and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — dispute that claim, saying the science doesn’t indicate that Southeast’s troll fishery is causing a decline in the Southern Resident orcas. They say other factors could be contributing to the killer whales’ struggles, including industrial pollution and disturbances from ships.

The judge’s December recommendation is not final, and the future of the troll fishery remains uncertain. Gov. Mike Dunleavy said Tuesday the state would appeal a decision to close the fishery, even taking it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

“I think that most trollers think whales and fishing can get along. Especially since our fishery is kind of artisanal,” said Scott Visscher, a Haines resident and longtime troller. “Everybody was surprised that the judge recommended closing the troll fishery for the whole year.”

Visscher has been trolling for more than 40 years. He said managers implemented some conservation measures in the past, including by shortening the king season to just a few days one year, but he said he “never thought that the fishery would actually be closed for an entire year.”

Crowe, who tenders for Alaska Glacier Seafoods, said about 90% of the fish he buys are from the troll fishery. He has been running his tender for eight years and gillnetted before that.

“The troll fishery is well known as one of the most sustainable,” he said. “To suggest that what they’re doing is somehow harming whales 1,000 miles away, and that closing the fishery down is somehow the answer, is crazy.”

Lindsay Johnson, a troller since 2017, said if the fishery closed, “We would be looking for other jobs. I’d be looking for something else to do with my boat.”

“Fishing is our entire livelihood,” she said.

Southeast Alaska trollers hook both kings and coho salmon. Wild Fish Conservancy’s lawsuit hinges on a concern about kings, but whether it could keep the troll fishery’s 1,000 or so permit holders from catching coho is unclear.

Longtime Haines resident and troller Don Nash said he makes about two-thirds of his troll income from kings and the other third from coho. Johnson similarly said kings are a “significant” portion of her catch not in numbers but in value. “You don’t need to catch very many to turn a mediocre day into a good day,” she said.

The Sitka Borough Assembly last week voted to contribute $25,000 in legal services to Alaska Trollers Association’s legal fund. Sitka would be one of the communities hit hardest by a closure of the fishery, but the fishery supports hundreds of businesses across the region.

Visscher said he’s considering writing a letter to the Haines Borough Assembly about the issue. “There are more trollers than people think in Haines,” he said.

*Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Sitka’s assembly, not Skagway’s, voted to contribute to the Alaska Trollers Association legal defense.