By Nathaniel Herz
Northern Journal 

Environmental group petitions to list Alaska king salmon as endangered


January 17, 2024

A Washington state-based environmental group says it’s filing a petition asking the Biden administration to list southern Alaska king salmon as an endangered species — following through on notice of intent it filed last year.

The Wild Fish Conservancy’s 68-page petition says the king salmon, also known as chinook, are threatened by climate change and competition from hatchery-raised fish, and that state and federal management plans are failing to stem their decline.

The petition targets all populations that use the Gulf of Alaska, including fish that spawn in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers outside Anchorage, in the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers in Southeast and in the Alaska Peninsula’s Chignik River.

“While Alaska is often perceived as having abundant salmon populations, scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades that Alaska’s chinook are in dire trouble,” the conservancy said in a statement emailed to supporters Thursday, Jan. 11

“Despite existing management plans and years of efforts by state resource managers, Alaska's own data shows the majority of chinook populations throughout the state have experienced significant decline, not only in abundance, but also in size and diversity.”

In a press release, a conservancy biologist and petition co-author, Conrad Gowell, added: “Ironically, certifiers and the seafood industry are leading concerned consumers to believe chinook from Alaska are sustainable, when in fact they are disappearing before our very eyes. No one wants to be eating the last wild chinook from any river.”

The organization’s petition is likely to be politically polarizing: It could lead to sharp restrictions on fishing for chinook, and Alaska’s state government has previously fought the listing of many other species, citing the potential for impacts on development.

Attorney Anna Crary, a partner at Anchorage law firm Landye Bennett Blumstein, said listing as an endangered species could potentially curtail commercial fishing for king salmon and affect sport and subsistence fishing as well. There could also be implications for logging and mining, which are described in the petition as threats to critical salmon habitats, she said.

The conservancy has already drawn intense criticism from Southeast Alaska troll fishermen and some Alaska-based conservation groups for a federal lawsuit it filed in 2020. The lawsuit, which had threatened last summer’s Southeast troll fishery for kings, is still playing out on appeal. It challenged a key federal authorization that is needed for state managers to open the troll chinook harvest each year.

The conservancy says the lawsuit aims to protect an endangered population of orca whales near Puget Sound that feed on chinook. But the Alaska trollers and their allies say it could force an economically devastating closure of their fishery.

The conservancy’s petition will start what could be a lengthy review process.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has 90 days to decide whether or not to accept the petition, which would happen if it determines that the conservancy’s request presents “substantial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.”

If it accepts the petition, the service will begin a comprehensive review of the Alaska king salmon’s status, analyzing the “best available scientific and commercial information” on the species' biology, population trends and threats.

Within a year, the agency will decide whether that review supports listing the salmon as threatened or endangered, and if so, it will publish a proposed rule and request for public comments before making a final decision, typically within another year.

This article was originally published in the Northern Journal, a newsletter from Alaska journalist Nathaniel Herz. The Anchorage Daily News contributed to this report.


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