Federal review will determine if king salmon should be listed as endangered

The Biden administration says that listing numerous Alaska king salmon populations under the Endangered Species Act could be warranted, and it now plans to launch a broader scientific study to follow its preliminary review.

Citing the species’ diminished size at adulthood and spawning numbers below sustainable targets set by state managers, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced its initial conclusion in a 14-page federal notice on May 23.

It said a January 2024 listing request from a Washington state-based conservation group had met the legal criteria to advance the agency’s examination of Gulf of Alaska king salmon populations to the next stage, which is a rigorous scientific review expected to take at least nine months.

Endangered Species Act experts said the initial hurdle is typically an easy one for advocacy groups to clear, while the second stage can take much longer — with the courts often brought in to settle disputes over delays and scientific conclusions.

“The review really starts in earnest now,” said Cooper Freeman, Alaska director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group that isn’t involved in the king salmon proposal but frequently petitions and litigates for protections for other species. The preliminary decision, he added, is “part of the process, but the initial finding in no way predetermines an outcome.”

The listing petition was submitted by the Wild Fish Conservancy, which has previously filed Endangered Species Act lawsuits to protect other populations of Alaska and Washington salmon and steelhead.

The group’s previous efforts threatened to close down the longstanding king salmon commercial troll fishery in Southeast Alaska and drew broad condemnation from fishermen, state wildlife managers and even conservation groups last year.

The decision announced May 23 is preliminary and comes with no proposed limitations on fishing or other activity.

But experts said that a final decision to list king salmon as endangered or threatened could have broad impacts. Those could include not just restrictions on salmon fishing in Southeast and Southcentral Alaska, but also on activity in those regions that affects river habitat, like road and residential construction.

Other fisheries that accidentally scoop up Gulf of Alaska kings in their nets — a type of unintentional harvest known as bycatch — could also be in the crosshairs.

If the species is listed, “anywhere you've got human caused mortality of kings, or impacts on their habitat, will be under a microscope over time,” said Eric Fjelstad, an Anchorage-based attorney who’s worked on Endangered Species Act cases, typically on behalf of oil and gas and mining companies.

“This isn't like turning on a light switch. But it will happen over time, as all those management regimes come into place one by one,” he said.

A formal proposal by the federal government to list the Gulf of Alaska king salmon would not come until the end of the rigorous scientific review. That process is legally required to be finished within a year of the filing of the listing petition, though it often takes longer.

As an initial step, the fisheries service said that it’s opening a 60-day public comment period and soliciting information about the king salmon’s status from the public, government agencies, Alaska Native groups, scientists, industry and conservation groups.

The conservancy’s 67-page petition targets all king salmon populations “that enter the marine environment of the Gulf of Alaska.” That includes an area stretching more than 1,000 miles, from the Alaska Peninsula to south of Ketchikan, including populations that spawn on the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island, in the Matanuska Valley, in the Copper River and across Southeast Alaska.

The petition cites "significant declines in productivity and abundance" compared to levels two or more decades ago. It blames global warming and competition with hatchery-raised fish in the ocean as the “major causes,” but it also references growing threats from warming stream temperatures during spawning and incubation.

A table from the Wild Fish Conservancy’s Endangered Species Act listing petition shows how rivers and creeks leading into the Gulf of Alaska have missed king salmon spawning goals in recent years.

The Stikine River is included in the table compiled from Alaska Department of Fish and Game statistics. The table shows the escapement goal for spawning kings to enter the Stikine River is between 14,000 and 28,000 salmon. Actual escapement 2016-2021 averaged just under 10,000 kings per year.

The fisheries service said in its notice that the conservancy’s petition contains “numerous factual errors, omissions, incomplete references and unsupported assertions” — including omission of some recent data that show improved spawning numbers.

However, the agency said the petition nonetheless had enough information “for a reasonable person to conclude that the petitioned action may be warranted.”

Alaska fish and wildlife managers have aggressively challenged other proposed Endangered Species Act listings in the state, and they have previously expressed skepticism about the conservancy’s king salmon petition.

Fjelstad has personally witnessed the species’ steep population declines and said he thinks political “agitation” about it is merited. But he described the Endangered Species Act listing as a blunt instrument that would ignore economic considerations and “fundamentally shift oversight and management” of king salmon to the federal government from the state.

The problem, he added, is that the drivers of the species’ decline appear to be so varied — from fishing pressure to climate change to hatchery competition to bycatch — “you can't look at any one of these and say we've got a silver bullet here.”

This article was originally published in the Northern Journal, a newsletter from Alaska journalist Nathaniel Herz.


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