Washington-based conservation group wants Endangered Species Act protections for Alaska king salmon

a Chinook salmon
A Chinook salmon is seen in an undated photo. (Photo by Ryan Hagerty/USFWS)

A Washington-based conservation group whose actions have already caused the closure of an iconic Southeast Alaska fishery is now planning to ask the federal government to list several Alaska king salmon stocks under the Endangered Species Act.

Last month the Wild Fish Conservancy formally notified the state of Alaska of its plans to file the ESA petition for multiple populations of king salmon — also known as chinook — in Southeast Alaska, Southwest Alaska and Cook Inlet, just outside Anchorage.

If successful, experts said the proposal could have dramatic impacts, like the closure of commercial harvests of kings, new limits on other fisheries that accidentally catch them and restrictions on development.

While crashing king stocks across the state have already prompted closures of and strict limits on commercial and subsistence harvests, populations are still not facing a serious risk of extinction, Doug Vincent-Lang, Alaska’s fish and game commissioner, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“We think that none of these stocks are threatened with extinction today or threatened with extinction in the foreseeable future, so we’re going to work to oppose this,” Vincent-Lang said. “This has a real impact coming our way, if it’s granted.”

The conservancy has not yet filed its petition; it sent a letter to Vincent-Lang in May saying it would file one within 30 days.

While the letter to Vincent-Lang may not be legally required, “we are submitting as a courtesy, as it is our intent to maintain open communication with the state of Alaska through this petition process about our concerns over the health of Alaska chinook populations,” wrote Emma Helverson, the conservancy’s executive director.

Asked about the letter, Helverson said by email that she would share a copy of the petition when it’s filed. She did not respond to an interview request.

The letter comes as Alaska’s king salmon populations are facing undeniable threats that some are starting to call existential.

On the huge Yukon River, which starts in Canada and cuts across Alaska’s Interior, king counts have been falling for more than a decade. Last year they reached lows that deeply unsettled the Indigenous Alaskans and Canadians who depend on their harvests for cash income and to feed their families — particularly in villages that lack road access and face exorbitant prices for groceries.

Managers initially predicted that between 41,000 and 62,000 Yukon kings would return to Canada last year. But the actual run size was some 13,000 — less than 10% of the returns two decades ago.

Commercial and recreational fisheries in Cook Inlet and Southeast Alaska have also faced strict limits and closures in recent years in response to king salmon declines. And salmon populations in California and the Pacific Northwest are struggling, too.

Nonetheless, the conservancy has already become a target of harsh attacks from Alaska political leaders, fishermen and conservation groups after a separate lawsuit it filed will likely force the closure of this summer’s Southeast Alaska commercial troll fishery for kings.

a commercial troller
A commercial troller fishes in Sitka Sound earlier this year. (Max Graham/Northern Journal)

The lawsuit aims to protect an endangered population of 73 orcas that live off the coast of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, and the conservancy argues that the Southeast king salmon troll fishery is depriving the whales of a staple food source.

The organization’s critics, however, sharply disagree, saying the hook-and-line troll fishermen have reduced their harvests and haven’t seen the orcas rebound. Those critics argue that habitat destruction and pollutants in Puget Sound, off Seattle, are driving the orcas’ decline — not to mention other, big-picture factors like warming ocean waters and dams on Pacific Northwest rivers.

News of the impending petition prompted more outrage from those aligned with Alaska king salmon fishermen.

“It’s infuriating and it’s depressing. It makes all of us that do conservation work look like assholes,” Tim Bristol, executive director of the conservation group SalmonState, said in a phone interview. “They’re singling out, probably, the one thing that’s easiest to single out: the directed harvest of salmon. But to think that’s the root cause of the problem is not a responsible, reasonable or mature approach to dealing with declines in chinook populations.”

The conservancy’s filing of its petition will kick off what could be a lengthy process.

There’s an initial, 90-day review period where the federal government will determine whether the petition presents “substantial information” that listing kings may be warranted. If so, that determination would launch a year-long review of the “best available science” that would lead to either a rejection of the petition or a proposed listing as endangered or threatened.

Those timelines could slip and, if so, the conservancy could ask a judge to speed up the process.

While the petition doesn’t pose a short-term risk of closing king salmon fisheries, Alaskans “ought to take the threat seriously in the medium term, because of what happened with the Southeast chinook,” said Peter Van Tuyn, an environmental lawyer with Endangered Species Act experience.

Bristol, with the conservation group, called the conservancy’s plans a “massive abuse of the Endangered Species Act” that would trigger “broad-based calls for reform.”

But, he added, there’s one possible upside — that it could prompt deeper reflection about the different forces Bristol sees as more directly harming salmon, from habitat destruction to reduced budgets for fisheries management.

“Maybe it’s a wakeup call for all of us,” he said. “I’m just afraid a lot of really good people are going to get hurt in the meantime.”

Nathaniel Herz welcomes tips at natherz@gmail.com. This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter from Herz. Subscribe at this link.

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