Many Alaska king salmon stocks up for Endangered Species Act review after group’s petition

a Chinook salmon
A chinook salmon. (Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

A petition to list many Alaska king salmon stocks as endangered has cleared its first hurdle.

As first reported by the Northern Journal, it’s mainly a bureaucratic step for the petition, from the Washington-based Wild Fish Conservancy, and kicks off a scientific review likely to take at least a year.

But the National Marine Fisheries Service said in an announcement Thursday that listing the chinook stocks under the Endangered Species Act might be necessary to save the species. And the restrictions that would come along with such a listing could affect everyone from fishermen to road builders.

Northern Journal reporter Nat Herz is here to talk about the petition, the Fisheries Service announcement and the implications.


[Sign up for Alaska Public Media’s daily newsletter to get our top stories delivered to your inbox.]

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nat Herz: This is the, one and the same, conservation group. The litigation that they filed a few years ago to try to protect Washington State resident orca whales almost led to the closure of this really economically important king salmon fishery across Southeast Alaska. They have now filed a sort of even broader petition an effort to get king salmon stocks across a huge stretch of 1,000 miles of the Gulf of Alaska coast designated as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

Casey Grove: Apparently, the National Marine Fisheries Service said they might have a point — emphasis on the “might.” What did their announcement on Thursday say?

NH: Yeah, so the Wild Fish Conservancy filed their petition about four months ago in January. And there’s a very defined process that a federal agency goes through to basically decide whether a request by any party to have a species designated as endangered or threatened is merited. And really what they do is they mostly just look at the information that’s contained in this petition, which in this case, was an 87 -page petition from the Wild Fish Conservancy with a bunch of, like, scientific data and footnotes that says, you know, “Here’s why we think all of these different populations in these different rivers leading into the Gulf of Alaska, here’s why we think these populations of salmon are at really serious risk.”

And what the Fisheries Service said was this petition actually had, you know, a bunch of omissions, a bunch of errors, some other problems. But at the bottom line, (they said), “We do accept that the numbers of spawning king salmon have really declined pretty sharply in the past 20 years or so. We are seeing smaller king salmon returning to rivers and, you know, based on the facts as presented by this organization, a reasonable person would be concerned about the risk of extinction.” And so now, the next step is a much more rigorous and independent study of, “Is this listing merited. How serious is the threat?”

CG: Is the reasoning that the Wild Fish Conservancy gives for the decline in salmon stocks, does that line up with the, you know, understood science behind that? And what is that?

NH: Yeah, I mean, I think what’s interesting about this petition is like, I don’t think that across the scientific community and across the fishing industry, recreational fishermen, tribal governments that have a stake in these fisheries, like, I don’t think anyone from any of those communities would dispute that it’s really not a good time for king salmon. You know, I think one of the things we know about salmon and about fisheries in Alaska in general is that climate change has been really bad for some species and some stocks, but other species that actually, you know, maybe it’s having a positive effect.

The flip side of that is for King Salmon. They’re seeing these declines kind of across the board, and you talk to even people who typically, like, hate the Endangered Species Act, they’re not denying that something needs to be done here. And they’re not necessarily disputing the the scientific conclusions, the data. One of the challenges is there isn’t one specific thing, and particularly not one specific thing that’s easily fixable, that seems like it’s causing this. It seems like there’s warming ocean waters. There’s maybe competition from hatchery raised fish out in the ocean, though that’s disputed. Then there’s questions about habitat degradation and bycatch. And it’s like, you know, some of those things are easier to address than others. But how do we come to a consensus about what to do? And I think absent the use of the Endangered Species Act, people kind of have ideas, and they want to do studies, but there isn’t sort of a clear alternative, which is, I think, why you’re seeing the Wild Fish Conservancy take the path that it has taken.

CG: So this announcement from the National Marine Fisheries Service, is it really just a bureaucratic, procedural thing? Or, like, how serious should people take this?

NH: It’s pretty clear that this initial 90-day finding is not any kind of indication that the species will ultimately be listed. It’s basically saying, “Yeah, you can assemble some data that makes it look like this is a problem, but now is when the real kind of rigorous review starts.” There’s also a 60-day public comment period where the National Marine Fishery Service agency, that’s doing the review, is asking, you know, for feedback from anyone in the public, any stakeholders, and really over this next nine to 12 months and probably longer, they’re going to do a much more rigorous scientific review. Then, only at that point would they make a decision to propose a listing, and then there would be another much more involved public process where people could, you know, put in comments and feedback. And, you know, likely, a lot of this Endangered Species Act stuff ends up in court, and most likely it will probably be a judge that makes the decision about whether it’s supported to list any of these Gulf of Alaska stocks. But we won’t see any more news on this likely for at least a year.

Casey Grove is host of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Casey here

Previous articleCrafting children’s stories with Brooke Hartman | State of Art
Next articleRecapping the 33rd Legislature | Alaska Insight