A petition to put king salmon on the endangered species list is raising alarm across Alaska

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Petersburg troller Mark Roberts working on his fishing vessel, the Cape Cross, on May 24, 2024. (Photo by Shelby Herbert/KFSK)

The federal government is considering a request that would grant Gulf of Alaska king salmon Endangered Species Act protections. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service recently found that the petition by the Washington-based conservation group Wild Fish Conservancy, which said that the species are under threat, warrants further scientific review. It’s just the first major step in a longer regulatory process, but many say it could have far-reaching implications.

Mark Roberts is docked in Petersburg, getting his fishing boat ready for the July 1 king salmon opener. He’s painting the exterior of the Cape Cross, his 46 foot long wooden troll boat that was built in 1948.

Roberts took a break from fishing for several months, because he just had one of his heart valves replaced. But he said he’s pushing through the pain this summer, because it would be financially impossible for him to sit out a whole season.

“Because of my heart situation… Well, I paid for it. I got to do twice the work this year. But, you know, I’m putting it back together. I just need sunshine!” Roberts said, gesturing towards the rainy sky over Petersburg.

Roberts has fished in the Gulf of Alaska for about 30 years. But he came very close to skipping the whole summer season last year, when the Wild Fish Conservancy sued NOAA to halt commercial trolling for kings in Southeast Alaska. The conservation group, which is based in Washington, argued that a closure would protect a declining population of killer whales near Seattle. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on the lawsuit, keeping the fishery open.

“I was basically ready to tie my boat up to the dock and not fish until August,” said Roberts. “But once they announced it… Boy. I started my engine and took off and went fishing and I was very grateful about it.”

That lawsuit is ongoing. But now, Roberts is staring down the barrel of another move against king salmon fishing by the same group, which filed a petition to list the fish with Endangered Species Act protections in January. NOAA announced it would move forward with its regulatory process for considering the request in late May.

The request could have a huge impact on how Alaskans fish across the entire Gulf. The petition asks for protections for an area more than a thousand miles wide — or, just a little longer than the distance from New York City to Orlando, Florida.   

Roberts said it feels like another attack on his fishery, which he considers to be low-impact, and sustainably-managed.

“I want the salmon to come back too, and so it really surprises me that these people are coming after us, when we already are doing things to bring back the salmon,” said Roberts. “This will hurt everybody. It really surprises me that they’re coming after us like they are.”

But Emma Helverson, the director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, said it’s not personal. She said the petition folds in feedback from a lot of people across the state who are afraid the resource won’t be around for future generations. 

“(There are) people throughout the state who, maybe aren’t even sure how they feel about Endangered Species Act protections,” said Helverson. “But they’re seeing these problems and they know something has to change.”

Helverson has heard from Alaskans like Willard Lind. He’s a citizen of the Chignik Lake Tribe, and he’s lived next to the Chignik River, on the Alaska Peninsula, for all of his 63 years. 

Salmon runs collapsed on the Chignik in 2018. Sockeye salmon have slowly been returning to the river, but kings are still scarce. 

Lind said he wants fishing for kings to stop — even in Southeast Alaska, hundreds of miles away.

“When I was a kid, the river used to be loaded with kings, man,” said Lind. “Holy cow — they’d be swarming all over the place. But nowadays you don’t see one king in a shallow waterhole anymore. I’m all for what they’re trying to do there, with the petition to stop these king fishers. I hope it goes through.”

Not all conservation groups are on board with the Wild Fish Conservancy’s request, though. For instance, the Alaska based environmental group Salmon State has come out against it. 

Tim Bristol, executive director of Salmon State, has his eye on the decline. But he said the Endangered Species Act petition isn’t the right tool for the situation, and that this move will push away fishermen who are also sympathetic to the plight of king salmon. 

“Frankly, it really upsets us, as longtime conservationists, to see the Endangered Species Act used in a way that I don’t think is appropriate,” said Bristol. “And it’s clearly going to cause all kinds of blowback from thoughtful people that maybe support the ESA. But it definitely will move them into the opposition category when you start using it.”

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game, which manages all king salmon stocks in the state, has also been one of the petition’s loudest critics. Doug Vincent-Lang is the department’s commissioner.

“It really was, of all the petitions I’ve ever seen come in for a listing of a species — by far the most poorly written petition I’ve ever seen,” said Vincent-Lang.

The National Marine Fisheries Service noted in its findings that while the petition included numerous factual errors and unsupported conclusions, the numbers were concerning. 

Vincent-Lang said that if the petition is pushed through, it would effectively federalize management of king salmon as a resource in Alaska. 

And, he said, if king salmon are endangered, the federal government will have to establish what’s called “critical habitat.” Which means any river or lake in Alaska where king salmon spawn could be subject to more federal oversight too.

“This (has) fairly far-reaching implications in terms of how salmon, or king salmon, could potentially be managed into the future,” said Vincent-Lang.  

But the commissioner isn’t the only one thinking of the future. The Metlakatla Indian Tribe in Southeast Alaska recently reopened the doors of their century-old cannery, the Annette Island Packing Company, to buy king salmon.

Albert Smith, Metlakatla’s mayor, said the tribe has always subsisted on king salmon. It’s been part of their way of life since the beginning of time.

“Especially now, with how much it costs to go to the grocery store,” he said.

The Wild Fish Conservancy acknowledges the criticism lobbed against the petition. But Helverson, the Wild Fish Conservancy director, said that, regardless, the process will generate data that could lead to important localized recovery for king salmon. But it’s likely that if Alaska’s kings do make the list, the protections would be applied in a piecemeal fashion in specific places across the Gulf. 

The National Marine Fisheries Service’s findings will set off a more rigorous scientific review, and the public has until July 23 to share their thoughts on the potential endangered species listing.

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