Alaska King Salmon in Peril Petition Demands Endangered Species Protection

Wild Fish Conservancy has submitted a formal petition to federal regulators, urging them to classify Alaska king salmon as an endangered species.

A Washington-based conservation group, the Wild Fish Conservancy, has submitted a formal petition to federal regulators, urging them to classify Alaska king salmon as an endangered species. The 67-page petition highlights a drastic decline in king, or chinook, salmon numbers in Alaska, attributing the drop to climate change, habitat destruction, and competition for food with hatchery salmon.

According to state data cited in the petition, the decline in king salmon populations has reached a critical point, putting the species at risk of extinction in Alaska. The conservation group is now calling on the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct a comprehensive review of king salmon numbers across the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, and Southeast Alaska. This initial step could potentially lead to stricter protections, including critical habitat safeguards and expanded measures for the protection of king salmon smolt.

The petition marks the commencement of a lengthy process, with potential court challenges looming on the horizon. Legal experts anticipate far-reaching implications if the request is approved, designating Alaska king salmon as threatened or endangered under the 1973 Endangered Species Act.

Attorney Anna Crary, a partner at Anchorage law firm Landye Bennett Blumstein, emphasized the potential consequences, stating that commercial fishing for king salmon, as well as sport and subsistence fishing, could be curtailed. Industries such as logging and mining, identified as threats to critical salmon habitats in the petition, might also face implications.

Following the public release of the petition, the United Fishermen of Alaska, representing the commercial fishing industry, expressed concerns about potential impacts across the state. Tracy Welch, the executive director, stated that while the industry group had not fully reviewed the petition, they were apprehensive about the far-reaching effects on fisheries, impacts that are not yet fully understood.

Federal regulators now have 90 days to conduct an initial review of the petition. If accepted, a yearlong study of salmon stocks across the state will follow, culminating in a formal determination on whether Alaska king salmon should be listed as an endangered species.

Emma Helverson, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, emphasized the urgency of the situation, stating, “For decades, scientists have been sounding the alarm that Alaska’s Chinook are in dire trouble.” She pointed out that despite existing management plans and efforts by the state of Alaska, chinook salmon continue to decline in abundance, size, diversity, and structural composition throughout the state.

The petition highlights “significant declines” in king salmon numbers in all Alaska waterways since 2007, referring to state data. Escapement goals at king salmon fisheries across Alaska have also consistently been missed in recent years, as noted in the petition.

Responding to the conservation group’s petition, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang defended the state’s current management practices. He argued that the endangered species designation is unnecessary, asserting that while king salmon numbers have declined, the state has invested substantially in research to understand the reasons behind the decline and identify potential solutions.

Vincent-Lang maintained that, in the state’s view, none of the king salmon stocks are at risk of extinction, either presently or in the foreseeable future. This stance aligns with Alaska’s historical resistance to listing other species as endangered, such as wolves in Southeast Alaska, for which the state successfully campaigned against the designation, and bearded seals in northern Alaska, where their efforts were unsuccessful.

The Wild Fish Conservancy has a history of challenging Alaska’s management of king salmon. In 2020, the group filed a lawsuit seeking the closure of Southeast Alaska’s king salmon troll fishery to protect endangered killer whales in Puget Sound that feed on chinook salmon. While a federal judge initially ordered the fishery’s closure in May, a last-minute reprieve was granted by a federal appeals court in June, allowing the fishery to open.

As the petition undergoes regulatory review, stakeholders from various industries are expected to become significantly involved, potentially leading to a protracted legal battle with outcomes that could reshape the landscape of salmon conservation and resource management in Alaska.