Biden administration advances conservation group's bid to list Gulf of Alaska king salmon as endangered or threatened

Experts say that the request, if granted, could force restrictions not just on salmon fishermen but also on activity that affects river habitat, like road and residential construction.

Biden administration advances conservation group's bid to list Gulf of Alaska king salmon as endangered or threatened
A king salmon. (Ryan Hagerty/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

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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 early Thursday in a 14-page federal notice.

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 a longstanding small-boat king salmon fishery in Southeast Alaska and drew broad condemnation from fishermen, state wildlife managers and even conservation groups.

[Related: A lawsuit targets a Southeast Alaska salmon fishery to save 73 orcas. Critics say the Washington-based plaintiffs should look closer to home.]

The decision announced Thursday 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.”

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 in its Thursday notice 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 near Ketchikan, including populations that spawn on the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak Island, in the Mat-Su, in the Copper River and across Southeast Alaska, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

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.

“While Alaska is often perceived as having abundant salmon populations, scientists have been sounding the alarm for decades that Alaska’s Chinook are in dire trouble,” the conservancy said in a statement emailed to supporters in January, using another term for king salmon. “Despite existing management plans and years of efforts by state resource managers, Alaska’s own data shows the majority of Chinook populations throughout the state have experienced significant decline, not only in abundance, but also in size, diversity, and spatial structure.”

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 fisheries service said in its notice Thursday 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.

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, calling it a “targeted attack on Alaska.”

In a prepared statement Thursday, the National Marine Fisheries Service’s regional administrator for Alaska, Jon Kurland, cited the Department of Fish and Game’s “tremendous experience in salmon biology and management,” and said his agency would “seek technical assistance from state scientists on king salmon biology, genetics and relevant risk factors.”

Kurland’s agency is “dedicating personnel and resources towards a timely completion,” it said, but added that it expects “significant challenges given the vast geographical extent of the petitioned area.”

In her own prepared statement, Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski criticized the fisheries service’s decision to advance the Wild Fish Conservancy’s petition, saying even that initial step by the agency would have a “dangerous chilling effect on investment in our fishing industry at a time when they can least afford it.”

“Alaska’s king salmon need help, but an ESA listing based on a flawed petition from a Seattle-based environmental activist group is the wrong way to go,” she said. “As we fight to save our salmon and salmon fisheries alike, we need to rely on the best available science, instead of half-baked petitions intended to get conservation groups a foot in the door to attack our fisheries and resource development.”

Emma Helverson, the Wild Fish Conservancy's executive director, described the Endangered Species Act as a "tool that really gives power to communities and the public."

"There is going to be public input so that people in Alaska, people in these regions, can submit their own data and submit their perspectives," she said. "I would encourage all Alaskans to participate in the public review, and to bring those concerns forward."

Fjelstad, the attorney — a self-described rabid recreational king salmon fisherman who sometimes accesses the Kenai River by snowmachine — 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.”

“There are, potentially, so many different causes, it makes it super hard to solve,” he said.

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