NOAA finds Alaska Chinook salmon may need to be ESA-listed

Chilkoot Lake in Haines, Alaska
NOAA Fisheries issued a positive 90-day finding in a petition to have Southeast Alaska Chinook salmon ESA-listed | Photo courtesy of Jnjphotos/Shutterstock
4 Min

A preliminary review by NOAA Fisheries found that Alaska Chinook salmon may need to be listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).

“This is an encouraging first step in what we hope will be a listing of Southeast Alaska Chinook under the Endangered Species Act,” Wild Fish Conservancy Senior Ecologist Nick Gayeski said. “Listing should provide the many at-risk Chinook populations in this region stronger protection from harm in the near term and initiate the development of scientifically credible recovery plans.”

The Wild Fish Conservancy filed a petition with NOAA Fisheries in January, asking that the fish be ESA-listed due to “the severe decline and poor conditions of Chinook populations” in Alaska. 

The agency then conducted a 90-day finding as required by law. Although NOAA Fisheries claims the petition included “numerous factual errors, omissions, incomplete references, and unsupported assertions and conclusion,” it concluded that missed escapement goals and decreasing size and age at maturity warranted a further investigation.

Federal scientists will now write a status review report. The agency is required to publish its finding on the petition within 12 months of receiving it. A public comment period will remain open through 23 July.

“Wild Chinook are a public trust and an irreplaceable public heritage in Alaska and beyond,” Wild Fish Conservancy Executive Director Emma Helverson said. “We are encouraged NOAA Fisheries has acknowledged the severe condition and threats facing Gulf of Alaska Chinook, which underscore the urgent need for comprehensive conservation measures to safeguard the future of these iconic fish on which so many communities and ecosystems depend.”

The finding drew immediate concern from state and federal officials.

"I am deeply disappointed in the decision by NMFS to issue a positive 90-day finding," Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said. "The petition was clearly drafted by people with little knowledge of Alaska and Alaska salmon stocks. It was rife with significant factual errors, omits important data that are widely available, and does not accurately describe the status of Chinook salmon in Alaska. It is mind-boggling that NMFS could make a positive finding based on cherry-picked data to support a pre-determined viewpoint. I am concerned that this decision will encourage more frivolous petitions in the future."

The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association also took issue with Wild Fish Conservancy’s petition, arguing it relied on cherry-picked escapement data and presented false information about Southeast Alaska Chinook stocks.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola (D-Alaska) echoed concerns with NOAA Fisheries’ 90-day finding.

“While I understand that NOAA has to follow its process, I sincerely hope the regulators and scientists will remember that rural Alaskan communities have relied on and lived alongside these salmon for millennia,” Peltola said. “Our communities are built around fish; listing Gulf of Alaska [Chinook] salmon as threatened or endangered risks that long-standing relationship. We can’t ignore the freefall our fishing families are experiencing because of declining salmon runs, but we must manage salmon to have high escapement, and traditional knowledge needs to be incorporated with Western science."

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