Alaska News

Federal agency launches yearlong review over whether to list Alaska king salmon as endangered species

A federal fisheries agency on Thursday launched a 12-month review to determine if Alaska king salmon should be listed as an endangered or threatened species.

The National Marine Fisheries Service will study king salmon numbers across the Gulf of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and Southeast Alaska before stricter protections may be considered for the prized fish. Those protections could include curtailing commercial fishing for king salmon, along with sport and subsistence fishing. Mining and logging in critical king salmon habitats could also be affected.

Legal experts in fisheries cautioned that it would likely take at least two years before any new Alaska king salmon restrictions are implemented. Litigation would also be likely.

Attorney Anna Crary, a partner at Anchorage law firm Landye Bennett Blumstein, said the threshold is relatively low to start a 12-month federal endangered species review. She said there may be an inclination for stakeholders to panic, but the next stage of the designation process is in-depth, highly administrative and takes into account data submitted by the state and other organizations.

Nevertheless, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang on Thursday said it was “mind-boggling” that an endangered species review was advancing for Alaska king, or chinook salmon.

“The petition was clearly drafted by people with little knowledge of Alaska and Alaska salmon stocks,” he said in a prepared statement. “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.”

Under the 1973 Endangered Species Act, an endangered species designation would mean Alaska king salmon are considered in danger of extinction. A threatened species designation would mean the fish would likely become endangered within the foreseeable future.


The federal review was initiated when the Wild Fish Conservancy filed a 67-page petition in January, which argued Alaska king salmon is at risk of extinction. The Washington state-based conservation group cited data that a decline in king salmon numbers was predominantly due to overfishing, climate change and wild salmon competing for food with farmed fish — among other causes.

The fisheries service, in its 14-page finding on Thursday, said the review was warranted because of the data presented about the shrinking size of mature king salmon in Alaska, and missed escapement goals for a number of stocks.

”I’m not surprised that the agency is seizing on those two things,” Crary said. “Because those missed escapement goals have been significant. They’ve been increasing in severity over time, with some exceptions.”

”The size of the fish at maturity is decreasing, just across the board,” she added. “Basic and easily available scientific data confirms that, so that suggests that there is a problem.”

Escapement goals refer to the target number of king salmon that state managers want to return to a river to spawn to keep the species sustainable in the future.

In March, the Alaska Board of Fisheries classified late-run king salmon on the Kenai River as a stock of concern, which led to management plan changes to help king salmon recover. Vincent-Lang said despite closing the Kenai River to sportfishing for king salmon, thousands of the fish are still returning to spawn.

“Just because we’re not providing for maximum sustained yield, it does not mean that the stocks are at risk of extinction,” he said in an interview.

The fisheries service did not accept all of the Wild Fish Conservancy’s claims without criticism. The agency stated the group’s petition contained “numerous factual errors, omissions, incomplete references, and unsupported assertions and conclusions.” Some king salmon populations have shown improvements in recent years, and the group made “vague references” about the impacts of mining, logging and overfishing, the federal agency said.

A spokesperson for the Wild Fish Conservancy did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Daily News.

Crary said the state, and other entities, would likely seize on the “weaknesses or inaccuracies” in the petition identified by the fisheries service when drafting their submissions for consideration. Vincent-Lang said the state is open to being involved in the next steps of the review process.

“We’re the primary manager of salmon in the state of Alaska,” he said. “And it seems kind of ludicrous to have a federal agency step in and say, ‘We’re now going to be the experts of deciding whether these species are at risk of extinction,’ without including some level of involvement by the state.”

The federal fisheries service is now seeking “the best available scientific and commercial data” from the public, state agencies, industry stakeholders and other organizations to help officials make a determination about the status of Alaska king salmon. Public comments must be received within 60 days of Friday.

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Sean Maguire

Sean Maguire is a politics and general assignment reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Juneau. He previously reported from Juneau for Alaska's News Source. Contact him at