A fisher hooks up with a chinook salmon on Friday, June 21, 2019 at Flemming Spit out Orca Road in Cordova. File photo by Vivian Kennedy for The Cordova Times

A federal study is underway to determine if Endangered Species Act protections are warranted for Gulf of Alaska Chinook salmon. Such protection for the kings is sought by a Seattle conservation group bent on providing more food for Southern Resident orca whales. 

The announcement from NOAA Fisheries on May 24 in the Federal Register was prompted by a petition from the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC), which submitted the formal petition in NOAA Fisheries in January calling for federal protection of Chinook salmon returning to streams flowing into the Gulf of Alaska and their habitats. That petition initiated a 90-day review and the federal agency’s decision to proceed with a study. 

The WFC contends that while the seafood industry and entities like the Marine Stewardship Council continue to lead consumers to believe Alaska’s Chinook salmon are sustainable that these fish are exposed to persistent threats, including overfishing, bycatch in trawl fisheries, hatchery impacts, habitat degradation, and climate change. The WTC also advocated, in a statement released in late April, for expanded marine protection along the migration route and nursery rearing environment. 

NOAA Fisheries acknowledged that it found information in the petition numerous factual errors, omissions, incomplete references, and unsupported assertions and conclusions. Still the federal agency said it considered missed escapement goals in recent years for many stocks in the petitioned area, plus evidence of decreasing size and age at maturity. 

They concluded, the federal agency said, that the petition had enough information “for a reasonable person to conclude that the petitioned action may be warranted.” 

Jon Kurland, Alaska regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries, noted that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has great expertise in salmon biology and management in Alaska, and that NOAA Fisheries would seek technical assistance from the state agency as guest consultants. 

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NOAA is also accepting public comment on the study through July 23. 

NOAA’s decision to pursue a 12-month review drew a quick response from ADF&G Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang, Alaska’s congressional delegation and others. 

“The petition was clearly drafted by people with little knowledge of Alaska and Alaska salmon stocks,” said Vincent-Lang. “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.” 

He also said it was “mind boggling” that the National Marine Fisheries Service would take a positive finding from a finding he said included “cherry-picked” data.  

“The ESA is the wrong tool to address a downturn in Chinook productivity, and this group is using it as a weapon to further their own interests,” he said. “Simply failing to meet an escapement goal that is calculated to meet maximum sustained yield does not mean a stock is at risk of extinction.” 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that Alaska’s king salmon need help, but that “an ESA listing based on a flawed petition from a Seattle-based environmental activist group is the wrong way to go.” 

“Should NMFS determine that Alaska’s Chinook be listed after conducting their 12-month review, it would be nearly impossible for king salmon from the Gulf of Alaska to be caught for commercial and recreational purposes, and perhaps even subsistence,” the senator said. “Even this action on the 90-day finding will have a dangerous chilling effect on investment in our fishing industry at a time when they can least afford it.” 

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said the WFC petition was misguided.  

“It’s important to note, the petition for this listing comes from the Seattle-based Wild Fish Conservancy, the same radical, far-left activist group that filed a meritless, deceptive lawsuit last year to shut down our small boat, hook-and-line troll salmon fishery in Southeast,” he said.  

Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, chimed in, advocating for trawling and bycatch restrictions.  

“The far-reaching, negative impacts of this potential listing underlines how urgently we need to act to protect our fish in more concrete ways, like restricting bottom trawling and reducing bycatch,” said Peltola.  

Tim Bristol, director of SalmonState, a nonprofit with a mandate to protect salmon habitat, said he felt the study would not lead to any positive outcome. 

“I believe in the ESA, but I think you have to be careful how you use it,” he said. “It is a very powerful tool and also a blunt tool, and I think it is being misapplied by the Wild Fish Conservancy in this case. We don’t even know what is leading to this decline in Chinook salmon. There are so many unknowns out there.” 

“What really bugs me is this perception in the Pacific Northwest that Alaskans don’t care. We all really care. I’m not even going to fish for king salmon this year,” Bristol said. 

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