The Alaska Department of Fish & Game stocked 107,441 Chinook salmon in the Fleming Spit Lagoon in Cordova on Thursday, June 7, 2018. File photo by Lennette Ronnegard for The Cordova Times

State fisheries officials have asked National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to extend the deadline for comments on a petition from a Seattle-based environmental group seeking to list Gulf of Alaska Chinook salmon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

In his June 3 letter to Jon Kurland, regional administrator of the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region, Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang noted that in addition to the broad geographic area of interest and sheer scope of this undertaking, the comment period framework coincides with the onset of the 2024 salmon fishing season. 

An extension of time would allow ADF&G to provide a much more comprehensive data set and thorough analysis, which would be of mutual benefit, he told Kurland. 

The current deadline for comments and information on the 90-day finding on a petition to list Gulf of Alaska Chinook salmon as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act from July 23 to at least Sept. 6, 2024. 

The petition was filed by the Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC), which is seeking a status review of the Gulf of Alaska region, which they define as encompassing “all Chinook populations that enter the marine environment of the Gulf of Alaska (GOA).” 

Vincent-Lang noted that the region encompasses a broad swath of coastline from the Canadian border out through the Aleutian Islands. “This is akin to carrying out a single status review for all Chinook salmon in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho,” he said. 

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State fisheries biologists will be actively managing fisheries for most of the summer and this status review will be the first of this nature conducted for Alaska salmon, he said. 

WFC filed its petition with NOAA Fisheries in January, calling for federal protection of Chinook salmon returning to streams flowing into the Gulf of Alaska and their habitats. The petition prompted a formal 90-day review, which resulted in NOAA Fisheries announcing on May 24 that is has initiated a review of the status of Gulf of Alaska Chinook salmon to see if protections under ESA are warranted. 

NOAA’s announcement in the Federal Register noted that in reviewing the WFC petition they found numerous errors, omissions, incomplete references, and unsupported assertions and conclusions. 

Still the petition contained enough information for a reasonable person to conclude that the action requested in the petition may be warranted, NOAA officials said. 

The conservancy has been advocating for more Chinook salmon to feed endangered Southern Resident orca whales in Puget Sound. Vincent-Lang initially said that the ESA is the wrong tool to address a downturn in Chinook salmon and that the WFC was using it as a weapon to further their own interests. 

Others objecting to the petition included the Alaska congressional delegation and Tim Bristol, director of SalmonState, who warned that the ESA must be used with great care.   

“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,” he said. 

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