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After chronic decline, authorities agree that the Alaskan Chinook may need protection as an endangered species

Submitted by Wild Fish Conservancy

NOAA Fisheries has announced a grim but significant milestone in the effort to protect the dwindling Alaska Chinook salmon, also known as the “king salmon.” After reviewing a formal request to designate the Alaska Chinook salmon population as “threatened” or “endangered,” the federal agency has made the first positive finding for Alaska-born salmon under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). With this decision, NOAA is formally accepting the request, confirming that it contains substantial information indicating that federal protection for the Alaska Chinook salmon may be warranted, and initiating an in-depth scientific review.

Despite their historical abundance and the public perception that Alaska's salmon populations are abundant, Alaska State data show that the majority of Chinook populations across the state have experienced significant declines in abundance, size, diversity, and spatial structure, and many have chronically failed to meet minimum population targets. Recent declines have been so severe that both tribal and nontribal subsistence Chinook fisheries have been closed in many parts of Alaska. The crisis facing the Alaska Chinook is not an isolated incident and reflects alarming Chinook declines in rivers from California to British Columbia.

Wild Fish Conservancy submitted the formal request to NOAA Fisheries in January 2024, requesting federal protections for Chinook salmon returning to rivers flowing into the Gulf of Alaska and their habitats. The request triggered a formal 90-day review that resulted in today's decision.

Emma Helverson, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy, expressed optimism about the positive finding, saying, “Wild salmon are a public good and an irreplaceable public heritage in Alaska and beyond. We are encouraged that NOAA Fisheries has recognized the serious condition and threats facing Gulf of Alaska Chinook salmon. This underscores the urgent need for comprehensive conservation measures to ensure the future of these iconic fish on which so many communities and ecosystems depend.”

Alaska Chinook salmon undertake an extraordinary migration from the rivers where they are born to marine nursery grounds and back to their home river before spawning, facing constant threats throughout their life cycle. To ensure their long-term survival and recovery, urgent conservation measures are needed to address these threats, which include overfishing, bycatch in trawl fisheries, impacts on hatchery sites, habitat degradation and climate change.

“Since we submitted our petition, we have been contacted by Alaskans across the state who support this proactive approach and are concerned about the disappearance of Chinook salmon in their lifetime. These individuals emphasized that they are willing to make any sacrifices necessary to ensure future generations can enjoy this iconic fish,” Helverson says. “In contrast, the seafood industry and certification bodies like the Marine Stewardship Council continue to lead concerned consumers to believe that Alaskan Chinook salmon is sustainable. As the Alaskans we spoke with made clear, no one wants to eat the last wild Chinook salmon from any river.”

NOAA Fisheries' decision will continue a year-long review that is expected to be completed in early 2025. The “12-month determination” could result in the Alaska chinook being listed as “threatened” or “endangered” and critical habitat protections being established. To ensure federal agencies have the best scientific and commercial information available, a 60-day public comment period has been initiated that runs through July 23. The Wild Fish Conservancy encourages the public to participate in this important review process.

Nick Gayeski, senior ecologist at Wild Fish Conservancy and author of the petition, said, “This is an encouraging first step toward what we hope will be an early listing of the Southeast Alaska Chinook under the Endangered Species Act. The listing should provide greater protection from harm in the short term to the many endangered Chinook populations in this region and spur the development of scientifically credible recovery plans.”

In addition to promoting federal protections, Wild Fish Conservancy advocates for expanding marine protections along the migration corridor and rearing environments that salmon need in the ocean, restoring and protecting habitats that allow fish to adapt to a changing climate, and a transition from mixed-stock marine fisheries to selective fisheries in or near rivers where salmon return. This transition is necessary to protect endangered salmon populations and ensure that enough fish return to their spawning grounds.

About Wild Fish Conservancy:

Founded in 1989, Wild Fish Conservancy is a nonprofit conservation organization operating from California to Alaska to conserve, protect, and restore the wild fishes and their ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest through science, education, and advocacy. For more information, visit wildfishconservancy.org.

Anna Harden

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