NOAA Review to Determine Need of ESA Action for Chinook Salmon

NOAA Fisheries has begun a review of the status of Chinook salmon in the Gulf of Alaska to see if protections under the Endangered Species Act being sought by a Seattle conservation group are warranted.

NOAA’s May 24 announcement in the Federal Register for a study sought by the Wild Fish Conservancy in Seattle noted that in reviewing the conservancy’s petition, it found numerous factual errors, omissions, incomplete references and unsupported assertions and conclusions.

But the petition contained enough information for a reasonable person to conclude that the petitioned action may be warranted, NOAA said.

The agency will accept public comment on the petition through July 23.

The Wild Fish Conservancy, which advocates for more Chinook salmon to feed southern resident orca whales in Puget Sound, requested the study, contending that protection of Gulf of Alaska Chinook salmon is needed.

The conservation group cited a study in the scientific journal Communications Earth & Environment that included a warning that urgent conservation measures must be taken to save the endangered population of orca whales.

To ensure the long-term survival and recovery of Alaska’s Chinook salmon, efforts are needed to address threats including overfishing, bycatch in trawl fisheries, hatchery impacts, habitat degradation and climate change, the conservancy contends.

NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Administrator Jon Kurland said the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has tremendous expertise in salmon biology and management, and that NOAA will seek technical assistance from its state partners on Chinook biology, genetics and relevant risk factors.

“Having reached a positive 90-day finding, we are now required under the Endangered Species Act to conduct a status review. The Endangered Species Act requires NOAA Fisheries to conclude that review and publish a decision in the Federal Register on whether listing is warranted within 12 months of receipt of the petition,” Kurland explained. 

That date would be Jan. 11, 2025.

“We are dedicating personnel and resources towards a timely completion,” he said. “We expect significant challenges given the vast geographical extent of the petitioned area. There is also potential for numerous distinct populations of Chinook salmon within that area and each one will require a separate analysis of its status and trends.”

The announcement of NOAA’s study prompted criticism from Fish & Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang and Alaska’s congressional delegation.

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

The commissioner said he found it “mind boggling that (NOAA Fisheries) could make a positive finding based on cherry-picked data to support a pre-determined viewpoint.”

He also expressed concern that the decision would encourage more such petitions in the future.

The Endangered Species Act is the wrong tool, he added, to address a downturn in Chinook salmon productivity and that the conservancy is using it as a weapon to further their own interests.

“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,” he said. “The state has taken aggressive management measures to conserve these stocks which have been proving successful.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said that while Alaska’s king salmon need help, that action based on a flawed petition from a Seattle-based environmental activist group is the wrong way to do so.

“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,” she said.

Tim Bristol, director of SalmonState, a nonprofit with a goal of protecting salmon habitat, said he doesn’t think the study will lead to any kind of 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.”

NOAA’s announced plan is to convene a team of federal scientists to do a review of the species’ current status and extinction risk, including input from non-federal experts invited to participate as guest consultants.

The status report is to undergo peer review, with those comments to be made public.