What’s to blame for Alaska’s poor king salmon runs? Rep. Young suggests submarines.

U.S. Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, talks during a Juneau Chamber of Commerce lunch on June 10, 2021, at the Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall in Juneau, Alaska. It is the chamber’s first in-person lunch in about 15 months. (Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Chinook salmon runs are in decline across Alaska, and research suggests a host of factors are to blame, from ocean predators to warmer streams to excess rain. Alaska Congressman Don Young added a novel suspect to the list: nuclear submarines.

“We have to figure this out. Have to work on it and make sure there’s not something going on,” he said of the poor runs. “Is it climate change? Are they moving north? Is there a nuclear sub stuck out there somewhere?”

Young spoke at a subcommittee hearing Thursday, and he acknowledged that his theory sounds unusual.

“Everybody laughs at me, but at one time I counted 64 nuclear subs from Russia,” he said. “We kept track of them as they came off the coast of California.”

A spokesman said Young was referring to matters like those described in a 2020 BBC article on radioactive submarine wrecks.

Young’s comments came after he testified in favor of bills he sponsored to protect Alaska’s salmon from farmed and genetically engineered fish. Subcommittee Chairman Jared Huffman, D-Calif., noted that Young had only used about half of his allotted five minutes. So Young detoured into the chinook mystery and his nuclear theory.

“See, I knew if we drew you out a little we’d get something interesting and colorful,” Huffman said. “So thank you for that, Don, and for your leadership on these bills.”

Research on the chinook problem has not focused on nuclear pollution.

A study published last year identified multiple climate and habitat changes that are suppressing chinook runs in Southcentral Alaska but found no single factor that can fully explain the declines.

Young called for more research.

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