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Verbatim: Alaska can learn from challenges elsewhere

Posted: May 19, 2013 - 9:39am  |  Updated: May 19, 2013 - 10:09am

Shortly after spring break, I flew to down to Louisiana Gulf Coast for the Brown (University) Environmental Leadership Lab (BELL). It was amazing. I learned so much about the environmental problems being faced there, the cultural issues, and how similar it is to Alaska. Except, Louisiana is decades ahead of us in environmental problems. They are in a panic, but if we act now we won’t have to be.

Besides the disasters heard about on national television, the Louisiana coast is facing huge amounts of land loss — about a football field size of land every 38 minutes or 25-35 square miles of land a year. Without any action taken, New Orleans will end up under water within in the next century. The land being lost is mostly wetland. The loss is mainly due to human causes: levees, oil drilling, canals, and wetland drainage. The levees used to block the natural flood pattern of the Mississippi River prohibit needed sediment deposits on the wetlands to counteract erosion and subsidence (the sinking of land). One way subsidence occurs is when the oil is removed from the ground not only is there now just air there and the land sinks down into it, but it is also removing liquid so the ground shrinks like a drying sponge. The canals dug in the Louisiana marshes and swamps cause saltwater intrusion; the incoming saltwater kills the freshwater plants that make up the wetland, and the land erodes from under the dead plants and only water is left. Wetland drainage also results in subsidence; when the water is removed, so that the land can be built on, it dries out, condenses, and becomes lower.

Louisiana’s wetlands are storm buffers and crucial habitat for much of the harvested sea life like oysters and crabs. Every 2.7 miles of wetlands absorbs one foot of storm surge. If Louisiana had not lost so much coastal wetlands the recent storms would not have been so devastating. By 2050, the loss of commercial fisheries will be nearly $550 million per year because of wetland and coastal land loss.

The culture of Louisiana is tied to the coast: music, food, and lifestyle. Much of Louisiana’s heritage comes from a vibrant coastal life. While there, we, the BELL group, visited a native tribe that lived in the bayou. The woman we spoke with told of how the BP oil spill still affects their life. Most people there took part in fisheries but, since the oil spill, the shrimp have been showing signs of illness so some of the people in the native community have not gone back to fishing or returned to their homes. Not only are fish a source of income and food but are also used for decorative purposes. We were each given a gar fish scale; these scales are used in jewelry and were used to make the festive clothing seen in ceremonies — the scales were tied together and when the dancers moved they jingled. With the loss of coastal land and fisheries this rich culture dwindles.

Alaska and Louisiana share the same coastal tie. Native Alaskans have lived off the land for generations. The homesteaders did the same. Even today many Alaskans rely on fish; commercial fishing is a livelihood for many people and others use salmon for subsistence. Something many of us Alaskans do every year is personal-use fishing. It has its own culture. For example, dip netting or set netting out on the beach, some bring their four wheelers, others start a fire and roast hot dogs, and some families have everyone in the water. How many other places can you find girls with acrylic nails gutting fish? Fish are our culture.

Alaska is losing crucial salmon spawning ground. People building and walking on the river bank are causing the loss of valuable spawning ground for our world famous salmon. We are at a crossroads with the “Fifty Foot Set Back.” We can make the decision to help save the salmon spawning grounds. Some inconvenience for a few people can equal generations of fish and jobs.

Alaska does not want to end up in the same place as Louisiana: in desperation. It is easier and more cost effective to prevent a problem than it is to fix it afterwards. Louisiana is scrambling to right a problem that has already happened. Alaska, right now, has the opportunity to prevent an unrecoverable loss. Let’s keep the “Fifty Foot Set Back.”

This column is the opinion of Heather Morton, a junior Connections and Skyview High School student.

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“Verbatim,” an opinion column written by student contributors, will resume next fall. Interested in contributing? For more information, contact Clarion editor Will Morrow at will.morrow@peninsulaclarion.com.

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