A group tasked with examining recent protections added to local anadromous lakes and streams asked pointed questions of an expert on where, how and if near shore lake habitat should be protected.
During a Thursday meeting at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chambers, the Anadromous Fish Habitat Protection Task Force heard a presentation from Gary Fandrei, executive director of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, about area lakes, how they are unique and what role the near shore lake habitat plays in the life of fish spawning and living in them.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre directed the task force to consider if the anadromous fish habitat protection code enacted last summer is appropriate for some or all of the lakes included in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s “Atlas and Catalogue of Waters Important for Spawning, Rearing, or Migration of Anadromous Fish.”
Fandrei said Kenai Peninsula lakes vary greatly in size, depth, nutrients and function. He said shorelines and their habitat act as a buffer to keep damaging human-made materials, such as fertilizer, out of lakes. That buffer is important considering the large impacts those substances can have on lakes.
Near shore habitat also plays a vital role in allowing juvenile fish, mostly salmon in anadromous lakes, to spawn and grow by providing them shade, protection and nutrients. Tampering with the natural environment near lakes could negatively affect those young fish, he said.
“When you have these man made changes that go into a lake system, they are extremely difficult to reverse,” he said.
Fandrei said each lake and its habitat is unique, but a 50-foot protection area would be the minimum he would recommend.
“One size probably isn’t going to fit all, but you are going to have to look at some type of a range depending on what type of a water body you are looking at, whether it is a shallow lake or a deeper, fish-producing lake,” he said.
The task force took no immediate action
Currently, the Kenai River, 10 of its tributaries and 14 other streams in the area, are managed under habitat protection. The anadromous streams ordinance passed in late June 2011 added 2,317 stream miles to the 602 stream miles previously included in the district.
The ordinance protects the near-stream habitat of all anadromous streams and lakes — which host fish migrating from the sea to spawn in fresh water — in the borough 50 feet up the bank from the ordinary high water mark.
The idea is by protecting the habitat, the safety and future of the fish — primarily salmon — are better secured, advocates of the measure contend. Opponents contend the measure is onerous, isn’t within the borough’s powers and infringes on private property rights.
Borough code includes a prior use rule, creates tax incentives for improvement and compliance and creates a permitting system for property owners to receive approval for projects on their property in the protection district.
The code hasn’t yet been implemented on the east side of the borough, but notice of the ordinance’s rules and regulations was mailed to some residents.
In June, the borough denied a group’s petition to scratch the measure from the books.
The question of whether lakes should be included in the protection district has become the lynchpin of whether the protection goes beyond the scope originally considered when the assembly passed it — some assembly members even said they were surprised to find out lakes were included.
Fandrei said all salmon spend some time in lakes, but some species are more lake-oriented than others.
Sockeye live in a lake until they grow into smolt. The freshwater portion of their life can range from one to three years, in some cases.
“Generally they spend a limited amount of time along the shoreline, probably on the order of two or three months … then they move out into the main water deeper part of the lake,” he said.
Coho salmon are more oriented to the lakeshore, Fandrei said.
“They will take advantage of other insects that are living in the vegetation along the shoreline, so they tend to go pretty much everywhere,” he said.
Pinks spawn in lakes, but spend very little time in fresh water migrating to the ocean in their first year while king salmon spend a lot of time in larger river systems, he said.
During his presentation, Fandrei referenced a photo of a home on lakefront property with a large lawn, few trees and a riprap retaining shore while task force members asked questions about the effects of such actions. Such development is common around lakes in the Kenai, Soldotna and Nikiski areas, he said.
“In most places people do add fertilizer to their lawns,” he said. “When you add fertilizer to your lawn, the goal is to have it stay on the lawn. But you can see that slopes right down to the lake. Any significant rainfall and much of that material is going to wash right into the lake.”
In Minnesota, where Fandrei said he used to work for 13 years, heavy nutrient run-off would enter into lakes increasing phosphorous levels greater than would naturally occur. The resulting changes are bad for fish, he said.
“Even a small amount of fertilizer running off a lawn is a significant amount for the lake in terms of adding nutrients to the system,” he said. “Without a buffer zone along that lake you have nothing there, or very little to absorb those nutrients and filter them out before they get to the lake.”
Installation of riprap — stones used to reinforce shoreline in place of natural enforcement provided by habitat — does not provide for significant amounts of vegetation for immature fish to live in and could have other consequences, Fandrei said. Natural habitat provides the best area for fish to hide in and grow into, he said.
“If you’ve got a more exposed shoreline like that where you had more wave action and stuff like that, you are going to have more potential for disrupting the redds, the nests, the eggs and so forth that are in there,” he said. “I would like to see, in terms of spawning salmon, a much more natural-type shoreline because it offers protection for the immature fish when they emerge from the gravels, but more protection for the eggs that are in there.”
No vegetation or habitat along the shoreline would also affect levels of shade, which in-turn affects the temperature of the water where the juvenile fish swim. Water over a certain temperature will “stress” a fish, he said.
“When you are dealing with salmon, warmer temperatures can be very limiting, so when you remove the vegetation from a shoreline, what you end up doing is exposing the water to more sunlight and it will warm up more quickly and to a higher level along that shoreline,” he said. “That can be critical to immature fish, immature salmon.”
Fandrei was asked if lakes are more important than rivers to the health and development of juvenile salmon. He said that question was tough to answer, but he understood why it was important.
However, both are critical components in a fish’s lifecycle.
“They act together to make that system function as a whole,” Fandrei said.
What is important is the health of the whole watershed, which integrates both and provides everything needed for a fish to live.
“It is not that one is more important than the other, it is just that at different times of their lifecycle they are going to rely one resource more than the other,” he said.