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Healthy wild salmon need a healthy habitat

Voices of the Peninsula

Posted: June 14, 2012 - 9:23am

You can feel it everywhere. Wild salmon are streaming through Cook Inlet, and coursing up our rivers. Whether you sportfish or setnet, drift or dipnet, the return of wild salmon is what makes us Alaskans.

So now is the perfect time to recognize how lucky we are to have some of the last wild salmon runs on the planet, and equally important to understand what we need to do to ensure salmon remain a vital part of the Alaska lifestyle and economy for years to come.

In 2001, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly did what governments are supposed to do: it enacted an ordinance that provides significant benefits to borough residents by extending the decade old salmon protections from 25 streams and their lakes to all salmon streams in the borough. The original ordinance - 21.18 - requires a 50 foot area of limited development on salmon streams and lakes in the borough to protect the water quality and shoreline habitat we know are important fish habitat.

It's no surprise salmon need healthy habitat to survive. We need only look to the lower 48 to understand how a blind eye toward habitat protection has resulted in the demise of once prolific salmon runs. Sometimes it's a bid dam project or some other large scale development, but usually it's the less noticeable but equally devastating "death by a thousand cuts" problem - the wetlands fill here, the shore line destruction there - that eventually adds up to habitat loss and diminished runs. It's a well-documented story everywhere salmon once thrived.

David Montgomery from the University of Washington wrote an important book a couple years ago called the "The King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon." In it, Montgomery traces the demise of salmon runs from Europe to New England to the Pacific Northwest. The common culprits? Habitat loss and poor fisheries management.

Fortunately, Alaska has taken fisheries management seriously, and while debates still rage over allocation, we're not stringing nets across river mouths anymore. But when it comes to salmon habitat protection, the "death by a thousand cuts" dilemma continues to unfold before our eyes. Just look at aerial photos of Cook Inlet in 1950 and compare them to today if you need proof.

That's why I continue to be a strong proponent of salmon habitat protection, and I strongly supported extension of Ordinance 21.18. The ordinance is not perfect, and last month the assembly loosened restrictions for small parcel owners. On the one hand, our laws and rules are often ill-suited to grasp the complexities of natural systems, and there's a strong argument by scientists that 50 foot of limited development are not enough to truly protect our salmon. On the other hand, there is a "don't tread on me" libertarian perspective that believes protecting salon habitat encroaches on private property rights.

Alaska has a long, proud history of independent-minded individuals making do in the often trying circumstances found across our great state. Without dissecting the many arguments put forth against salmon protection, it's important to recognize a couple legal realities.

First, while private property remains a cornerstone of our American legal system, no one has a right to conduct themselves in a way that harms others. For example, I can't dump oil on my property because it might flow onto my neighbor's land or into the nearby creek. This basic legal concept dates back to ancient Roman law, was embraced by the English common law, and forms an important foundation of U.S. law today. It's just common sense.

Next, Article VIII of our Alaska Constitution reserves salmon for "common use." That means salmon belong to all Alaskans. So while a property owner has well-established rights to develop his or her land, no one has the right to destroy habitat that support salmon that belong to us and our kids.

I am a strong supporter of private property rights. But I also recognize the need to balance individual rights for the collective good, especially when it comes to our salmon.

We're truly blessed with an incredible resource, and we have an obligation to our communities to ensure salmon endure for years to come. Salmon not only feed us and drive millions of dollars into our economy through local jobs, but they define who we are as Alaskans.

A poll by The Nature Conservancy last year drives home the importance of salmon to Alaskans: 97 percent of Alaskans said salmon are an important part of our economy, 80 percent said protecting habitat around streams was as important as protecting the streams themselves, and two-thirds of Alaskans eat salmon at least once a month. Regardless of politics, religion or household income, its clear Alaskans have a unique relationship with wild, healthy Alaska salmon.

Ordinance 21.18 may need some additional refinements to strike the proper balance between private rights and community safeguards, but we're on the right path, and it's vital we all come together aro9und the science of fish protection to make sure we don't follow the same road as Washington, Oregon and other places that once boasted proud salmon runs.
Mako Haggerty represents the South Peninsula on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

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radiokenai 06/14/12 - 05:33 pm
What a goob....

Your opinion letter smells like Swiss Cheese to me! There sure are a lot of holes and stench!

For starters, let me assume that you DO NOT own any land next to a stream or lake that supports fish do you? Otherwise you wouldn't spew such nonsense. My guess is that you just moved here from the California and want to fix Alaska?

Second: By placing your ingenious 50ft barrier in place, how the hell are people suppose to access the rivers? Swim? Helicopter? Or levitate?

Third: The problem is not the shoreline stupid, the problem is people, such as yourself, who are greedy and promote Rivers and Streams into disaster...If people like you wouldn't be so quick to make a profit on our food source, you wouldn't have to TRY to regulate me. (Key word here is TRY...because I give a crap less about your regulation! If I want to fish, I am going to walk right down to the river and fish! If you want to spend your fees and fines money to build stairways and catwalks, I will use them. But I'll be damned if I am going to suffer while you suited jackwagons turn a profit!)

Maybe it is high time you start regulating outside guides and limit advertisements. Try regulating the true cause...such as profiteers like yourself, and leave the residents alone.

Finally: I have never heard of you before, but rest assured, if you show up on a will get a big "NO" from this lifetime Alaskan!

river 06/15/12 - 04:06 pm
I don’t disagree with much of

I don’t disagree with much of what you said but this artical pits land owner against user. As a property owner it is our land and we maintain it for the rights for a community’s benefit? However, as a water land owner I take pride in the trees and shrubs I am growing on the banks to protect the bank. By the way, I am doing it not the Borough, and at my expense…. But I have just been denied the ability to replace a structure that has been in place for more than 20 years. It is within the last 18 feet of the 50 foot setback. It is unreasonable to think that a new structure would harm the habitat. This ordinance is a “taking” of an owners land rights without regards to the property owners. Will the Borough now lower my taxes because I now can’t use a part of my property?

julie 09/02/12 - 07:56 am
End Salmon Bycatch Petition

The main habitat problem no one is talking about is the pollock trawling bycatch problem. The studies show that the amount of chinook salmon missing from every Alaskan river is just about the same amount in numbers that the trawlers are catching and killing and wasting whether they turn them into fertilizer like last year and others or throw them overboard, or process and donate them. It's all a waste and diminishing the runs to unhealthy NON-sustainble numbers. Please sign this petition to stop the high numbers of bycatch.
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