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Voice of the Peninsula: King salmon series strangely silent on king salmon habitat

Posted: January 14, 2014 - 7:24pm

Morris Communications is the Georgia-based media group that owns the Peninsula Clarion, Homer News, Juneau Empire, Alaska Journal of Commerce and numerous other media holdings in Alaska. In November, company chairman William Morris III announced a special 10-part series to help Alaskans “find the facts” about declining King salmon runs.

The special series recently concluded, and overall, it provided useful information that can help Alaskans understand the complexities of the King salmon life cycle and its management. Unfortunately, the series was strangely silent on one of the most important issues facing wild salmon across Alaska: healthy, productive habitat and the ever-growing threats to it.

In over 33,000 words, the series made no serious effort to address salmon habitat. Maybe it was simply an oversight. Or maybe habitat protection has become sadly politicized in the rising tensions of the Cook Inlet fish wars.

It’s not as if salmon habitat issues have not been in the public eye lately. The proposed Pebble mine has galvanized tens of thousands of Alaskans around salmon habitat protection, and in Cook Inlet, there’s a growing wave of Alaskans concerned about the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine, which would be the first project in state history to completely remove miles and miles of wild salmon streams.

But here’s the problem: habitat protection implicates thorny legal, social and economic issues which in turn arouse incredibly strong passions. A prime example is the effort in 2013 to strip away habitat buffers along salmon streams and lakes in the Kenai Borough. Some property owners balked loudly at what they considered improper government intrusion. No one questioned their love for salmon, but the debate was raucous. Fortunately, a majority of Alaskans rose up in defense of salmon habitat.

Similar disputes have led to regulatory or management paralysis. In the Little Susitna drainage, for example, hydrocarbon pollution in summer months violates basic standards to protect salmon, but it’s too controversial for our state agencies to ban two-stroke engines, and the problem persists. In the Anchor River watershed, ADFG and ADEC have refused – despite concrete evidence of water and habitat violations – to stop ongoing pollution in prime King salmon habitat.

Unfortunately, our state agencies are not only ignoring habitat destruction, they are facilitating it. On the west side of Cook Inlet last year, ADFG granted a company permits to mine in a designated critical habitat area and to fill and cross salmon streams, despite laws in place prohibiting such activities. In fact, ADFG likes to boast how it issues hundreds of permits that impact salmon habitat each year – with a 99.5 approval rate. Now we have Governor Parnell’s attempts to remove Alaskans from fish habitat decisions through House Bill 77, and ADFG is working quietly to rollback a whole host of protections in important salmon habitat areas around the state.

It’s become increasingly common to ignore our responsibilities in our coastal watersheds, and to instead blame the “black box” of ocean conditions for the plight of our salmon. And while it’s true we have scant understanding how ocean conditions affect salmon, we do know two things: salmon need healthy spawning and rearing habitat, and we have the ability to do something to control impacts in those areas. So, instead of focusing on what we cannot control, let’s focus on what we can, and whether it’s in-river fishing impacts, poorly designed roads and culverts, loss of stream-side vegetation, polluted runoff or indiscriminate development, we have the tools to manage impacts in our coastal watersheds.

Now, all we need is the collective will to do something, to avoid the “death by a thousand cuts” dilemma that has destroyed wild salmon runs virtually everywhere except Alaska. If we want to follow the fate of fisheries in Europe or New England or the Pacific Northwest, however, all we have to do is one simple thing: nothing. Under our current direction, we are repeating the very same mistakes made elsewhere. And while this message is hardly new, it’s important to repeat again and again. Because if Morris’s special ten-part series on King salmon failed to discuss the ever-growing threats to salmon habitat in Alaska, it’s pretty clear the message is not getting through.

Bob Shavelson is the Executive Director of Cook Inletkeeper, a citizen-based organization working to protect clean water and healthy salmon throughout the Cook Inlet watershed.

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pengy 01/15/14 - 09:01 am
Thanks for mentioning habitat

Thanks for mentioning habitat and it should have been addressed at some point in the series. Habitat is critical but when rivers that have no development on their banks(Kodiak Is.), no sportfish exploitation (Nelson River) and hatchery enhanced fisheries (not dependent on spawning conditions/habitat) all seeing significant declines in king returns the overwhelming conclusion points to the ocean. Let's figure out the ocean issues (as emphasized in the series) while protecting our freshwater streams. Good on ya, Cook Inletkeepers.

potomac 01/16/14 - 01:44 pm
Fix what we know

And dig deep into the open ocean to find some answers. Sure this is a huge effort but right now I am surprised the early run kings on both the Kenai and native Kasilof kings aren't on the threatened list on the way to endangered which will really through a wrench in the works , so all groups better get serious , fix what ya know is wrong and spend as much as it takes to get the bigger pictures out in the open ocean now! Mean while , there should be no types of fishing period for the early runs till something is discovered and done to return their numbers pronto!

paragondan 01/17/14 - 11:14 am
Great job Bob!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You nailed it pretty good

Without habitat, nothing will flourish. Put into the mix a bunch of human predators playing in the fishes bedroom, looking to extract the biggest queen from the spawning bed. All the while disturbing the remaining in the act of spawning. When summer comes to us all once again picture yourself in your personal bedroom with your mate in an intimate way window open, and have the neighbor cutting his grass outside your bedroom window. That's what it must be like for these fish. Not to mention a deluge of hooks and baits bouncing off their backs. Add some outboard smoke to the room, sorry honey my maternal instinct tells me this is not a safe place(the way things are they have no safe place). Let's put some safe areas in place before it's too late, if it isn't already!!!!!!!!!

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