Brewing a bad mix

Stream pollution, effective salmon marketing don't go together

Posted: Friday, September 03, 2004

Let's just say Frank Murkowski is not a marketing genius. If he were, he would never propose to increase pollution in Alaska salmon streams. As far-fetched as it sounds, however, the state is now taking comments on a new proposed rule to allow more pollution in our prized fish streams. Current rules rightly prohibit such discharges, but heavy lobbying from polluting industries has put the issue on our table.

It's important to understand why increased salmon stream pollution reflects bad public policy. Alaska is blessed with a bounty of wild salmon. But farmed fish have wreaked havoc on the Alaska salmon industry and the countless Alaskan families and communities it supports. In response, Alaskans have made impressive strides finding and expanding markets for our magnificent wild fish. How?

By meeting consumer demand, and branding and marketing Alaska salmon as healthy, fresh and clean. Salmon marketing hinges largely on consumer perceptions, and consumers have rightly come to expect a superior product from Alaska vendors. The Murkowski administration's new proposal, however, will unravel these important advances by tainting Alaska's wild salmon with a new label a pollution label.

The state now is amending its water quality protection rules to allow "mixing zones" in salmon streams. Under the Clean Water Act, states establish water quality standards to protect people and fish, among other things. Pollution discharges must normally meet these standards when the discharges enter a waterbody. When the discharge is too polluted to meet state standards, however, regulators often employ a loophole called a mixing zone to permit the discharge anyway. Instead of measuring compliance with fish protection standards at the end of the pipe, mixing zones allow compliance to be measured somewhere downstream, after the pollutants have dispersed in the receiving water. This loophole embraces the old, discounted notion that dilution is the solution to pollution. In practice, mixing zones create sacrifice areas in streams where water quality fails to meet the basic fish protection goals of the Clean Water Act.

Current rules allow mixing zones in non-salmon streams. Due to pressure from industry, mixing zones already have become the rule rather than the exception in those waters. ADEC now routinely allows mixing zones in most wastewater permits outside of salmon streams, making a mockery of laws meant to protect water quality. But until now, no one has been foolish enough to suggest it would be a good idea to allow mixing zones in our salmon streams. Chalk up another first for the Murkowski administration.

This new rule, standing alone, poses sweeping implications for salmon health, salmon habitat and salmon marketing. Yet it's part of a larger wholesale effort by the Murkowski administration to roll back basic safeguards on salmon health and salmon habitat. For example, the governor began his term by muffling biologists in the state's habitat protection agency the Department of Fish and Game's Habitat Division by moving them to the resource development agency the Department of Natural Resources.

Similarly, the governor and his supporters rammed through changes to the Alaska Coastal Management Act, which effectively removed local citizens and coastal governments from decisions affecting salmon and other coastal resources. And let's not forget this administration's aggressive drive to allow pesticide spraying around salmon streams. Together, these sweeping changes herald the most anti-salmon, anti-local control agenda ever foisted upon Alaskans, and their effects are felt in permitting decisions every day across the state.

Alaska boasts the healthiest salmon stocks in the world, and they provide jobs, dollars and subsistence to people and communities throughout the state. But Alaska's increasingly successful effort to brand and market clean, fresh and healthy fish will suffer if the state rolls back its common sense protections on our prized fish streams.

Predictably, the state's many lawyers and experts and public relations specialists will assure everyone that Alaska salmon and the people they support will remain unharmed. But when the Murkowski administration speaks, just remember this one fact: The governor's new rule will allow toxic pollution discharges in Alaska salmon streams where none occur now.

Bob Shavelson is the executive director of Cook Inlet Keeper, a member-supported nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed and the life it sustains. For more information about the state's proposal, go to, call ADEC at (907) 451-2791 or visit review/mixingzones.htm.

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