COMMENTARY: Without better habitat protections, salmon are vulnerable
As a commercial fisherman for over four decades, I am supporting Ballot Initiative 1 and voting “Yes for Salmon.”
I have participated in a variety of fisheries around the state from Southeast to the Bering Sea, and have experienced a multitude of uncertainties inherent in the business. Fish stocks fluctuate, weather conditions vary, markets can be fickle, mechanical breakdowns happen, foreign exchange rates rise and fall, and politics shift with the wind, to name a few.
Exposure to risk — both physical and financial — plays an especially outsized role in commercial fishing, but like any other type of business, finding some level of predictability is a key to success.
Although there are many risk factors beyond our control, Alaska fishermen are lucky to have predictability when it comes to management of fisheries. The mandate for sustainable resource use in Article 8 of the Alaska Constitution provides a foundation for a sophisticated management system administered by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The department uses the best available science and data collection methods along with a participatory public process at the Board of Fisheries to develop regulations that promote sustainable resource use. That predictability allows fishermen like me to make better decisions about my business that have ripple effects on family, crew, community and throughout the economy.
Alaska’s fishery management system may be the envy of the world, but we are clearly vulnerable when it comes to protection of freshwater habitat.
Throughout the northern hemisphere, where salmon were once bountiful, most places have seen their great runs diminish to a mere trickle or even lost altogether. The causes for salmon run decimation are well documented and nearly always related to loss of habitat. It’s often not from any one factor or project, but the cumulative effect of many disruptions.
One only needs to look at the Pacific Northwest as an example of the loss and subsequent difficulty in rehabilitating those once-abundant stocks.
I am hoping that Alaska will learn from the mistakes of others and act to effectively protect salmon habitat before it is too late. While some claim that Alaska has “robust” permitting laws, the few column inches pertaining to salmon habitat protection in the voluminous book of fishery statutes (Title 16) is grossly insufficient.
ADFG — the agency with actual responsibility for upholding the constitutional mandate — needs the authority required to assure that salmon habitat is protected. Present habitat permitting laws date back to statehood 60 years ago at a time when our population was 224,000 residents, a third of today’s roughly 740,000!
Over the years since statehood, many have recognized the shortcomings of the present guiding statute (AS 16.05.871 section d), which states that “The commissioner shall approve the proposed construction, work, or use in writing unless the commissioner finds the plans and specifications insufficient for the proper protection of fish and game.”
“Proper protection” falls for short of a “robust” standard that will bring us the salmon-enhanced future that most of us desire. Two years ago, the Board of Fisheries stepped in with a request to the Legislature for changes to the permitting statutes. Alaska Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, rose to the challenge with proposed legislation, but the bill never made it out of committee. Legislative inaction has made the “Yes for Salmon” ballot initiative a credible alternative if salmon habitat is to be protected.
With increasing pressure to develop Alaska’s non-renewable resources, the threat to salmon habitat is real. The status quo may be appealing to development interests, but unless costs are internalized — borne by the entity undertaking the project, the rest of us end up paying the price. When considering salmon habitat protection, Ben Franklin might have altered his famous axiom to state that “an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure.”
So, I am supporting the “Yes for Salmon” initiative because there is nothing in the present statutes that will preclude a long-term decline in salmon viability as the state becomes more developed.
The initiative clarifies what constitutes “proper protection” of fish and game, sets up a permitting process that is transparent and workable, and recognizes that not only has the state of Alaska changed, but the state of the science is also far more advanced.
Chip Treinen of Anchorage holds an MBA from Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley and has over 40 years of fishing experience in Alaska’s waters.