Board of Fisheries seeking updated habitat protections

  • Researchers walk along the Susitna River in 2012 conducting environmental studies for the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project, a proposed 750-foot dam and accompanying power-producing facility on the Susitna River. The project is on hold based on budget cuts and public opposition, but it along with other proposed mines have spurred fisheries stakeholders to ask the Legislature for more robust habitat protections under state law. (Photo/Frank Flavin/Alaska Energy Authority)

The Alaska Board of Fisheries finalized a letter to the Legislature asking to give the Department of Fish and Game more authority over fish habitat permitting.

Under Title 16 of the Alaska statute, the section outlaying fisheries habitats, the commissioner of Fish and Game must weigh in on development projects taking place in fisheries habitats by issuing them a “fisheries habitat permit.”

The letter requests that “proper protections” for fisheries habitats be defined more extensively in statute. Under the current law, “proper protection” is a matter of discretion, as it has no statutory definition.

The Board of Fisheries agreed with the proposal’s idea that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game should be involved from the start with a more robust idea of what is acceptable.

“Additional guidance is warranted for the protection of fish, to set clear expectations for permit applicants and to reduce uncertainty in predevelopment planning costs,” wrote the Board of Fisheries. “To strengthen ADFG’s implementation and enforcement of the permitting program, the legislature may want to consider creating enforceable standards in statute to protect fish habitat, and to guide and create a more certain permitting system.”

Title 16 gives the commissioner of Fish and Game authority to approve a fisheries habitat permit but doesn’t go any further.

The board wants the “proper protections” to be in line with the standards of the Sustainable Salmon Policy, which “protects wild salmon and habitat to ensure sustained yields,” “manages for escapement ranges,” and “encourages public support and involvement,” among other goals.

However, the Sustainable Salmon Policy only allows the Board of Fisheries to make recommendations to the Legislature, rather than give ADFG more criteria for its own decisions.

Fishermen from around the state submitted the proposal to the Board of Fisheries, but the locales are telling. Many came from Cook Inlet and Bristol Bay — homes of the proposed Susitna-Watana dam, Chuitna coal mine and Pebble copper-gold mine.

Lindsey Bloom, a Bristol Bay fisherman and a fisheries consultant for industry group United Fishermen of Alaska, explained that those items were the exact reason for the proposal.

“Problem No. 1 is sort of these mega projects and our concern that Fish and Game does not have clear authority to say no,” said Bloom. “Those are the three standouts that do not seem to fit in any criteria for proper protection of fish and game. We wanted to make sure that Fish and Game is part of the process early on.”

Each of these projects is currently in a hiatus over legal or budgetary issues.

Pebble Limited Partnership is in the middle of a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency and hopes to settle out of court, but even a victory there is unlikely to bring back the major companies like Anglo American, which invested more than $500 million in exploration and development before pulling out under the threat of a preemptive veto by the EPA.

As PacRim Coal’s proposed Chuitna Mine is still early in the permitting process, the company, the state and stakeholders are haggling over who’s allowed to be involved.

In October 2015, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority appealed a Department of Natural Resources decision to grant certain water reservation rights to a non-state entity for the first time ever. Chuitna Citizens Coalition received an instream flow reservation, or IFR, for the lower portion of Middle Creek, a salmon spawning stream in the proposed mine’s area.

Gov. Bill Walker shut down agency efforts for the Susitna-Watana dam in June 2016 along with several other “mega projects” based on the state’s multibillion budget deficit.

The Legislature hasn’t yet received the letter. The Legislature convened on Jan. 17, still hoping to solve a state budget gap that has played a part in launching the state into a recession since oil prices fell in 2014.

Bloom said she doesn’t know what chance the change has given the Legislature’s focus on fixing the budget, but welcomes the discussion.

“To be a realist, I think it could be a very tough, uphill battle,” she said. “I do think, though, that should the Legislature decide to take it up, we will all benefit greatly from learning more.”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].


01/20/2017 - 3:43pm