An Outdoor View: Habitat woes

Author’s note: This column first appeared in the Clarion in 1993. Biologist Terry Bendock is now retired, but the issues he pointed out when I interviewed him for this column continue to plague the Kenai River watershed. — LP

If you think bank fishing is the biggest threat to the Kenai River, think again.

“Damage from bank angling is only a small part of a large picture,” says Terry Bendock, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist and author of several studies of Kenai River salmon and their habitat.

Bendock points out that the Kenai had habitat problems long before 1984, when then-governor Sheffield signed the law creating the Kenai River Special Management Area. In 1986, the Kenai River advisory board adopted a 384-page management plan for resolving the problems it had identified during 19 months of meetings and studies.

“Those problems were there before sockeye fishing was even a recognized as a potential problem,” Bendock says. “Damage from bank angling is receiving more attention than it merits. I don’t think it’s anywhere near the number-one cause of habitat loss on the Kenai.”

Equating bank-fishing damage with that of damage to western streams where cattle come to drink, Bendock sees it as a modified form of erosion — as an injury, but not a serious one. He says no fish biologist has ever claimed erosion was a serious threat to Kenai River fish habitat.

“Erosion shouldn’t always be written with a capital ‘E,’” he says. “On the Kenai, it’s not that big a thing.”

He says boats wakes also cause erosion, particularly on the lower river. So do boats moored to the bank, where they rock from boat wakes and grind gaping holes in the fragile shoreline.

Like other scientists who have watched the much-loved Kenai go through many changes in a short time, Bendock knows the river is in trouble, and in more ways than one.

“It’s a fish factory with a crumbling foundation, boarded over windows, a torn-up floor and a leaky roof,” he says. “The whole building needs attention, not just one part of it.”

Far more damaging to habitat than erosion, Bendock says, are permanent structures that smooth the banks, increase current speed and otherwise make large areas unsuitable for rearing salmon. As an example, he points at the banks downstream from Poacher’s Cove, where stabilization projects have completely erased riparian habitat. Harmless appearing lawns that extend into the water are also a loss of habitat, he says.

If the greatest threat to the Kenai has to be put into one word, Bendock says it’s urbanization, the plague of progress that has already driven so many Pacific Northwest salmon stocks to extinction.

It’s scary to think the Kenai’s fabulous salmon runs may be at great risk (which may explain why some people refuse to believe it). With the status quo — hardly any limits on development outside the cities — changes anywhere in the Kenai’s 2,000-square-mile watershed can adversely affect the river. As land is developed, forested areas are clear-cut, floodplains are changed, wetlands are filled and drained, drainage for paved streets is routed to the river. Inevitably, the water vital to fish habitat will change for the worse, and support fewer fish.

For a look at unbridled urbanization, take Anchorage’s Campbell Creek. Among its many ills, a combination of pet feces and failed septic systems pollutes it with coliform, rendering it unsafe for any use. Don’t think this can’t happen on the Kenai. High coliform counts have already been found in Kenai River sections downstream from certain developed areas, and the watershed has only begun to be developed.

The Kenai River we know today can’t be sustained, Bendock maintains. We have to do something positive about fish habitat now, if we expect to have good fishing 10 years from now.

We have to stop doing things that change the river’s fish habitat, he says. We have to stop expanding the Kenai’s fisheries and start looking at alternatives with less impact, such as marine fisheries. Some of us will have to change our views of what’s important. Some of us will have to accept more restrictions on what we do on the river and on our property.

“We should have fisheries we are proud to show people from outside,” Bendock says. “I’m not proud of the Kenai.”

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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