Voices of Alaska: Alaskans must unite to protect salmon

  • By Willow King, Heidi Wild and Mike Wood
  • Thursday, November 24, 2016 1:32pm
  • Opinion

As commercial, sport and personal use fishermen, we often have passionate disagreements about decisions that must be made regarding the management of our salmon. But today we are uniting as residents of our Nation’s last great salmon state by asking the Alaska Board of Fisheries to take action to protect the fish that is so intimately tied to our identity, culture and economy.

Whether it’s making a living by set netting for wild salmon in Cook Inlet, feeling the thrill of a silver salmon leaping at the end of your line, or experiencing the satisfaction of filling your freezer with salmon that will feed your family all winter; salmon are an essential part of life for so many of us in Alaska.

Unfortunately the primary law that is designed to protect the rivers and streams which salmon rely on hasn’t been updated since statehood and leaves our salmon resource — and the jobs, culture, food, recreation and economic activity it creates – at risk. If we do not take the opportunity now to update this law, we stand to repeat the mistakes that have decimated salmon runs throughout the rest of the country and lose one of the top reasons Alaska is such a special place to call home.

This law is known as “Title 16,” and is Alaska’s fish habitat permitting law. Currently, the law contains only two sentences guiding how decisions are made on development projects that could harm salmon habitat. These projects include proposals like Pebble Mine and Chuitna Coal, where a company proposes strip mining through nearly 14 miles of wild salmon stream.

When it comes to salmon, the law for decision-making on projects like these reads as follows:

“By law, an activity that will use, divert, obstruct, or change the flow or bed of a specified river, lake, or stream requires a Fish Habitat Permit. The Commissioner of the department of Fish and Game is directed to issue the permit unless the plans for the proposed construction work are insufficient for the proper protection of fish and game.”

There are two fundamental problems with this current law as written, both of which we can easily and sensibly update to protect our salmon in Alaska.

First, the language doesn’t clearly define the “proper protection of fish and game.” To keep our wild salmon runs strong, we must ensure the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has the tools it needs to make decisions regarding whether developments can be built on or near our salmon streams based off of clear scientific criteria, so that politics don’t influence decision making. Currently, the language is too broad for them to know when they need to step in to protect salmon habitat, and when projects are OK to move forward, creating a culture that says yes to every project, even when it poses major threats to salmon. This requires clear language to ensure major development projects operate in a way that is safe for our invaluable wild salmon habitat.

Second, the law does not require decision makers to consider public input when making decisions that impact the salmon we rely on. The current system does not require public notice, and there is no real way for us to know when a permit is applied for that could harm salmon habitat. We deserve a voice in something so important as the future of our salmon runs.

Luckily, there is a simple solution. The Board of Fisheries has already adopted a comprehensive and thoughtful document that outlines clear standards for protecting Alaska’s salmon habitat known as the Sustainable Salmon Policy. This common-sense solution has never been officially adopted into law, but we have the opportunity today to make that change.

Recognizing this, the three of us joined with nine other concerned Alaskans representing salmon user groups of all types, as well as experts in the field of fishery management, to submit a proposal that attempts to fix this problem. Our proposal is simple: We are asking the Board of Fisheries to recommend that the Legislature amend Title 16 by adding elements of the Sustainable Salmon Policy to clarify our laws in a way that will protect salmon and include Alaskan input on decisions impacting their habitat.

Recently,, the Board of Fish took action on this proposal at a workshop held in Soldotna. Regardless of how you connect to salmon, we hope that you’ll join us in encouraging Alaskan decision makers to act quickly to update our law and protect the salmon that contribute so much our unique and delicious way of life in Alaska.

Heidi Wild is a sport fishing guide in Bristol Bay. She lives in Anchorage and is the owner of Wild on the Fly custom built fishing rods. Willow King is a born and raised Alaskan. She is a Cook Inlet commercial fisherman who has worked in the commercial fishing and seafood processing industries throughout her life. Mike Wood is a commercial setnetter in Upper Cook Inlet. He lives on the Susitna River north of Talkeetna and is the co-owner of Su Salmon Company.

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