Voices of the Peninsula: Protecting salmon in a changing climate

  • By Sue Mauger
  • Saturday, January 24, 2015 5:37pm
  • Opinion

The National Weather Service reports that 2014 was Alaska’s warmest year on record. Even with record-breaking temperatures occurring all across the state, I see climate change getting framed as an “Arctic” issue. For example, at the November transition conference, the Walker-Mallott transition team established 17 topics for discussion, including fisheries, wildlife, natural resources, subsistence and infrastructure, but climate change was only coupled with Arctic Policy. Certainly, unique and imminent climate-related threats face the Arctic region and its communities, and it’s no surprise national attention focuses on the Arctic as new shipping and drilling opportunities emerge with melting sea ice. Alaskans, however, know that rapid change is not just happening in the Arctic.

I study water temperature patterns in salmon streams around Southcentral Alaska. I want to know what will happen as our salmon find themselves in increasingly hot water. Because high temperatures cause stress in cold-water fish, climate change poses a direct threat to our wild salmon by making them more vulnerable to pollution, predation and disease. Not all streams are created equal — and thank goodness. Some will remain as important cold water habitats supporting healthy salmon populations for generations to come, but other streams are warming and will continue to do so until salmon runs fail. Successful resource management requires that our state biologists know which streams are which.

In Alaska, we are starting to take the steps necessary to generate the kind of data needed to understand how vulnerable Alaska’s salmon populations are to climate change impacts. We have a long way to go and salmon are just one of many economically important species of concern on a changing landscape.

Studies from across Alaska continue to roll in, documenting climate-related shifts in wildfires and insect infestations, increasing rates of glacial melt and wetland drying, and less sea ice, snow cover and permafrost. We are just beginning to understand what these trends might mean for subsistence, agriculture, fisheries, tourism and the long-term viability of our fossil fuel-based state budget. Research and knowledge about the local effects of climate change (above and below the Arctic Circle) will be critical for all our policy makers and resource managers in the face of rapidly changing conditions.

I’m heartened by Mark Myers’ appointment as Alaska’s new commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources. With his background as a scientist and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, I think it is reasonable to expect a greater focus on science-based management of our resources. Fortunately over the last decade, new science leadership has emerged in Alaska, mostly through federal initiatives like the Alaska Climate Change Executive Roundtable, Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and the Alaska Climate Science Center. At the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, under Mark Myers’ supervision as the vice chancellor for research, we have the Ocean Acidification Research Center and the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, both of which rely heavily on federal funds.  With the shift in the U.S. Senate following the mid-term elections, federal support for climate-related research will be under attack. The need for state leadership has never been more important.

The Walker-Mallott Administration has a full plate with budget cuts, transition tasks and new appointments. Unfortunately, the urgency of addressing climate change — both its root causes and its impacts — does not abate while people are distracted with new office assignments. We need Gov. Bill Walker to re-establish the Sub-Cabinet on Climate Change that languished under former Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration to guide state-specific policies and decisions.

We need to do more than fill the one “state agency” seat on federally-coordinated committees. We need engagement across our state agencies and discussions among our commissioners. Why should the state of Alaska prioritize this now? Because Alaskans living in every corner of the state are marching forward at a record-breaking pace to the front lines of a changing landscape.

Sue Mauger is the science director of Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based group working to protect Alaska’s water and salmon resources.

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