Voices of the Peninsula: ‘Stand for Salmon’ and protect Alaska’s most precious resource

When I see professional fishing guides or the commercial fisher on the “Stand for Alaska” advertisement encouraging Alaskans to vote against Ballot Measure 1, I have to ask myself: Why would anyone associated with the fishing industry, or anyone who depends upon, or cares about our amazing natural resources, vote against implementation of basic, commonsense protections, as well as their own best interests?

All I can figure is that perhaps some of these folks were lucky enough to have grown up here and are unaware of the decimation of wild salmon that has occurred elsewhere. I was vividly reminded of this on recent visit to northeastern Ohio, where there are frequent government warnings posted on rivers advising against even canoeing due to the high levels of contaminants.

Thankfully that’s not the case in Alaska. In fact, we’re so big and bountiful that it’s difficult to conceive of the same thing ever occurring here. However, that’s exactly the thinking that led to those polluted rivers in Ohio, and the annihilation of the once-great salmon populations that stretched across much of the western hemisphere. It’s difficult to imagine today that salmon runs throughout Europe or the East Coast of the United States once rivaled what we see in Cook Inlet. The Pacific Northwest, on the other hand, has seen salmon stocks dwindle within recent memory. During my lifetime 350 salmon stocks in the Pacific Northwest have gone extinct, with habitat destruction almost entirely to blame.

In answer to those who claim we don’t have the same worry here, I would maintain that the only reason Alaska has been spared the same fate is due to its lack in accessibility. Until the widespread use of modern aircraft after WWII, Alaska was difficult to reach, keeping the population and thus the exploitation of our natural resources low. At that time, the town I live in, Soldotna, did not yet exist as we know it. Yet, by this time the Columbia River salmon fishery in Washington was already well on its way to near collapse, going from a return of approximately 16 million salmon a year to only about 800,000 today, most of which are hatchery fish. So, to those who maintain that we have learned from the past, as far as habitat is concerned, the answer is no. The only difference is we got a much later start in cashing in on our natural resources.

In recent years, for instance, we have seen the specter of the Chuitna coal mine and the Susitna River dam come uncomfortably close to reality. In fact, the only reason Chuitna was scratched was because the coal was subpar and there was no market for it. And in the case of the Susitna Dam, the state simply couldn’t afford its $6 billion price tag. It had nothing to do with the destruction these ill-conceived projects would have wreaked upon invaluable and irreplaceable salmon habitat. If those developments had proceeded, along with the proposed Pebble mine, which is still very much in play, Alaska would have been well on its way to joining the Lower 48 and the rest of the world in hastening the massacre of our most valuable renewable resource, our salmon, which is ultimately worth much more than the coal and power that would have been produced by these projects.

We are lucky to experience the bounty of this great state today. All one needs is to look to the rather dismal history of salmon to see what is likely to happen here if we don’t act and update our antiquated laws. It might be your kids or grandkids that see it, but there is no reason to think Alaska won’t go the way of the rest of the world when it comes to fisheries. However, there is hope for the future, but only if we act. Vote YES on Ballot Measure 1 on Nov. 6!

Dave Atcheson is a local author whose latest book is “Dead Reckoning, Navigating a Life on the Last Frontier, Courting Tragedy on its High Seas.” For more information: www.daveatcheson.com.

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