Alaska salmon runs are increasingly threatened. Loss of habitat, poor management and uncertain food supplies are but a few reasons. Some of these things are within our control. Some are not.
That’s why we need to protect the habitat we know is vital to salmon survivorship. When you look across the globe at the decline of once-proud salmon runs — from Europe to the Pacific Northwest — the one thing we know about our limited understanding of salmon is that they need clean flowing waters and healthy streamside habitats to endure.
To maintain the strong and sustainable local economies salmon provide - and to support the unique cultures and traditions that make us Alaskans - we need to learn from the mistakes made Outside. That means basic rules protecting salmon habitat, and giving Alaskans an honest voice in fish habitat decisions.
Yet right now, it’s perfectly legal for the state of Alaska to issue a permit to a company to mine completely through a wild salmon stream. We’re not talking about placer mining or suction dredging here; we’re talking about bank-to-bank coal strip mining, down hundreds of feet. To make matters worse, the State refuses to provide Alaskans with a public notice about this type of habitat destruction, leaving us little opportunity to comment. So, as things currently stand, the State can issue permits to destroy sustainable salmon habitat and Alaskans are kept in the dark.
That’s why local Alaskans recently petitioned the Alaska State Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) to adopt commonsense rules that would prohibit coal strip mining through our salmon streams. The petition would also require ADFG to provide public notice for any project that would harm or destroy salmon habitat, so Alaskans can participate in decisions impacting our salmon fisheries.
As Alaskans know, wild salmon streams are complex systems; they are not puzzles that can be pulled apart and simply put back together again. Take, for example, the proposed Chuitna coal strip mine in Upper Cook Inlet, which would be the first project in state history to mine completely through 11 miles of salmon spawning and rearing habitat. In testimony before the Alaska Legislature last year, Dr. Margaret Palmer, a world-renowned expert stream restoration, said the project’s plan to build new salmon streams after mining has never been done before, and that “large-scale failure at Chuitna is inevitable."
But we don’t need an expert to explain the obvious. If a mining company could build new salmon streams, it could make a heck of a lot of money doing it in Oregon, Washington and California. But that hasn’t happened. Because as noted Alaskan outdoorsman Jim Reardon likes to say, “only God can create a salmon stream.”
A clear ban on removing salmon streams provides the clarity needed for our state agencies to make decisions that benefit the public interest in ensuring healthy salmon runs for generations to come. It also provides the regulatory certainty industry desires to make smarter business decisions, and it simplifies the permitting process. Finally, protecting our salmon habitat from large scale strip mining will help us continue to market our fish as clean, healthy and superior.
These changes are especially important now because the Parnell Administration is actively working to rollback safeguards for our prized salmon habitat, and cutting Alaskans out of decision making in the process. For example, the Parnell Administration recently over-rode a 2006 statewide vote to allow cruise ships to pollute our coastal waters; it wants to prohibit citizens from keeping enough water in streams to support salmon; and it threw away local control over fish habitat decisions through our coastal management program. These and similar rollbacks amount to a “war on salmon” by the Parnell Administration, and it’s time for Alaskans to stand up for our most important sustainable resource.
Governor Parnell has repeatedly promised Alaskans he would “never trade one resource for another.” We want to take Governor Parnell as a man of his word. That’s why it’s vital his Administration takes a commonsense approach to fish management that bans habitat destruction and supports our constitutional right to participate in decisions that shape our traditions, our communities and our livelihoods.
Benjamin Jackinsky is president of Cook Inletkeeper, a Homer-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Cook Inlet watershed and the wildlife it contains.