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Habitat issues cited as critical to wild salmon runs

By Margaret Bauman
Cordova Times
Cook Inletkeeper, a community based non-profit organization with a mission to protect the habitat of Cook Inlet, says the Chinook Symposium failed to address the loss and degradation of freshwater habitat as a factor in wild Alaska salmon run strength, productivity and overall population health.

In a two-day symposium in Anchorage in late October, scientists pondered as potential research priorities studies ranging from stock assessments to climate change, with a goal of strengthening low Chinook salmon runs around the state.

The challenge that drew several hundred fisheries biologists and stakeholders to the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage was to identify key knowledge gaps and assemble research priorities to address specific questions on declining king salmon abundance and productivity in Alaska.

There was much discussion on commercial harvests, the incidental catch of Chinook salmon in pollock fisheries, the impact of hatchery fish on wild stocks, coded wire tag projects to estimate smolt abundance, harvest and survival, and more.

But, says Cook Inletkeeper, a community based non-profit organization with a mission to protect the habitat of Cook Inlet, the symposium failed to address the loss and degradation of freshwater habitat as a factor in wild Alaska salmon run strength, productivity and overall population health.

The symposium, sponsored by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, also failed to address ADF&Gs inability or unwillingness to enforce laws designed to protect salmon habitat, Cook Inletkeeper alleges.

"How can ADF&G expect an honest discussion about the future of our salmon runs with little regard to in-stream habitat?" asked Bob Shavelson, official Inletkeeper for the Homer-based non-profit.

"It's like a farmer ignoring the soil when crop yields drop," said Shavelson, an attorney with extensive background in biology, chemistry and environmental sampling and compliance.

In its announcement Nov. 12 questioning failure of the symposium to discuss in-stream habitat, Cook Inletkeeper quoted David Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington.

"Alaska fisheries managers are ahead of the game historically, but if the state turns a blind eye to wild salmon habitat loss and degradation, Alaska salmon will suffer the 'death by a thousand cuts' that decimated once-proud salmon runs in Europe, New England and California," Montgomery said. "Unless Alaska wants to repeat the sad history of fisheries management elsewhere, resource managers need to avoid the loss of habitat that has plagued wild salmon runs around the world."

Montgomery, the author of "King of Fish: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon," has studied the matter extensively.

The book traces the tragic and steady decline of salmon populations in Europe, New England, Eastern Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The book demonstrates that the decline has been caused by four specific actions: pollution of rivers in the name of technology, changing the natural environment by damming rivers and clear-cutting forests, overfishing, and ignoring regulations and laws imposed to help salmon populations recover.

Cook Inletkeeper cited several examples that the organization said it provided to ADF&G as current and proposed examples highlighting wild salmon habitat degradation in the Cook Inlet watershed.

"Habitat protection is not a partisan issue and it's not an allocation issue," said Terry Jorgensen, a Cook Inlet commercial fisherman affiliated with Cook Inletkeeper.

"We can't ignore the fish factory while we're fighting over the last fish. And we certainly can't blame the 'black box' of our oceans when we refuse to protect the very freshwater habitats under our control."

Cook Inletkeeper has been critical of a number of state decisions regarding issuing permits that enable development of non-renewable resources, including permits to allow for restoring use of a tank farm at the Drift River oil terminal on the west side of Cook Inlet. A 2009 eruption of the Redoubt volcano forced an evacuation of the terminal and an emergency drawdown of oil stored there, with the terminal being mothballed.

In August, Cook Inletkeeper contends, ADF&G illegally issued permits to allow Hilcorp Alaska to mine boulders and fill a salmon stream in the Redoubt Bay critical habitat area, in order to resume oil storage at the base of an active volcano.

Hilcorp, one of the largest privately held exploration and production companies in the United States, is a major producer of oil and gas in Cook Inlet. The company announced earlier this year its plans to bring two tanks back into normal use by October, saying that reopening the Drift River terminal was critical to sustaining and fostering further development of Cook Inlet oil operations. The contractor is Brice Construction, a subsidiary of Calista Corp., which was involved in installation of the original tank farm protections.

Cook Inletkeeper also criticized the state on several other issues, including approval of a 35-mile railroad connection to Port Mackenzie in the Matanuska Susitna Valley, where fishing closures and restrictions are increasingly the norm.

The Alaska Division of Natural Resources' recent proposed new, extensive coal leases adjacent to the Little Susitna River, Cook Inletkeeper said, will "fragment and pollute important Cook Inlet salmon habitat."

Then there are the "mixing zones," areas where the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has authorized the discharge of treated wastewater from sewage treatment and industrial facilities to mix with water bodies that are salmon habitat.

Mixing zones, said Cook Inletkeeper "have been rightly banned in Alaskan salmon habitat for years."

More on the Chinook salmon symposium, including presentation audio and powerpoint slides, is athttp://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=chinook_efforts_symposium.information

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