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My Turn: Agencies can do a better job protecting salmon

Posted: August 7, 2012 - 12:02am

Last Saturday dozens of Haines residents and invited guests rafted the Chilkat River to celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Later, at the Klukwan Long House, Haines Mayor Stephanie Scott spoke about the initial controversy surrounding Preserve formation, and local historian Dan Henry recounted that 15 stakeholder groups — including federal and state agencies, miners, loggers, and conservationists — were finally able to agree to a compromise that protected the resources of the 49,000 acre preserve, and at the same time created the much larger Haines State Forest to allow more intensive uses. Henry also quoted former Governor Jay Hammond, who termed the agreement “the crown jewel of collaborative resource management.”

Protecting the eagle preserve’s outstanding wild salmon spawning and rearing habitat that feeds the world’s largest gathering of bald eagles — as well as the communities of Haines and Klukwan, and local and regional economies — is an accomplishment well worth celebrating. It’s also a time to reflect on whether or not the legislative intent and mandate to protect eagles and salmon “in perpetuity” is being met.

Over the past decade, numerous individuals and organizations have been critical of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) — the agency charged with Preserve management — and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) — the agency responsible for managing Preserve fish and wildlife resources. In 2005, Governor Hammond, former ADF&G and DNR commissioners, and commercial fishing and conservation organizations petitioned DNR to implement recommendations made by ADF&G biologists to protect high value salmon spawning and rearing areas from impacts caused by commercial jet boat tours. It was Hammond’s last political advocacy, occurring just days before his death. No management changes were made by DNR.

The Habitat Division moved from ADF&G to DNR and then returned to ADF&G. Many believe that ADF&G was both diminished and increasingly politicized during this time frame. Whatever the cause, protections were weakened for salmon habitat inside the eagle preserve during this period, in spite of the fact that the eagle preserve’s salmon habitat is explicitly protected by state statute, and should be the most protected salmon habitat in Alaska. In 2010 and 2011, seven commercial fishing, sport fishing and conservation organizations took these salmon habitat concerns to the Habitat, Commercial, and Sport Fish division directors, and eventually to the ADF&G commissioner. No management changes were made by ADF&G.

It’s incomprehensible that allowing fully loaded 30 passenger commercial jet boats with twin 150 horsepower engines to run over occupied salmon redds is somehow being protective of preserve wild salmon runs, particularly when studies tell us that even a single pass from a much smaller, less powerful boat can cause egg mortality. Agency promises to study the impacts from these large, powerful boats turned into under-funded, inconclusive studies that indicate damage is occurring, but do not offer the rigorous scientific proof now required by managers. Unproven impacts allow the current “see no evil” approach to continue. This is particularly disturbing because when the ADF&G commissioner signed off on weakened protections for preserve salmon habitat in 2005, he also expressed concerns about “a long-term impact on salmon eggs, rearing juvenile salmon, and salmon spawning and rearing habitat.” Since that time, no one in a position of authority at ADF&G has taken these concerns seriously enough to institute the protective restrictions recommended by current and former ADF&G Haines area biologists.

The 30th anniversary celebration was a lovely event. My hope is that 30 years from now future generations will be able to experience a Preserve with abundant fish and wildlife resources, including opportunities to tend Chilkat River subsistence nets, to catch sport and commercial salmon, and to witness the spectacle of thousands of bald eagles feasting on late runs of salmon. Such a future depends on state agencies fulfilling both the letter and the spirit of the law signed by Governor Hammond in 1982.

• Berland lives in Haines and is an Associate with Rivers Without Borders. She has been an advocate for Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve salmon habitat for more than a decade.

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