I make my living taking people out fishing. As the owner/operator of Baranof Wilderness Lodge, I know I’m lucky. As anyone else who lives here well knows, Southeast Alaska is one of the most wild, beautiful and biologically productive places left in America. The fact that I get to spend my days taking visitors and locals alike to some of the best fishing spots on the planet isn’t lost on me. I get it. We’re blessed to have all five species of Pacific salmon spawn in healthy numbers here, not to mention the wealth of ground fish, herring, shellfish and dive-caught species that live and thrive in our local waters. So don’t get me wrong when I say the following – we need to do more to manage our backyard, the Tongass National Forest, with fish as priority number one. When I say that, I’m not whining. The fact is, right now, we’re not doing it. Fish simply aren’t the Forest Service’s focus. Consider that nearly 7,000 miles of salmon-producing waterways course through the mountains and muskegs of the Tongass. But 70 percent of those streams are not managed with fish in mind. In fact, only 100 feet of land on either side of those waterways is set aside for fish habitat.
Only about 30 percent of anadromous (salmon-producing) streams are in protected status.
This isn’t acceptable. Not when Southeast Alaska produces a third of all salmon harvested in Alaska; not when the panhandle contains 84 percent of all cutthroat trout habitat in the whole state; not when it’s home to half of all steelhead habitat in Alaska.
These fish are too valuable to mess with. Instead of being relegated to the back of the bus as far as management priorities, fish should come first. It makes economic sense.
Fishing, be it sport, commercial, hatchery or subsistence-related, generates nearly $1 billion in economic output every year, according to a recent study by Trout Unlimited. That same report pointed out that close to one in 11 Southeast Alaska residents has a full- or part-time job that is tied to fishing, more than 7,200 local residents.
What does this mean? It means that our economy and lifestyle are heavily tied to fishing, and because that’s the case, the forest surrounding us should be managed for fish first. More watersheds that produce large volumes of fish should be managed as fish factories where the clean water and undisturbed habitat that produce these fish are left in their natural state so that they can continue to give back, year after year.
As it always is with the Tongass, there are currently several issues that could affect the future of our fish. Two of our three Congressional delegates have recently unveiled bills that are intended to address longstanding land claims. I’m not opposed to giving Sealaska what it’s due. It’s time to resolve this issue and move on. But I hope that as the public debates the merits and drawbacks of these bills that they keep in mind what we have in Southeast Alaska. We’re one of the few places left where wild salmon and trout still thrive. We could be doing more to protect this valuable economic and cultural asset that sets us apart from Everywhere Else, U.SA.
• Trotter is the owner and operator of the Baranoff Wilderness Lodge in Sitka.