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My Turn: Murkowski bill is bad for fish

Posted: May 21, 2011 - 9:57pm

Next week the Senate Natural Resources Committee will hold hearings on U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s Southeast Alaska Native Land Entitlement Finalization and Jobs Protection Act. The bill perpetuates a 40-year-old history of efforts to solve the native lands claim issues with a failed economic model — intensive old-growth clear cutting. This is bad public policy and a rotten deal for salmon fisheries.

This transfer of public forests to a private corporation poses significant risks to habitat. Bill proponents have not been candid about these impacts. They say the bill “protects” some watersheds to offset the habitat loss. They act like it is a good compromise to place temporary riparian buffers on limited number of streams. But an outdated and temporary buffer program and a few conservation areas do nothing to mitigate the impacts of further industrial scale clear cutting on Prince of Wales Island (POW).

The only issue the bill presents for people who fish relates to mixed-stock fisheries management. Too much habitat loss in one area causes population depletions or even localized extirpations. This then triggers restrictive measures like shorter seasons or smaller bag limits or closures of traditional fishing areas. To illustrate, there are many healthy salmon populations up and down the west Pacific coast. There are also nearly 30 salmon stocks listed under the Endangered Species Act. It is those listed fish and other weak stocks that have triggered the periodic or permanent closure of nearly every fishery south of Dixon Entrance.

This means that it does not really matter how many acres the bill allocates to some protected status. The acres that matter most from a fishery perspective are those where fish habitat is at risk under Alaska’s lax forest practices rules. The new clearcuts spawned by Murkowski’s legislation will occur in the middle of an island with the highest habitat related fish kill rates in the region.

High stream temperatures and poor stream flows are responsible for many of these fish kills. Warm rivers are a significant problem for salmon, including in Alaska. Scientists documented this problem on the Kenai Peninsula, on the Yukon River and in this region, on POW in particular. This is a serious issue. The overall global climate and especially the Alaska climate are in a long-term warming trend.

Roads and logging directly contribute to stream temperature problems. It is no coincidence that the worst fish kills occur in heavily logged and roaded areas such as POW. In 2001, the Forest Service reported 318 days of high stream temperature events at a number of sites on the island. Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated fish kills there in the tens of thousands. The fish kills happened again in 2003. Then, in 2004, record temperatures and record low levels of precipitation occurred throughout the Tongass. Temperatures of some small streams reached 82 degrees. In some cases, salmon even bypassed their natal streams on islands for mainland streams cooled by glacial runoff. Two years later, in 2006, the pink salmon run failed. Harvests fell to their lowest levels since 1988 — to 11 million fish. In 2008, returns remained well below the long-term averages of 30 million fish.

The 100-foot buffers on class I streams will not add meaningful protection to salmon that have to survive both habitat loss and the periodic hot, dry summers that climate change scientists project for this region. First, the buffers are temporary and Alaska’s legislature would never make them permanent. Many of them simply blow down after the removal of the surrounding forest. Neither Murkowski’s bill nor Alaska law protects the countless miles of lower class streams that influence water quality. The lack of protection for these headwater streams is scientifically indefensible. And finally, Alaska’s buffer system ignores the relationship between temperature, water quality and the surrounding landscape.

It is important for fishermen to let the committee know that this legislation is poor public policy that poses unacceptable risks to fishery habitat. Emails can be sent to scott_miller@energy.senate.gov and faxes to the committee at (202) 224-6123. The bill needs to go away and not come back. There is no improving it when it comes to fishery impacts.

• Olson is a resident of Sitka.

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