One aspect of the Sealaska Lands Bill (S.730) that has garnered little attention in these pages is a discussion regarding Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s hollow attempt to gain the support of commercial fishermen.
Specifically, the senator included a provision to allow for no-cut 100-foot buffers along certain salmon streams contained within the proposed Sealaska land selections. However, these buffers would only be temporary for a period of five years. Murkowski claims this will allow fishermen time to convince our state Legislature to amend the state Forest Resources and Practices Act, which governs the width of buffers on private lands like those of Sealaska. The FRPA only allows for 66-foot buffers along salmon streams and variances to log within these buffers are routinely granted by the State.
Murkowski and Sealaska know quite well — as do commercial fishermen — that the Legislature would never amend the FRPA to increase the size of salmon stream buffers on private lands. That’s exactly why Murkowski’s appeal to gain fishermen support rings hollow, not to mention the fact that it fails to protect resident fish habitat and headwaters.
Fortunately, permanent federal protections for fish habitat on public lands far exceed those on private lands or even the temporary buffers offered in the bill. In particular, they provide for 100-foot buffers on all salmon and resident fish streams. And fishless headwaters that influence downstream fish water quality receive protections as well. The Senator’s proposal falls far short of these federal regulations.
Why are buffers so important? They provide important shade to cool fish-rearing waters, as well as help maintain the stream channel banks from erosion. They also provide a source of large woody debris that helps form deep pools fish utilize for shade and cover. And they must be windfirm. There are plenty of instances where even 100-foot buffers proved inadequate resulting in serious impacts to fish habitat, demonstrating that wider — not narrower buffers could have made the difference.
The argument for maintaining permanent federal protections are not just for stream buffers per-se but for maintaining uncut headwaters that act as important food sources for rearing fish. These headwaters contribute energy in the form of insects and detritus for young fish. There is a wealth of information regarding the importance of these headwaters. For instance, according to studies conducted in Southeast Alaska by the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, UAA:
“We estimate that every kilometre of salmonid-bearing stream could receive enough energy (prey and detritus) from fishless headwaters to support 100-2000 young-of-the-year (YOY) salmo-nids. These results illustrate that headwaters are source areas of aquatic and terrestrial invertebrates and detritus, linking upland ecosystems with habitats lower in the catchment.”
Finally, the degradation of fish habitat resulting from Sealaska private land logging is well known. In fact, in late 2005 Sealaska paid the largest fine yet for several violations of the FRPA. In particular, they logged within boundaries of no-cut buffers violating both the logging plan and the streamside protections built into the Act. Rather than go to court, the state and Sealaska agreed to resolve the issue and Sealaska paid $32,600, the largest fine to date in enforcing the Act. Their flagrant disregard for fish habitat demonstrates their claims of responsible stewardship nothing more than spin.
Why would fishermen support legislation providing less habitat protection than are already permanently in effect and then be forced to work tirelessly for five years in a futile attempt to regain habitat they essentially gave away? Does the senator really think fishermen are that unwise?
It is no secret that Sealaska can complete their selections without S.730. Murkowski and Sealaska need to drop the bill now, get on with finalization, and end the limbo the rest of us have endured during the near decade this bill has been in the works.
• Knight lives in Petersburg and is the owner abd operator of Starship Fisheries. He has commercially fished in Southeast Alaska for 35 years.