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My turn: Public forum needed on plan to barge mining materials down the Taku River

Salmon habitat, local fishing jobs in danger

Posted: July 31, 2011 - 8:00pm

The Tulsequah Chief mine is in the news again. For Juneau the significance of any development on this site rests not with the mine, as there is little local economic benefit from its operation. Juneau’s interests lie in another likely plan to transport mine material on the Taku River and the risks of resulting impacts on the river’s important salmon resources.

The Canadian mining company Chieftan Metals announced its intent to begin active development of the Tulsequah Chief in 2012. This plan to resurrect the mine comes following the financial failure of Redfern Resources. With that failure died Redfern’s controversial proposal to use the Taku River as a year-round transportation corridor by employing an untried towed hoverbarge. Chieftan has yet to clarify its transportation plans. But proposing to be operational in 2012 leaves little apparent option other than the river. The recent Canadian land-use plan also expresses clear preference for river barging. Industrial barging poses a serious threat to the salmon habitat in the lower river. So, before such a threat materializes fully, now is the time to create reasonable protections for the river and its salmon.

The Taku River is not large. Arguably it is simply too small for industrial-scale barging. Redfern’s towed barges ran aground on numerous occasions. That occurred during the brief high water season. During low-flow periods, and the several months when it is ice covered, barging is not feasible without significant effects on the river course.

As most know, the Taku River is the largest salmon producer in southeast Alaska. Fewer understand that the river below the international boundary contains large concentrations of rearing juvenile salmon throughout the year. Maintaining the integrity of the rearing and migration habitat is necessary for sustaining the Taku’s salmon productivity. Maintaining that productivity is a matter of importance for the entire Juneau community. Taku stocks comprise half of the annual sport fishing catch of chinook and coho salmon and of Territorial Sportsmen’s Golden North Salmon Derby catch. The McDowell Group reports that Taku salmon sustain more than 400 Juneau jobs in sport and commercial fishing-related businesses, a significant portion of our non-government economy. Additionally, the large non-local fleet here to harvest DIPAC-origin chum salmon boosts the local economy. But access (fishing time) to those DIPAC chum is controlled by the abundance and continued productivity of wild Taku sockeye salmon.

These points were raised during the permitting process for Redfern’s proposed barging. Comment from the community, although outside the process, was nearly unanimous in opposition to barging. Nonetheless, Redfern appeared to be on track to receive the permits to operate on the Taku. It must be said that Redfern failed before it received its permits. But Alaska’s permitting record is unequivocal. There is an institutional bias to grant permit applications. Effectively every application (over 99 percent), however modified, is approved. Then if permitted operations cause damage to others, the state’s general strategy requires the operator to mitigate those damages.

The experience with Redfern exposed serious flaws in Alaska’s permitting process. No opportunity for community input was provided. Public opinion that was expressed apparently was ignored. Opinions of professional ADFG fisheries biologists were ignored or suppressed. No systematic analysis assessed likely negative effects on existing economic and recreational activities that depend on Taku salmon production. Negative effects were assumed to be amenable to later mitigation despite obvious problems with that approach. Neither damaged salmon productivity nor the reputation of Taku-origin salmon in the market place can be recovered within a reasonable time frame.

The opportunity exists now to add protection for the Taku River and its salmon habitat. Irrespective of any barging plans, Taku salmon in themselves are sufficiently valuable to the Juneau community to merit specific protections. Almost certainly accomplishing this will require legislative action, not simply revised regulations. ADFG needs to be afforded a more effective role in fulfilling its mandate to ensure sustainable salmon production. The Juneau public needs to be afforded an effective forum for influencing new activities that impact its existing economic and recreational base.

It is time to convene a public forum with a time line that produces both practical protective measures for Taku salmon habitat and a viable strategy for gaining its implementation.

• Shelton is a Juneau resident who has fished commercially for 51 years and served for Alaska on the Pacific Salmon Commission for 15 years.

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