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Conserving wild salmon habitat makes sense for Southeast Alaska

Posted: August 3, 2011 - 7:38pm

Southeast Alaska’s coastal temperate rainforest is part of the largest temperate rainforest in the world. The Tongass National Forest is a unique example of the temperate rainforest ecosystem in part because it has been more lightly influenced by human activity than the rainforests in the Lower 48. Furthermore, the Tongass is home to many of the world’s last remaining intact watersheds — entire drainages that stretch from ridgetop to ridgetop and from river headwaters to river mouths. These diverse watersheds distributed throughout Southeast Alaska support some of the most productive salmon runs left on the planet. The more than 5,000 salmon streams in the Tongass National Forest produce roughly one-third of all salmon caught on the West Coast and the Tongass National Forest yields about 70 percent of all salmon harvested from the country’s national forests.

Continued high salmon productivity in Southeast Alaska is directly tied to the health of the watersheds that produce these fish. The protection of this region’s most productive salmon watersheds is the key to maintaining the biodiversity and ecological integrity of the Tongass — and thereby the livelihoods of the people who depend upon healthy fisheries. All salmon need freshwater habitat for spawning and rearing and each salmon species uses different parts of a single watershed during specific seasons. Intact watersheds preserve the intricate connections among watershed functions, such as nutrient and sediment cycling, as well as habitat diversity. The greater the habitat diversity, the more resilient individual salmon populations will be over the long term. Even headwater streams without fish are important to downstream salmon habitat as they provide gravel for spawning habitat, and woody debris and food resources for salmon living downstream. Natural disturbances such as seasonal floods, beaver dams and the blow down of large trees also create a variety of habitats critical to salmon survival.

Only 35 percent of salmon and trout habitat is permanently protected at the watershed scale on the Tongass. Even less habitat is protected on Southeast Alaska’s non-Forest Service land. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game, which manages fisheries and salmon harvests, and the U.S. Forest Service, which manages watersheds and their freshwater habitat, are working hard with limited resources to maintain sustainable salmon stocks and the habitat that support these stocks. For example, the U.S. Forest Service is implementing an ambitious program to restore Tongass watersheds that have been degraded as a result of past logging practices. However, increasing population pressure and politically-driven resource development have the potential to inflict changes that have devastated salmon elsewhere. A large swath of high-value fish habitat in Southeast Alaska remains open to activities that could cause long-term problems.

Salmon is at the heart of the Southeast Alaska lifestyle. Salmon supported by Southeast Alaska’s unique rainforest ecosystem are a substantial economic resource to those who live and work in the region. An estimated 7,300 Southeast Alaskans are employed either directly or indirectly by local salmon and trout industries, and healthy salmon populations pump close to $1 billion into the local economy annually. Southeast Alaskans work in the commercial salmon fishery, the sport salmon fishery, the small businesses that support these fisheries and the retail trade that includes shops and restaurants that sell and serve fresh salmon. Salmon sustained by Southeast’s forested watersheds are also extremely valuable to subsistence, personal use and sport fishermen.

Although some important salmon-producing watersheds are protected from habitat-altering activities, many other high-quality watersheds do not have measures in place that will insure their natural functions are preserved throughout the entire watershed. The protection of 35 percent of Southeast Alaska’s high-value salmon watersheds is a good start, but greater protection for the remaining intact watersheds both in the national forest and elsewhere in Southeast Alaska is essential. Placing more of these watersheds into conservation status will ensure that our salmon fishing industries, as well as tourism and recreation, will be sustained well into the foreseeable future.

• Bryant has a Ph.D. and recently retired as a research fisheries biologist with the U.S. Forest Service after more than 30 years of service in Southeast Alaska. He is a certified fisheries scientist with the American Fisheries Society. Bryant resides in Douglas. Hardcastle has an master’s in coastal environmental management and was born and raised in Juneau. She is co-owner of Taku River Reds, a family-owned and operated salmon direct marketing company based in Juneau that specializes in premium, pressure-bled fresh and frozen salmon.

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