According to Alaska Fish and Game, the ex-vessel value of salmon caught commercially in Southeast Alaska in 2011 exceeded that of all other regions, including Bristol Bay ,for the first time since statehood. Across all gear groups, the commercial salmon harvest topped $200 million.
Salmon and trout contributed nearly a billion dollars in economic impact over all last year to Southeast Alaska. They contribute to employment of about one in 10 individuals or some 7,300 jobs either directly or indirectly. At a time when the national and international economic picture is rather bleak, it is especially important to recognize just how vital salmon are to our region, and it’s timely that we do what we can to protect and expand this valuable resource.
Wild salmon from the Tongass represent approximately 70 percent of all wild salmon harvested from our national forests, roughly 24 percent of Alaska’s overall salmon catch, about 30 percent of the salmon caught on the West Coast of the United States and close to 13 percent of the salmon harvested on the Pacific Rim. More than 17,000 miles of salmon-bearing rivers and creeks flow within the Tongass forest, and it is one of the few places in the world where wild salmon still thrive.
As a lifelong Sitka resident and second generation salmon fisherman, I’m thrilled by the productivity of our region’s salmon industry. More importantly, the statistics from last summer have wider implications for the regional economy as a whole, and anyone concerned with jobs and our communities’ economic well being should take note and support policies that conserve the watersheds these fish depend on to reproduce.
The Tongass is also a world-class tourist destination with some one million people coming to visit Southeast every summer. But despite our bounty, there’s work to be done. Past logging practices have left a heavy mark on the Tongass with the Forest Service estimating 46% of all salmon-producing watersheds still impacted by logging.
The U.S. Forest Service has identified a need for over $100 million of watershed restoration work in the Tongass. While the agency announced in May 2010 that it would move away from the harvest of old growth timber in roadless areas, and shift towards restoration and young growth utilization, its budget fails to reflect these priorities, with only around $1.5 million allocated to restoration annually. At the same time, the Forest Service still spends roughly $25 million every year on timber and road building, an industry that produces less than one percent of regional employment.
With only $1.5 million allocated for restoration, it will take well over 50 years to fully rehabilitate our region’s salmon habitat. That’s too long. The thousands of jobs and hefty income that salmon fishing produces should become a real priority for the Forest Service, the biggest landlord in Southeast Alaska.
In a time of federal belt-tightening, the Forest Service needs to shift its budget priorities in the Tongass and support growth industries like fishing and restoration. I hope Congressional and Forest Service leaders will listen to a group of Alaska fishermen who flew back to D.C. recently to lobby for changes in the Forest Service’s Tongass budget. I hope everyone who cares about salmon will urge their representatives to support increased funding for salmon watershed restoration in the Tongass and to make the Forest Service budget a fish-focused one for the sake of both our salmon and our jobs.
• Lawrie is a lifelong Alaskan and long-time commercial fisherman who lives in Sitka.