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My Turn: Wake up to the dangers posed by non-native species in Alaska's waters

Posted: March 5, 2013 - 12:00am

Hats off to Rep. Paul Seaton of Homer.

Seaton has introduced legislation, House Bill 89, that directs the state Department of Fish and Game to set up a rapid response plan to deal with incipient aquatic invasions. Other state agencies with responsibilities for the health of state waters would be drawn in, as well. Seaton’s measure also establishes an aquatic invasive species fund.

Aquatic invasive species are a well known problem in Alaska and it’s high time for such action here, in perhaps the most marine and freshwater-dependent state in the country. Once introduced, aquatic invaders are difficult to eradicate, and can have a permanent effect on the environment including catastrophic damage to local fisheries.

One example of an aquatic invasion: In June 2010, researchers discovered Didemnum vexillum — also known as “rock vomit” — in Whiting Harbor near Sitka. This species, which can cover large areas of the seafloor, is an aggressive invader and a potential threat to shellfish farms, groundfish fisheries, fish spawning and other resources.

Another example is the destruction of valuable Alexander Creek king salmon fishery by northern pike from Interior Alaska, which are also suspected in the decline of the Deshka River king salmon fishery.

Other invaders are brought in intentionally, with unexpected consequences.

The threat to the world-renowned Kenai River salmon fishery posed by reed canary grass stems from an invasive weed introduced to the area for forage and soil stabilization purposes. It can choke streams and wetlands so that spawning salmon become lost and unable to proceed upstream. It can increase siltation and impede tree growth, which can also degrade salmon habitat.

Alaska is a maritime state and depends the year around on ships to bring Alaskan residents the goods we need and to carry our products to market. Often, these ships travel to Alaska empty to pick up cargo, and must instead take on ballast water in lieu of cargo for navigational stability.

Of particular concern to our group is the ballast water brought into Prince William Sound by oil tankers for navigational stability on the trip north after unloading oil at West Coast Ports. The International Maritime Organization estimates that tankers and other ships move ten billion tons of ballast water around the world per year and that on average more than 3,000 species of plants and animals travel in the ballast water.

One example is the European green crab, which has invaded coasts of the western United States — where Alaska-bound oil tankers take on ballast water — and British Columbia. This crab is believed to have arrived on the West Coast in ballast water and is expected to end up in Alaska waters, threatening native populations, especially Dungeness crab nurseries.

And it’s not just ballast water — aquatic invaders can also ride on ship hulls, cables, and anchor chains.

So it’s time to wake up to the dangers of non-indigenous species damaging Alaska’s waters and get ready. Some are here and more are coming.

As we know from nearly every environmental disaster it is often far more effective and ultimately cheaper for the taxpayer when we work to prevent problems in addition to preparing ourselves to respond to them. However, when prevention measures fail or are insufficient to the risks, a good solid state response plan is needed. While various efforts are under way by several agencies to combat invaders that have already taken up residence, Alaska needs a plan for immediate and coordinated response to new arrivals, and Seaton’s bill as an important first step in that direction.

• Swanson is the executive director of the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council. With offices in Anchorage and Valdez, the council is an independent non-profit corporation whose mission is to promote environmentally safe operation of the Valdez Marine Terminal and the oil tankers that use it. The council’s work is guided by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, and its contract with Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. The council’s 19 member organizations are communities in the region affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, as well as aquaculture, commercial fishing, environmental, Native, recreation, and tourism groups.

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