The Tongass National Forest is a globally significant source of wild salmon and efforts should be made to preserve that resource, the forest’s fish program manager said at a “Lunch and Learn” presentation at the Alaska State Capitol Thursday.
Ron Medel said that while non-wild salmon may outsell wild salmon, salmon that hatch in and return to the wild as part of their natural life cycle carry significant commercial, cultural and ecological value.
“What farmed fish don’t do — they don’t bring back the nutrients from the ocean,” Medel said. “And some would argue that hatchery fish don’t do that, either, because they’re coming back to a terminal harvest. They don’t make their way back up into the land to feed the bears and the critters and the eagles.”
Medel also mentioned subsistence harvest of salmon by Alaska Native and Siberian peoples.
“You cannot put a value (on subsistence harvest), and you cannot, for that matter, put a value on how these fish symbolize a relationship to the land, how we treat our land, because they have to come back,” said Medel, referring to the salmon life cycle that sees the fish born in freshwater, go out to live in the ocean, and return to the watershed to spawn and die. “They have to rear, put out to the ocean, and come back.”
Medel said that the Tongass is “in pretty darn good shape” under “wonderful standards and guides.” But he said development threatens salmon habitat in certain places, showing a picture of a salmon floundering on a roadway.
“There is the argument to be made that, you know, maybe (the Tongass National Forest) should be locked up as a salmon sanctuary, or at a minimum, make salmon the preeminent resource and that every other development takes that into account so as to minimize, fully minimize, the impact to the salmon resource,” Medel said.
Medel added, “We don’t want to trade it away. I don’t want to see it traded away. But the history of our treatment of these species has not been kind.”
Southeast Alaska experienced record commercial salmon harvests in 2010 and 2011, as noted in a United States Department of Agriculture factsheet available at the Lunch and Learn.
Southeast Conference Executive Director Shelly Wright, asked for her thoughts on what Medel said about prioritizing salmon above other resource development industries in the Tongass, said she disagrees with that idea.
“Certainly, the history of the timber industry is that we have record salmon, and they’ve been cutting timber for 50 years, so I don’t think it needs to be locked up or anything,” said Wright, who was traveling out of state Thursday.
“Just looking at the salmon harvest in Southeast Alaska in the past five years, I don’t think we have a problem,” Wright added. “I think our forest is very healthy for all industries and all harvesting.”
The other part of Medel’s presentation referred to a report on wild salmon in the Tongass.
Despite the advent of fish hatcheries in Southeast Alaska, an average 79 percent of salmon commercially caught in the region every year are wild fish from the Tongass, according to the presentation and accompanying USDA Forest Service Alaska Region factsheet. That works out to about 28 percent of Alaska’s annual commercial salmon catch and 25.6 percent of the commercial salmon catch in the Northeastern Pacific Ocean region, Medel said.
“It’s a big bloc,” said Medel. “It’s a big bloc of fish.”
Medel concluded by showing a graphic from the conservation group Trout Unlimited that refers to the Tongass as “America’s salmon forest.”
“If we’re not America’s salmon forest, tell me a forest that is,” said Medel.
The Lunch and Learn presentation was sponsored by the House Fisheries Committee and catered by Abby’s Kitchen. Thursday’s event was lightly attended due to overlap with a rally outside the Capitol against proposed oil tax reforms.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 586-1821 or at email@example.com.