Mixing-zone change fuzzy for fishermen

Governor's new rule would allow pollution in salmon streams when salmon, eggs aren't there

Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2006

After a public outcry from fishermen, Gov. Frank Murkowski announced he will retain the state's ban on pollution mixing zones in spawning areas for salmon and other fish species.

"Alaska's salmon-based economy is too important to risk any loss in consumer confidence," said Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Kurt Fredriksson, on Friday, during a news conference about the new rule.

The new rule is a disappointment to the mining industry, which had supported lifting the ban, said Steve Borrell, executive director of the Alaska Miners Association.

On the other hand, the fishing industry wasn't ready to claim victory.

The United Fishermen of Alaska declined to comment Friday, citing a need for more analysis.

To their consternation, fishermen learned that Alaska regulators don't interpret the law to prevent mixing zones - areas where pollution is allowed to dilute to nontoxic levels - in a stream in salmon spawning areas year-round.

Spawning areas are defined not just as a place but a point in time by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A mixing zone could be allowed when spawning salmon, eggs, or larvae are not present, state officials said. For example, a placer miner could "operate for a very small window of time" in some salmon spawning streams in Alaska, said Lynn Kent, director of the Environmental Conservation Department's Division of Water.

Another issue raised Friday by environmental groups: The new rule will not ban mixing zones in areas used by juvenile salmon.

Alaska Trollers Association Executive Director Dale Kelley said the new rule is inadequate if it doesn't protect juvenile fish.

According to the rule, a mixing zone will not be authorized if it harms "the present and future capability" of an area to support spawning, incubation or rearing" of fish.

The new rule will allow polluters to apply for exceptions to the mixing zone ban for 14 fish species - including Dolly Varden, trout and Arctic grayling.

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, worries that those exceptions "might be troublesome for subsistence users in the Interior."

Seaton and several other legislators are sponsoring a bill that would prohibit mixing zones in freshwater spawning habitat, but allow them in artificially created fish habitat, such as wastewater ditches.

Seaton said the bill sponsors will proceed with a House Fisheries Committee hearing scheduled at 8:30 a.m. Friday on their bill.

"We'll be studying the regulations between now and then," Seaton said.

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