My Turn: Salmon bill would close Murkowski's loophole

Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Not many fishermen are as lucky as I am. It is very difficult to get a permit to fish Bristol Bay - the one I have is my uncle's permit, who fished the Bay in a sailboat back in the 1940s. Those pioneering days produced men of strong stuff, able to do the work of two; they had to know how to sail as well as fish, and they pulled in amazing catches using means we consider primitive today.

The days of sailboat fishing ended in the 1950s, and my father or I have worked the waters of Bristol Bay ever since. I've always loved boats and the sea. Maybe that's why I'm still fishing after 30 years, when fatigue and better judgment usually end careers much earlier.

Alaska's fishing history is rich; you can't tell the story of Alaska's statehood without telling the story of our salmon. It's in our blood. But the stream habitat our salmon rely on for spawning has been losing out in recent years - thanks to a lousy decision by former Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2005.

Murkowski's administration created a toxic loophole that allows more pollution to be dumped into rivers and streams that support spawning salmon. Known as "mixing zones," these dump sites are not required to meet basic protections for fish. Instead, pollution levels are measured downstream, sometimes miles from the pollution source, after contaminants have become diluted with river water.

For years, Alaskans have had the common sense to protect spawning habitat for salmon and other fish by prohibiting these toxic areas. Murkowski's administration changed that by lifting long-standing protections and allowing polluters to turn stretches of spawning streams and rivers into free-flowing waste dumps even after Alaskans twice rejected the idea during public comment periods.

House Bill 74, a bipartisan bill currently before the Alaska Legislature, would close the Murkowski loophole and restore reasonable protections to help keep Alaska salmon stocks the healthiest in the world. The bill enjoys broad support from commercial fishermen, Alaska Native communities, local municipalities, scientists and conservationists, yet the bill is stalled in committee by two legislators who have not even scheduled a hearing.

Representatives Craig Johnson (R-Anchorage) and Carl Gatto (R-Palmer), who co-chair the House Resources Committee, have an opportunity to move the bill, but with the short legislative session drawing to a close, they must move quickly.

The salmon season in Bristol Bay lasts about two months. After the season ends up here, I head south to fish in Washington state. Down there we face water quality issues 365 days a year; we watch as they barge and truck the salmon around dams and attempt to restore damaged or polluted habitat. When I return to Alaska, I am always struck by the purity of our waters: free-flowing rivers devoid of dams and unspoiled salmon runs in their natural state.

We're fortunate. Consumers know that fish caught in Alaska is great because it comes from clean, pure waters, and they're willing to pay a premium for it.

After the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989, fishermen saw the market price of Alaska fish plummet because buyers perceived the fish as tainted. If we don't plan ahead today, in a few years we may find our well-deserved reputation for purity vanish, or worse, see our thriving runs dwindle as their habitat is polluted and destroyed. We need a better balance between the demands of industry and salmon habitat, the economic bedrock of our state.

House Bill 74 would help protect the pure and natural salmon that are Alaska's trademark. These fish are the best insurance policy we could hope for - guaranteed prosperity for generations to come. Chairmen Johnson and Gatto should put a premium on Alaska's long-term economic security by using their leadership to move House Bill 74 this year.

• David Harsila is a commercial fisherman and president of the Alaska Independent Fishermen's Marketing Association. He is a resident of Seattle.

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