Letting dams off the hook hurts Alaskans

Posted: Friday, March 05, 2004

Supporting troll fishermen around here is about as safe as siding with God and cheap electricity in Idaho. Living in Alaska puts me on the right side of that divide.

I don't exactly worship trollers, but my list of might-have-beens always starts with me reeling in king salmon and living on the sea. It's part of our mystique and, equally important, it's the reason some Southeast Alaska towns exist. It's a way of life that the last round of Columbia and Snake River salmon preservation kept intact, but that some Alaskans now rightly fear is endangered by environmental backpedalling.

It works like this. Government agencies charged with saving endangered salmon that spawn upriver in Washington, Oregon and Idaho crafted a plan in the 1990s requiring many conservation measures up and down the Northwest. One that fishermen, Alaska biologists and affected tribes particularly like is a requirement that the Bonneville Power Administration spill some summer water over the Snake River dams instead of through electric turbines, speeding young salmon toward the ocean from their upstream birthplaces.

To BPA it's lost money to the tune of $80 million a year that could be lightening Northwesterners' electric bills. To Sitka troller Eric Jordan, it's insurance that he'll be catching $100 kings in future seasons.

Now, with a court-ordered rewrite of the conservation plan in the works, BPA is making noises about summer spill. In the next few weeks the agency will make decisions about this summer's dam operations. Agency consultants and officials say it would be cheaper to cut the harvest at sea.

Cheaper for whom?

Jordan calls the idea a "travesty," so last weekend he and the rest of the board of the Alaska Trollers Association voted unanimously to endorse H. R. 1097, the Salmon Planning Act. It would authorize the Army Corps of Engineers to remove dams if and when that is deemed necessary to comply with treaties and the Endangered Species Act.

The trollers wrote to President Bush Dec. 13 insisting that spilling water and salmon past the dams is crucial to the survival of 2,600 Southeast trollers, not to mention gillnetters and seiners.

And, more to the point, the letter places blame where blame belongs. The dams are what put these fish on the brink. With data that Alaska Fish and Game biologists say was accurate at last study, the trollers lay it out: 95 percent of endangered Snake River fall chinook mortality happens at the dams. The other 5 percent happens at sea, and only 5 percent of that ends up in Alaska's creel.

It isn't Alaskans alone who fear the consequences of an end to dam spilling. When the trollers met last weekend in Juneau, five representatives of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission came north to share their knowledge of numerous threats to wild fisheries, including a slackening of environmental controls at the dams.

Any Columbia basin fish caught in Alaska is potentially one that the tribes could have caught upriver. But Mike Matylewich, fisheries manager for the intertribal commission, says he came to Alaska to share information with people who are on his side. They may quibble about who gets how much of the harvest, but ultimately the point is to get fish to sea in the first place.

"We have a common interest in salmon recovery," he says.

Without that recovery, Alaska fishermen and towns will always face the threat of tighter harvest restrictions.

Into the mid-1990s, Alaskans were allowed roughly 263,000 chinook a year, says John Clark, chief anadromous fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Since then a treaty with Canada and court tests have led to a system that allows Alaska a certain number based on each year's apparent abundance.

That quota has fallen as low as 155,000 in 1996, but rebounded nicely by 2002, allowing for 370,000 treaty fish - a bonus that many attribute partly to dam spill and other river modifications.

Most of those fish are not from the Snake or its endangered stocks, and some come from healthy runs that still ply the Columbia or Snake. In fact, the coalition Save Our Wild Salmon asserts that each Alaska fisherman is likely to catch only a single endangered Snake River chinook every 44 years.

Forty-four years. So, unless fish-friendly improvements to the river hydropower system are maintained or strengthened, next time you catch one you may be looking at the last.

In that case I suggest you get some butter and tarragon. Somebody should savor the futility.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.



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