It may sound bizarre, but between today and Thursday, a coalition of nine federal agencies will host a series of four public hearings in Southeast Alaska on alternatives to restore threatened and endangered salmon runs in the Columbia River Basin.
Outside of Southeast, Alaskans will probably raise their eyebrows trying to figure out why Southeast should even be involved in a discussion of Lower 48 issues. Southeast Alaskans recognize that, were science to prevail, we wouldn't be involved. Unfortunately, despite all the efforts of the Knowles administration to make scientifically sound decisions, Southeast Alaska fisheries have been politically and inextricably interwoven with Lower 48 fisheries, and it's been this way for 20 years.
For more than two decades, Northwest salmon runs have been decimated by a series of dams along the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Science has repeatedly shown that the dams have been the major culprit in the salmon decline. Since the last dam was completed in 1975, wild salmon runs in the Snake River have plummeted by 90 percent. Under the Endangered Species Act, four Snake River salmon and steelhead populations have been listed as endangered or threatened. The federal government is required by law to find a way to restore these Snake River stocks.
But, here's the rub. Southeast Alaska commercial and sport fishermen harvest a miniscule number of fall chinook Snake River Salmon. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Southeast Alaska fisheries are responsible for only three-tenths of one percent of human-caused mortality of the Snake River fall chinook run. Yet, the Snake and Columbia River dams are responsible for up to 95 percent of the Snake River fall chinook mortality. Nonetheless, because of this tiny percentage, Southeast Alaska fishermen and families have been required to take ever-increasing restrictions in the name of conservation. Despite the hardships, despite the fact that we are not the problem, Southeast Alaska fishermen have abided by numerous conservation restrictions.
Since 1995, commercial fishing for king salmon has been reduced by over 40 percent to protect the endangered Snake River stocks. In 1999, Alaska signed a new treaty agreement. Under this new agreement, Southeast fishermen reluctantly took additional harvest restrictions because, among other provisions, Alaska was assured we would not have to take additional restrictions as part of the Northwest salmon recovery plan. Governor Knowles insisted upon, and Washington and Oregon agreed, to ``safe passage'' for salmon. Yet, despite the 1999 treaty agreement to hold Alaska fisheries harmless from additional restrictions, two of the four alternatives being proposed for salmon recovery would require an additional 50 to 75 percent reduction in Southeast Alaska fisheries.
As a troller, I can tell you that such a significant, additional restriction to Southeast Alaska fisheries may well put our boats on the beach. It will impact us all and it will impact our families and our communities. The federal government can restrict us to extinction and the Columbia Basin salmon runs would still disappear. However, remove the dams, restore the natural, free-flowing river conditions and federal, state, tribal, industry and independent scientists agree that this has the best chance of restoring the Snake River fall chinook salmon runs. Over 200 nationally prominent fisheries scientists recently sent a letter to President Clinton endorsing the removal of the dirt portion of the four Lower Snake River dams, stating that this was the ``best biological option for the fish.''
Thanks to the urging and insistence of Governor Knowles, the Federal Caucus will hold four hearings in Southeast Alaska on the recovery plan for the endangered and threatened Snake River salmon. Hearings this week will be held in Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka and Juneau. This is Southeast Alaska's one opportunity to be heard. This is our chance to tell the federal government what king salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska means to us, our families and our communities.
It is important to be present and to be heard. In Juneau, the Federal Caucus hearing will be Wednesday at Centennial Hall. There is an open house and overview and displays from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Public comment begins at 7 p.m. Let's tell them ``enough is enough.''
Paula Terrel and her husband are commercial fisherman in Southeast Alaska. She is working with the Save Our Salmon Coalition to increase public awareness and encourage participation in the public comment process.
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