Alaskans: Time to tear down dams

Fishermen fight cutbacks

Posted: Thursday, March 09, 2000

Cutting back Alaska's king salmon harvest in order to replenish Snake River chinook stocks in Washington state is proving to be the least popular idea since last fall's vote on using earnings from the Alaska Permanent Fund to balance the state budget.

In three consecutive hearings in Southeast this week, not one person testified in favor of ``conservation level'' management policies as a viable method of getting Snake River kings off of a listing under the Endangered Species Act.

And nearly everyone spoke in favor of breaching four federal dams on the Snake River as a way of increasing salmon and steelhead survival, saying that the region that created the habitat problem should solve it, as well. Removing the earthen portion of the dams in southeastern Washington would create a 140-mile stretch of free-flowing water that would ease migration.

Unlike the permanent fund is sue, however, the salmon recovery debate doesn't afford Alaskans a direct vote.

The nine federal agencies conducting hearings on the issue are being lobbied against breaching by development interests in the Pacific Northwest. The dams provide 5 percent of the region's electricity, irrigation for agribusiness and a key route for barges.

And to the surprise of some who testified in Juneau on Wednesday night, Alaska's congressional delegation is so far siding with those who would keep the dams. Ultimately, Congress will be called upon to settle the issue.

The federal agencies, known as the Federal Caucus, are holding 15 public hearings on the issue, including one in Petersburg tonight. The hearings drew about 75 people in Ketchikan on Monday and about 120 in Sitka on Tuesday. The official head count in Juneau on Wednesday was 153. The theme of the testimony - leave Alaska's fish alone - was consistent through the three hearings, according to federal officials who attended.

Although the issue has been consistently cast as dams vs. fish, it's really not that simple, said Col. Eric Mogren, a deputy engineer for the Northwest region of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Mogren told the Juneau audience that only two or three of 12 stocks listed as endangered would potentially benefit from dam removal.

To address the whole problem, Mogren said there must be adjustments in hydropower, habitat, harvests and hatcheries - the reasoning behind the Federal Caucus' ``All-H Paper'' on alternatives.

``What makes it so complex is there's so much at stake, both environmentally and economically,'' he said.

But Alaska elected officials, commercial fishermen, fish biologists and industry supporters who testified Wednesday said it's a simple issue for the state.

``Please follow the science, breach the dams, protect our habitat and leave Alaska alone,'' said Marc Wheeler, a citizen activist who came dressed in a fish costume, with a sticker proclaiming ``Those Dams Don't Make Sense.''

``Alaska has been unfairly targeted,'' said Ron Somerville of Juneau, a sports fishing activist and former state Fish and Game official.

Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association in Juneau, said consideration of further harvest restrictions in Alaska is ``completely absurd'' and a ``charade,'' given that a Southeast troller, on average, catches a Snake River spawner once every 44 years.

``Our fishery has been sliced and diced for 20 years,'' Kelley said.

A statement read on behalf of Gov. Tony Knowles said proposals for severe harvest restrictions constitute ``a death blow to Alaska's coastal communities.'' Shirley Perkins of Elfin Cove said her island community of 30 would evaporate with further harvest reductions.

``We are talking about a lot more than just dollars here,'' added Greg Petrich of Juneau, a former troller and charter guide. He said the Southeast fishing community is ``a unique culture in America.''

Larry Rutter, senior policy assistant with the National Marine Fisheries Service, estimated 100 to 200 fall Snake River chinook are caught in Alaska every year.

While the number is low, the annual spawning population varies between 300 and 700 fish, making any contribution important, Rutter said.

Because there is no way for trollers to avoid Snake River salmon specifically, ``practically half of the Alaska catch'' would have to be foregone under the conservation-level management option, he said.

But he emphasized his agency would not recommend any harvest restrictions that applied only to Alaska. Any cutbacks would have to be comprehensive, including adjustments to Canadian harvests through the Pacific Salmon Treaty, he said. ``It has to be a fullmeal deal.''



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