Looser regs for Chilkat vex Haines

Agencies, residents at odds over increased access to eagle preserve

Posted: Monday, May 30, 2005

Duck and Karen Hess warred with state biologists and environmentalists over permits for their large jet boats tours in the Chilkat River Bald Eagle Preserve for the last half-decade.

Now the Haines couple may be in store for a major victory.

The preserve is home to the world's largest accumulation of bald eagles, and the couple's tour company, Chilkat River Adventures, carries thousands of Skagway cruise ship passengers into the river each year.

One of the company's most controversial activities in the preserve - air-injecting herring so they would float and attract eagles - has been abolished.

However this year, the state parks division is poised to grant the Hesses a permit that will allow them to operate their twin-engine, 150-horsepower boats over salmon spawning beds and certain channels in the upper Chilkat River during critical periods of spawning, emergence and migration.

The state currently allows the company to send its jet boats into the upper river between June 1 and Sept. 1 - the height of the cruise ship season - but the Hesses asked the state park division to lift the seasonal limits. This spring, they got the support they needed from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Their new permit may be issued this week, and the Hesses are gratified.

"We just want to run our business. You shouldn't have to worry about someone putting you under the microscope when you are trying to run a business," said Karen Hess, who also is president of the Haines Chamber of Commerce.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game imposed the seasonal jet boat limits in 2000 and has sponsored several related studies on the river. The department is adamantly opposed to the proposed rollback.

"I'm not going to criticize (the Department of Natural Resources') position, but we feel it's better to be cautious and not make a mistake. I think the restrictions we had were reasonable," said Rocky Holmes, the chief sportfish management biologist for Southeast Alaska.

His department doesn't have the voice in permitting that it had a year ago.

Last year, in an executive order, Gov. Frank Murkowski eliminated Fish and Game's authority to regulate activities in fish streams and rivers.

He got rid of the department's habitat division and transferred it to the Department of Natural Resources.

Many in Haines are tracking this year's jet boat permit decision closely this month.

The issue is divisive in the community, and many residents said they are interested in its long-term implications for the bald eagle preserve and commercial tourism.

"We really believe that the law is clear that this preserve is for research and protecting a unique and outstanding habitat," said Nancy Berland, an environmentalist with Lynn Canal Conservation.

She said her nonprofit organization may challenge the permit, as currently proposed. "We will consider litigation if it comes to that," she said.

But Haines tour operators say they are encouraged by the state's looser stance on commercial activities in the preserve.

"Taking people into the eagle preserve is one of the main sources of income for the community," said Bart Henderson, owner of Chilkat Guides, which runs float trips on the river.

Commercial fishermen are anxious about the future of the 40-mile-long Chilkat, one of the most productive salmon rivers in the northern Panhandle. All five species spawn in the river.

"They are putting the fishery at risk, possibly," said Norm Hughes, a Haines fisherman and vice president of the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters.

"Fish and Game totally controls how much money I can make in a year," Hughes added. "I don't think what Fish and Game was asking of (the Hesses) was too much."

The United Fishermen of Alaska and the Alaska Trollers Association have also criticized the proposed rollback, saying the state shouldn't allow any activity inconsistent with the protection of spawning and rearing salmon habitat.

Henderson responded, "Do commercial fishermen's interests trump Duck and Karen's interests? That's the question that should be asked."

In an exchange between state agencies in March, the Department of Natural Resources essentially told the state park system that it could not recommend seasonal restrictions on jet boats on the upper river "based on the literature available for our review."

If Fish and Game wants to pursue the issue further, the department suggested conducting an additional field study on salmon egg mortality directly caused by jet boats in the Chilkat River.

The habitat biologist who issued the opinion, Jackie Timothy, said last week she is now even more assured that salmon eggs in the areas currently subject to seasonal restrictions, such as the Kelsaw Delta, will be fine.

Timothy said Chilkat Adventures can't harm the salmon eggs because they can only operate in the upper river at certain water depths.

"That's what we've been saying all along," Hess said.

But Fish and Game biologists said the Department of Natural Resources may have misapplied some research conducted elsewhere on jet boats in spawning beds.

"Those studies were conducted with 40-horsepower engines," said Randy Erickson, a Haines-based Fish and Game biologist. "Here we are talking about much larger boats, with much larger engines."

"Water depth may be appropriate for setting limits, but we don't know what that depth is," Erickson said.

The Chilkat River is just one of a number of U.S. rivers where biologists have raised questions about the impact of jet boats on fish spawning and salmon egg mortality.

The issue has been raised but not fully resolved on the Kenai River, the Deschutes River and in the Interior.

People want to see simple cause and effect but sometimes the impacts on fish habitat may be indirect, said Chris Zimmerman, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Anchorage.

"It's very hard to piece it together," Zimmerman said.

"Look at the debate over logging" around salmon streams, Erickson suggested. "It's difficult to prove, though most biologists will agree that it harms the fish."

Erickson said he isn't optimistic that he will be able to get funding to measure salmon egg mortality in the river. "It's very difficult and expensive to conduct those sorts of studies," he said.

"I think the issue here is that they want proof," he said.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.

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