My Turn: Palin should seize Taku opportunity

Posted: Thursday, June 18, 2009

There is now a unique opportunity for Alaska and British Columbia to come together and ensure the long-term productivity of the Taku River and its fisheries.

The British Columbia government and the Taku River Tlingit First Nation are negotiating a land use plan for the BC portion of the Taku watershed that should be finalized in the next 18 months. This plan is Alaska's best chance to ensure that the Taku's salmon spawning habitat, which is largely on the BC side, is protected and remains productive.

I urge Governor Palin to request a seat at the table in the Taku land use planning process so that Alaska's interest in healthy, sustainable Taku salmon runs is recognized. I also encourage Palin to ensure that federal fisheries managers understand the Taku's importance to Alaska, to BC and to the rest of the U.S. and Canada. Two nations share the Taku River and its valuable salmon resource; thus, both countries share the responsibility to maintain the health of this international river. For our part, I feel our responsibility is to develop permanent protection for the Taku's irreplaceable and valuable fisheries on our side of the border.

With up to two million wild salmon returning annually, the Taku is Southeast Alaska's most productive salmon river, not to mention one of Alaska's top five. Salmon return to the Taku full of oily, rich meat that feeds not only those in Juneau, but salmon lovers across the country.

Whether you fish with a gillnet, lure, herring or fly, if you've caught a king salmon in the last month or so you probably have the Taku River to thank for that tasty fish. According to Alaska Department of Fish and Game data, the Taku contributes about 90 percent of the May sport and commercial chinook catch in Juneau and about 25 percent of the harvest for the rest of the year. The Taku also produces about one-third of Juneau's coho harvest.

Taku sport and commercial fisheries contribute more than $7 million to Southeast Alaska's economy and support more than 400 jobs, according to a 2004 McDowell Group study. And this doesn't include the benefits from the May commercial chinook gillnet fishery, which is open this year for only the third time in more than 30 years and which can contribute another $1 million to our local economy. The Taku also provides important commercial harvests for Canadian native and non-native fishermen.

The Taku's continued high levels of salmon productivity are no coincidence; Alaska has been an excellent steward of the Taku and its fisheries. Continued sound management will ensure sustainable jobs, income, and food for Southeast Alaskans. If protected, the Taku watershed's intact forests, clean water and undisturbed gravel spawning beds promise healthy, harvestable populations of fish and game for future generations. Alaska's actions alone cannot ensure this, however, as the majority of Taku River salmon spawn on the Canadian side of the border. Proper management of upriver spawning grounds is critically important to the health of our valuable salmon fisheries here in Alaska.

Equally important is that we Alaskans continue to protect the vital migration pathways and rearing areas for juvenile salmon that exist in the Taku on the Alaska side. Earlier this year, the Alaska Department of Natural Resources designated part of the Taku as Important Habitat for the permitting review of a proposal to access British Columbia's Tulsequah Chief Mine via hoverbarge. Unfortunately, this designation was partially withdrawn. A stronger and more permanent mechanism is needed to protect the Taku's habitat and fisheries. It's critical that the ecological, financial and intrinsic values of the Taku as a salmon stronghold be protected in a more definitive, permanent sense.

Recent fishery closures in California and Oregon are compelling and tragic cases for what can result from poor habitat and water management, as well as a lack of stakeholder cooperation. Alaska has certainly learned from the mistakes made in salmon management in the Lower 48. However, truly sensible management of Taku salmon runs demands the engagement of both the U.S. and Canada.

I trust that Governor Palin will use the Taku land use planning meetings as a way to engage Alaska in discussions and decisions that acutely affect the health of a shared wild salmon resource.

• Heather Hardcastle, a second-generation commercial fisherman, is co-owner of Taku River Reds and has been involved with commercial fishing in the Taku for 28 years.

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