As Alaska celebrates Wild Salmon Week and reflects on our productive, sustainable runs of wild salmon and the families, businesses and communities supported by this magnificent and tasty resource, we in Juneau have something to be especially thankful for - the Taku River.
The last Taku kings of the season are being caught and sockeye fisheries are gearing up. Commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen, fish processors, marine equipment dealers, fishing and hunting guides and cabin owners all benefit from the Taku's rich bounty of fish, game and wilderness. The Taku is a working wilderness, a pristine, world-class watershed that also puts food on the table for hundreds of Juneau families.
The Taku annually produces about 2 million salmon, placing it in the top five rivers in Alaska. The commercial gillnet fishery for sockeye and coho is worth about $4 million. Coho bring at least $1 million to trollers, while pinks are worth about half a million dollars to purse seiners. Neither of these figures takes into account revenue from boat sales, gas, fish processors and other businesses. Recreational fishing for Taku chinook and coho contributes over $7 million to the Juneau economy. Juneau's two salmon derbies, the Spring King Salmon Derby sponsored by the Tlingit-Haida Council and the Golden North Salmon Derby sponsored by the Territorial Sportsmen in August, are heavily dependent on Taku River salmon. Fish and Game has concluded that most spring kings caught near Juneau are bound for the Taku River.
Alaska has been an excellent steward of the Taku. Fishing is done in a sustainable fashion, while development that would harm fisheries, fish habitat and water quality has been prevented. The Taku is a world class environmental gem, but it is important to note that it is generating millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs for people in Juneau and beyond. Its intact forest habitat, clean water and huge gravel spawning beds ensure that healthy, harvestable populations of fish and game will continue to benefit future generations.
But a plan from a junior Canadian mining company is putting all this at risk. Redfern Resources, with active help from the British Columbia government, wants to re-open the Tulsequah Chief mine and construct a 100-mile access road from Atlin, B.C. to the mine. Since it closed in the late 1950s, the mine has been leaching acid mine drainage pollution directly into the Tulsequah River and thus into the Taku. Neither B.C. nor Redfern has made any attempts to stop this. The mine and its tailings dump sits directly upstream of two of the most productive spawning and rearing areas in the watershed, Flannigan and Shazah sloughs. At least two other Canadian companies want to develop mines in the area, once the Tulsequah Chief road is built. These mines and roads, combined with B.C.'s poor record of environmental analysis, monitoring and enforcement are clear threats to the Taku's fish and game and the families these resources support. These projects should be put on hold until a comprehensive, bilateral watershed plan is developed that provides criteria for development and guarantees that salmon, wildlife and water quality will be protected.
This is not an issue of being pro- or anti-development. The real issue is maintaining the Taku's rich resources and the economies dependent on them and ensuring that future development does not harm them. B.C.'s track record gives Alaskans little reason to trust them in ensuring that its development plans don't harm Alaska jobs.
This is the same government that is promoting massive fish farm development close to Southeast Alaska. Do we really trust them to ensure their activities don't hurt Alaska salmon and jobs?
Juneau has little to gain from this mine - miners will come from Atlin, equipment and materials will be shipped by road and won't be barged on the river, servicing of the mines will be from B.C. - and much to lose.
As you celebrate Wild Salmon Week, please take a moment to contact the governor and your elected representatives in the Assembly and Legislature to ask them what they are doing to ensure that Canadian industrial projects in the Taku do not hurt Alaska salmon and jobs.
Chris Zimmer is the U.S. Coordinator for the Transboundary Watershed Alliance and an avid sport fisherman.
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