As Southeast Alaska's top salmon producer, the transboundary Taku River is a vital economic, cultural and recreational resource. However, since the large majority of the salmon-spawning habitat is in the upper Taku in British Columbia, Alaskan fisheries are dependent on good stewardship from Canadian managers.
A major Land Use Plan is being crafted in northwest British Columbia. The future of Taku wild salmon will depend on management priorities developed in this Plan. This is an excellent opportunity for Alaska to engage with our Canadian neighbors to ensure the long-term health of the Taku Watershed, its salmon and the people who depend on these resources. In fact, without involvement from Alaska, vital salmon habitat will be put at risk by the British Columbia government.
As recently reported in the July 12 Empire, the Land Use Plan "could mean better protections for fish habitat on the Taku River." The key word here is "could," for while the plan would protect important stretches of upper river Taku salmon spawning habitat, it would also sanction a major industrial mining district in the Tulsequah River valley, directly upstream of some of the most important rearing habitat for juvenile salmon in the entire Taku and in the midst of lower river spawning habitat.
While the majority of salmon spawn above the Tulsequah-Taku confluence, the lower river provides critical rearing areas for juvenile salmon, especially in the winter when many of the juveniles have left the upper river for rearing areas downstream. The channels, marshes and ponds of Flannigan Slough extend from the Tulsequah-Taku confluence on the Canadian side to the border and provide some of the best habitat in the watershed for coho, chum, and sockeye. Alaska Department of Fish and Game field studies have identified significant salmon spawning and rearing habitat in the Tulsequah River, largest tributary to the Taku, and in the mainstem Taku below the international border. Safeguarding these habitats is critical to maintaining the Taku's productivity.
An industrial mining district in the Tulsequah Valley, with associated road-building and river barging is a major threat to all of these lower river habitats. The experiences with Redfern and the Tulsequah Chief project, including the ill-conceived hoverbarge, conventional barging accidents and failed cleanup at the now-abandoned Tulsequah Chief and Big Bull mines, demonstrate the dangers of industrial mining in the area. Given that Canadian agencies and industry have been largely unresponsive to Alaskan concerns about the hoverbarge and mine site cleanup, Alaskans should be wary of the track record in the Tulsequah River valley.
It is premature to say that the Land Use Plan would protect the most important part of the Taku River watershed, as the current draft Plan puts at risk some of the Taku's most important fish habitat. A visionary and sustainable Plan needs to protect the adult and juvenile life stages of salmon, which means protections for both the upper river spawning areas and lower river rearing areas.
As an alternative to the current vision British Columbia could say no to industrial mining in the Tulsequah valley, where mining already has a poor track record. This would recognize the high value of the salmon habitat and the fact industrial access is impractical with the Taku River Tlingit First Nation opposed to a road through the Taku and many Alaskans against river barging. It would also end the threat of industrial barging on the lower Taku. And, the plan would still provide for mining and development in areas of the Taku Watershed with better access and less sensitive salmon habitat.
Canadians, of course, must make the ultimate decision for their Land Use Plan and much of the Taku Watershed. But Alaskans should not be satisfied with the current draft Plan, when it in fact puts our fisheries at risk. All of us who care about the Taku and its salmon should encourage our Canadian neighbor to recognize the asset we all share in the Taku and encourage a vision that truly safeguards its wild salmon.
Chris Zimmer is the Alaska Campaign Director with Rivers Without Borders.