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In the Pacific Northwest, the word salmon is typically followed by the word crisis. The Columbia River, once the largest producer of Pacific salmon in the world, now has less than 5 percent of the salmon it once had. In the last 50 years, over $3 billion has been spent to restore runs in the Columbia, and largely failed. In Alaska, the opposite happened. In the 10 years before Alaska took over salmon management from the federal government, the total commercial catch never exceeded 51 million fish; since 1990, the statewide commercial catch has never dropped below 123 million, and it has been above 200 million twice.
What's the difference between Alaska and the Pacific Northwest? Well, there are several things, including ocean conditions. Even so, the most important difference is Alaskans valued salmon. Alaskans demanded aggressive protection of the fish stocks and the habitat that salmon need to survive and reproduce. The Alaska Board of Fisheries summed it up pretty clearly in its Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy: "Alaska's salmon fisheries are healthy and sustainable largely because of abundant pristine habitat and the application of sound, precautionary, conservation management practices."
What's changed? Recently habitat protection and permitting was transferred from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to the Department of Natural Resources. When this change took place, many organizations expressed their concern that this management would be taken from a vigilant and effective institution and turned over to a group too quick with a rubber stamp and a slogan. Since then we have heard a lot about "responsible resource development," but what does that really mean?
The executive board of the Alaska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society is very concerned about the way the Department of Natural Resources reached its recent decision to open parts of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve to very large commercial jet boats. We reviewed the same scientific studies DNR did, and we don't see how they came to the conclusion that these commercial activities pose no risk to salmon. It is worth mentioning these jet boat operators have been working in the Chilkat River since before 1990, and we do not want to see them shut down or put out of business. The only issue is whether to keep some reasonable time and area restrictions to protect salmon during spawning and migration.
To be fair, DNR does have some new information that some of the early fears about the jet boats are unjustified. But DNR has not taken a comprehensive look at all the issues. They glossed over way too much, misunderstood or exaggerated the optimistic side of the science, and just ignored the negative and the uncertainty. In other words, before DNR, the fish got the benefit of the doubt. Now, it looks like DNR wants to see conclusive proof of damage before they will act in favor of the fish.
That is our issue here: Real habitat managers should place the burden of proof of "no harm" on the person or company wanting to do the activity that puts fish at risk. DNR needs to do what it takes to understand what the real risks are, not just assume that if there is no information that everything will work out fine. DNR seems to be saying as long as they do not have conclusive scientific evidence that some activity is causing some harm, then don't worry, be happy. That is not how most people treat valuable assets in their own personal lives, and that is not how we should be treating this valuable shared resource.
Since well before statehood, Alaskans wanted our salmon fisheries protected and carefully managed. Republicans, Democrats, rural residents, city dwellers, all of us, valued the jobs our salmon brought, valued the fish we used for food, and valued these fish for many other reasons. We recognize that DNR is new to this permitting business. We hope they are still just learning the ropes. However, if the opposite of precautionary management is our new way of doing business in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest has already clearly shown us where this leads.
Hal Geiger is the president of the Alaska Chapter of the American Fisheries Society, a professional society of more than 400 Alaska scientists and fishery specialists.