The salmons' struggle

Letter to the editor

Posted: Thursday, September 18, 2003

Recently, Marty Caress wrote from Cantwell to comment on the compatibility of wild salmon with industry and real estate. He was commenting on Jack Piccolo's My Turn. He mentioned Ship Creek in Anchorage as an example of a stream that supports salmon even though the land around it has been heavily developed.

I'm not an expert on Ship Creek but state of Alaska reports show the famous chinook salmon run there is supported by Elmendorf Hatchery (the Alaska Salmon Enhancement Program 2002 Annual Report, Table 14d, shows that over 4,000 chinooks caught in Ship Creek were planted by Elmendorf Hatchery; it's on the Web at

There may be some wild-spawned salmon taken in the fishing derby at Ship Creek, but much of the catch depends on a hatchery - not on natural habitat.

For the past couple of years I've been part of a group of salmon biologists who are reviewing hatcheries in Puget Sound and western Washington (their Web page is We've visited many of the salmon-producing watersheds that my miner grandfather first saw a century ago and where my dad worked as a salmon biologist 50 years ago. It has been a sobering experience for an Alaskan. There are plenty of bright spots where people are restoring natural habitat for salmon but it is a difficult struggle and will not succeed in many places.

Industry, real estate, logging and agriculture have deprived salmon of their habitat. Where trees and vegetation have been removed from the watersheds all of the winter rains come down the rivers as destructive floods and little of it remains to sustain the streams in the drier months. Silt and sand clog many of the smaller streams. Even the runoff from paved parking lots is toxic.

Even so the people regard salmon as a cultural and ecological keystone and are spending huge sums to restore a little of the region's salmon habitat. Jack's right; we need to learn from them how to guide the development of Alaska's landscape so that we don't needlessly destroy the ecosystems around us.

Disclaimer: I'm one of Jack's teachers in the fisheries program at the university where he is writing a dissertation on the behavioral ecology of cohos and steelhead in the Tongass Forest. As with most students I seem to learn more from him than he from me.

Bill Smoker

Professor of Fisheries

Juneau Center for Fisheries and Ocean Sciences

University of Alaska Fairbanks


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