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Borough, Fish and Wildlife partner on restoration project

A fish passage on Ninilchik Native Association land
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A fish passage on Ninilchik Native Association land

In February, the borough announced plans to redesign and replace two fish passage culverts off of borough-maintained Oil Well Road in Ninilchik. The area, which is part of the Deep Creek Watershed, is home to a number of fish populations, including salmon and Dolly Varden.

The Fish and Wildlife Service put together a project proposal and received over $1.3 million from the 2023 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The borough also appropriated $50,000 from Road Service Area funds.

“We must have wrote a compelling story about locally the need to ensure that salmon can move freely,” said Kyle Graham, a biologist with Fish and Wildlife who’s working on the project. “Emphasize like ‘Hey, we’re working with tribes and local government to match the federal monies with the right locations.’” 

Fish and Wildlife has worked closely with the Ninilchik Native Association on several improvement projects within the corporation’s 70,000 acres of land surrounding the Ninilchik and Kasilof Rivers. Association President and CEO Greg Encelewski says the area has lost much of its salmon population. The tribe is now purchasing troll-caught salmon from Southeast Alaska.

“Our people have always eaten King salmon and silvers, and we’ve lost both of those," Encelewski said. "Fish passage is so important because of the sustainability of the stock and the rearing.” 

The replacement culverts are located within two tributary streams that connect to the larger watershed. Streams are important to salmon fry, as they provide optimal rearing habitat.

“Our people have lived off of fish for primordial, a lot of people say it's in our DNA and I believe it is," Encelewski said. "It’s a very spiritual thing for us too, our health depends on healthy fish and good fish to survive.” 

Graham says another motivation for the project is a past flood that blew out a fish culvert in the watershed. He says after the flood, FEMA would only replace the culvert using the original design that was damaged.

“We’re incorporating a design that is way better for fish, it improves the infrastructure and ultimately, for the Ninilchik folks, creates safe and efficient access to subsistence resources, and not having to be concerned that when there’s a big flood, or whatever the future holds, that a crossing isn’t going to wash out,” Graham said.  

The project will soon go through a design process and construction will likely begin in late 2025 or early 2026. Graham hopes the project will benefit salmon, the borough and the Native association.

Hunter Morrison is a news reporter at KDLL
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