Panelists discuss fish habitat and how much protection is enough

Dec 15, 2017


(L-R: Ricky Gease, Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Rep. Louise Stutes (R) - Kodiak, Sue Mauger, Cook Inlet Keeper, Sen. Peter Micciche (R)- Soldotna and panel moderator Laine Welch at a salmon habitat forum in Kenai.
Credit Jay Barrett/KDLL


An array of commercial, government and conservation interests were together for a salmon habitat policy forum in Kenai Thursday. The panelists centered their discussion on one main question.



“Given the consensus shared by Alaskans that salmon habitat is valuable and worth protecting and that Alaska’s constitution requires sustained yield of salmon, do you believe that the current law is adequate?”


That was the question posed to the panel by moderator and long time fisheries reporter Laine Welch.

After a couple brief presentations the panel took turns addressing that question. There weren’t many surprises. Industry representatives say current protections are more than enough. They said new, proposed, sweeping regulations for habitat protection would hamper economic development in the state.

Some of the fishermen on the panel took a more nuanced approach, saying there’s plenty more to be done to protect habitat, but much of it is already on the books. It just needs to be enforced.

The lone scientist on the panel, Sue Mauger of Cook Inlet Keeper, says regulators need to have the tools to take what she calls a more holistic approach to analyzing project proposals, no matter how big or small.

“Our best chance of having thriving fisheries in the future is to provide diverse habitat options for salmon as they face changing climate conditions, changing fishery impacts. The diverse habitat is our best hope for having a different outcome than every place that has had salmon."

Bob King, longtime voice of Bristol Bay for KDLG in Dillingham, has a bit of knowledge about those other places that have watched their salmon returns all but disappear. He gave a brief presentation on the history of fisheries management before the panel dug in. Afterward, he said this management of humans and salmon has always been a delicate balancing act.

“It’s interesting; from a historian’s perspective and being able to trace this back 1,000 years to when Britain passed some of the first legislation, that (legislation) handled what they needed then, but what do we need now? What really works? The legislation for Alaska (salmon) habitat that we’re currently using dates back to 1959, when we first became a state. It’s been amended and changed over the years, but…"

But policy moves slow. Alaskans move fast. There are a lot more people, roads, development in general, than 60 years ago. That’s why there are calls for some pretty big changes to legislation that would shape how the state views salmon habitat alongside other resource extraction.

One such effort is House Bill 199. The Wild Salmon Legacy Act. It seeks to update Title 16 in state statutes; that’s a broad range of regulations that basically tell Fish and Game how to do what Fish and Game does. It’s also the section Bob King referred to that has only been periodically updated since statehood. Representative Louise Stutes of Kodiak is sponsoring HB 199.

“The state needs to be proactive and not reactive. We don’t want to end up like Washington, California, Oregon, Idaho. We want to be ahead of the curve, and I think that when we suggested reviewing Title 16, Fish and Game was on board in a lot of respects because they said we can use the additional guidelines, so we know specifically what we’re looking at and what we’re tasked with," Stutes said.

At its essence, the bill would change Alaska from a 'shall issue' kind of system, whereby a permit shall be issued unless a project is insufficient for proper protection of fish and game resources. But what exactly proper protection is, isn’t clear.


HB 199 would create a tiered system for granting permits to major and minor projects. The bigger change, the one that has conservationist’s approval and a skeptical eye from industry, is directing Fish and Game to automatically assume a stream is anadromous, and home to fish.


Nailing down that kind of data in the state’s anadromous streams catalog is time consuming and costly. Ron Benkert, a habitat biologist with Fish and Game, described a stream near a highway project in the Interior that had been surveyed for salmon four times. Four times, they didn’t find fish. Then they did one last check.

“He found two coho in a stream that had been sampled four times already. Just to forewarn you, if you assume anadromy and you go out there and sample and there’s nothing there, that doesn’t mean it’s not an anadromous stream. It’s kind of a backwards way to look at it, but it’s true. We’ve seen it over and over again. There’s nothing in that stream on a sampling event, the next time you go out, it’s chock full of fish.”

And that’s the way everyone wants it to be. Streams chock full of fish. But having that and a thriving industry, well, that will continue to be the challenge in Alaska for at least another 60 years.