State of the salmon in Alaska: Mixed reports
Catch it. Eat it. Sell it. Smoke it. Share it.
It’s hard to image Alaska without salmon, because it’s part of the Alaskan identity.
A special legislative committee on fisheries recognized the importance of salmon at a series of presentations on Tuesday, called “State of the Salmon.”
Lindsey Bloom, a Juneau fisheries consultant who fished for a decade in Bristol Bay, said the “State of the Salmon” is something Alaskans can be proud of.
“It is really a defining characteristic for Alaskans. It’s something an overwhelming number of Alaskans connect to in deep ways,” Bloom said. “We are now truly about the last wild salmon state.”
But that status is one that faces a number of threats.
“Large-scale mining in British Columbia currently threatens Alaska water quality and salmon,” said Heather Hardcastle, director of Salmon Beyond Borders.
Hardcastle said Alaska has no voice in the way Canadian salmon-rearing watersheds are managed, which limits the ability of the state to protect Southeast runs.
Alaska’s new Fish and Game commissioner, Sam Cotten, sat through most of the hearing.
“Overall in Alaska, the state of the salmon is excellent,” Cotten said. “The runs are for the most part doing very well. But we are concerned about Chinook salmon, very concerned.”
There was testimony at the hearing about the impact of record-low Chinook or king salmon runs in Cook Inlet, as well as the Yukon and Kuskowim Rivers in Southwest Alaska.
Ricky Geese, executive director of the Kenai Sportfishing Association, said those regions were declared salmon disaster areas in 2012 — and the state received about $21 million in federal funds as disaster relief, money that came nowhere near to addressing the impact of lost economic opportunity for the Cook Inlet region.
Others, like Ben Stevens, who works for the Tanana Chiefs Conference and is a tribal member of Stevens village, told the committee the loss of kings on the Yukon River has taken away a major staple of the diet.
“A lot of times, the subsistence discussion is not included in any discussion or consideration,” Stevens said. “Just mom and dad on the shore trying to feed the kids.”
“This is a very dire time for subsistence users,” Stevens said.
He also told the committee how tribal governments along the Yukon worked very hard to enforce the ban on king salmon fishing last season — to ensure enough kings made it across the border to their spawning grounds in Canada, so Alaska could meet its treaty obligations.
“Basically the tribes are looking to the state and the feds for a more substantive voice in the management actions,” Stevens said. “Now is the time we should give that some real serious consideration.”
Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak is chair of the special fisheries committee.
“I don’t think I felt like one was more important than the other,” she said of all the different regions that took part in the “State of the Salmon” presentation. “They’re all part of the big picture.”
And sometimes the big picture involves other fisheries.
“The Alaska pollock fishery is the largest fishery in the United States,” said Stephanie Madsen, executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association. “It’s one of the largest in the world. It’s roughly valued at a half a billion dollars.”
But when pollock fleets catch too many Chinooks, they have to shut down.
“We do not want to catch salmon,” said Madsen, who told lawmakers the industry is using new technology and a penalty system to rein in “outlier behavior.”
A common theme: the state of the salmon is very much about the state of the pocket book.
Ryan Makinster, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, reminded lawmakers about the contribution of sports fishermen.
“There were 475,000 anglers in 2007. They fished for a combined 2.5 million days. Approximately $1.4 billion was spent on that fishery,” Makinster said.
With reductions in the halibut fishery, salmon is becoming even more important than ever for the sport fishing industry in Southeast, Makinster told the committee.
For many, the takeaway from Tuesday’s hearing: the “State of the Salmon” is an important part of the state of the state.