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Murkowski gets it right on hydro, but Alaska's fish are critical

Lindsey Bloom

Sen. Murkowski was right on the mark with her recent commentary in Alaska Dispatch. Diversifying Alaska’s energy portfolio is key to producing affordable energy for our state. In the commercial fishing industry we are high consumers of both electricity and water that are essential to keeping processing facilities throughout the state up and running. Affordable electricity helps fishermen throughout the state meet their bottom line.

We just have to ensure that Hydropower development in Alaska is safe for fish. If we are to learn anything from the sad history of dam construction and salmon depletion in the Lower 48 than we must heed past lessons learned the hard way and put “fish first.”

Hydropower is one of the four H’s influencing salmon abundance; Harvest, Habitat, and Hatcheries are the others. In Alaska we are the standard of excellence for sustainability and success of our world-class fisheries. State management ensures that harvest opportunities come second to protecting salmon resources and allowing for escapement. Our state boasts a diverse portfolio of free-flowing rivers and intact habitats supporting annual runs of salmon in the hundreds of millions. Alaska’s salmon fishery enhancement program -- hatcheries -- differs from other states in that they were not built to mitigate habitat losses but rather to coexist with healthy wild stocks and enhance fisheries. Our hatcheries allow for the protection of wild stocks while creating economic opportunities for Alaskans. So far, Alaska’s hydro projects have been cited and developed responsibly so that we have seen minimal impact to major salmon runs or other fish.

In stark contrast to Alaska, wild salmon and commercial fishermen who depend on them elsewhere have not faired nearly as well. Poor management of harvest, habitat loss, ill-conceived hatcheries and the construction of dams on major salmon systems like the Columbia River have led to the extinction of many wild runs of salmon and fishermen who depend on them.

Alaska has a tremendous opportunity to both develop hydro and protect our salmon. I very much appreciate Senator Murkowski’s comment that, “We all recognize that when developing hydropower projects it’s crucial to choose locations that minimize any potential impacts on fish populations.” But I would hope we could take it even a step further. We should not merely minimize harm to fish -- we must prevent it.

I hope our state leaders and decision-makers will continue on this progressive path and solidify a hydropower policy that explicitly puts fish first. Such a policy would ensure that we do not allow for the damming of mainstems of rivers that provide migration routes and habitat for salmon. It would not allow for dam construction to impact biologically productive habitats by changing seasonal fluctuations in flow, sedimentation or water temperature.

As many successful projects have shown already, we can harness hydropower responsibly in this state and prevent risks to fish by making smart decisions on size, type and location of projects. Standards for fisheries protection should be adopted into law as we continue to support and promote a promising future for hydro development, energy security, and a healthy fishing economy.

Lindsey Bloom is a commercial salmon fisherman with family fishing operations in both Bristol Bay and Southeast Alaska. She currently serves as the chair of the environmental committee for United Fishermen of Alaska, a trade association representing three dozen commercial fishing organizations from fisheries throughout Alaska and its offshore waters.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.