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Group raises new concerns about threats to Cook Inlet salmon habitat

Margaret BaumanThe Cordova Times
Loren Holmes photo

During a two-day symposium in Anchorage last month, scientists pondered salmon research ranging from stock assessments to climate change, with a goal of strengthening struggling chinook runs across Alaska.

The challenge that drew several hundred fisheries biologists and stakeholders to the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage was to identify knowledge gaps and assemble research priorities to address king salmon declines.

There was much discussion on commercial harvests, the incidental catch of chinook salmon in pollock fisheries, the impact of hatchery fish on wild stocks, coded wire-tag projects to estimate smolt abundance, harvest, and more.

What about salmon habitat?

But Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based non-profit organization with a mission to protect the habitat of Cook Inlet, now claims the symposium failed to address the loss and degradation of freshwater habitat as a factor contributing to diminished wild Alaska salmon runs.

The symposium, sponsored by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, also failed to address the department’s inability or unwillingness to enforce laws designed to protect salmon habitat, Cook Inletkeeper alleges. 

"How can ADF&G expect an honest discussion about the future of our salmon runs with little regard to in-stream habitat?" asked Bob Shavelson of the Homer-based organization. "It's like a farmer ignoring the soil when crop yields drop." Shavelson is an attorney with a background in biology, chemistry and environmental compliance.

In an announcement this week questioning failure of the symposium to discuss in-stream habitat, Cook Inletkeeper quoted David Montgomery, a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington.

'Death by a thousand cuts'

"Alaska fisheries managers are ahead of the game historically, but if the state turns a blind eye to wild salmon habitat loss and degradation, Alaska salmon will suffer the 'death by a thousand cuts' that decimated once-proud salmon runs in Europe, New England and California," Montgomery said. "Unless Alaska wants to repeat the sad history of fisheries management elsewhere, resource managers need to avoid the loss of habitat that has plagued wild salmon runs around the world."

Montgomery, the author of "King of Fish: The Thousand Year Run of Salmon," has studied the matter extensively. His book traces the tragic and steady decline of salmon populations in Europe, New England, Eastern Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Four main causes are desribed:

• Pollution of rivers in the name of technology;

• Changing the natural environment by damming rivers and clear-cutting forests;

• Overfishing, and;

• Ignoring regulations imposed to help salmon populations recover.

Cook Inletkeeper cited several examples that the organization believes highlights wild salmon habitat degradation in Cook Inlet.

"Habitat protection is not a partisan issue, and it's not an allocation issue," said Terry Jorgensen, a Cook Inlet commercial fisherman affiliated with Cook Inletkeeper. "We can't ignore the fish factory while we're fighting over the last fish. And we certainly can't blame the 'black box' of our oceans when we refuse to protect the very freshwater habitats under our control."

'Mixing zones' harm salmon

Cook Inletkeeper has been critical of a number of state decisions where permits were issued allowing development of non-renewable resources, including some allowing a tank farm at the Drift River oil terminal on the west side of Cook Inlet to be used again. A 2009 eruption of the Redoubt volcano forced an evacuation of the terminal and an emergency drawdown of oil stored there, with the terminal being mothballed.

In August, Cook Inletkeeper contends, Fish and Game illegally issued permits allowing Hilcorp Alaska to mine boulders and fill a salmon stream in the Redoubt Bay critical habitat area in order to resume oil storage at Drift River.

Hilcorp, one of the largest privately held exploration and production companies in the United States, is a major producer of oil and gas in Cook Inlet. The company announced earlier this year its plans to bring two tanks back into normal use by October, saying that reopening the Drift River terminal was critical to sustaining and fostering further development of Cook Inlet oil operations. The contractor is Brice Construction, a subsidiary of Calista Corp., which was involved in installation of the original tank farm protections.

Cook Inletkeeper also criticized the state on several other issues, including approval of a 35-mile railroad connection to Port Mackenzie in the Mat-Su Valley, where fishing closures and restrictions are increasingly common.

The Alaska Division of Natural Resources' recent proposed new, extensive coal leases adjacent to the Little Susitna River will "fragment and pollute important Cook Inlet salmon habitat" too, Cook Inletkeeper said.

Then there are the "mixing zones," areas where the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has authorized the discharge of treated wastewater from sewage treatment and industrial facilities to mix with water that serves as salmon habitat.

Mixing zones, said Cook Inletkeeper "have been rightly banned in Alaskan salmon habitat for years."