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The salmon are down; let’s step up in their defense

The king salmon closures and restrictions have been ringing out across Alaska like thunderclaps all spring. Southeast. The Kuskokwim. I've been shuddering each time but hoping and praying the storm would stay away. Then the Mat-Su was hit, right in my backyard.

On Wednesday, lightning struck again.

picture of beach with dipnetters
Dipnetters crowd the mouth of the Kenai River in Kenai, Alaska, July 29, 2017. (Joshua Corbett/The New York Times)

Three key rivers on the Kenai Peninsula were closed to sportfishing until mid-July.

This one hurts. During the summer, after I finish teaching school for the year, I work as a sportfish guide on the Kenai. Now I know the despair and anger that commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen — a broad slice of Alaskans from all across the state — have been feeling all year as we face less of our prized kings and the ripple effects from needed management steps that the Department of Fish and Game took to protect them.

But Fish and Game needs new tools in the toolbox as we enter a new era of threats to Alaska's wild salmon. And it's up to Alaskans everywhere to overcome entrenched corporate interests who are blocking progress on reforms to help the department. For months, corporate interests have been responding to the Stand for Salmon campaign by denying there's any problem with salmon.

Apparently, they're not fishermen.

Because every fishermen — every Alaskan — has seen and heard the violent winds of change all around.

There's an upheaval going on in salmon ecosystems across the North Pacific. In recent years, we've seen strange weather and stranger ocean phenomena, with tropical species showing up offshore and native birds and mammals suffering die-offs. Warmer water and shifting ocean conditions are affecting salmon, particularly kings.

In volatile times, the best defenses we can give our wild salmon are clean water and healthy habitat in their home rivers. Remember, salmon spend much of their life — including some of their most vulnerable moments — in our rivers and streams. If we don't take care of that habitat, our salmon don't stand a fighting chance.

We have an opportunity to protect Alaska rivers in the coming months with the Yes for Salmon ballot initiative.

Basically, the initiative updates the 60-year-old state law governing salmon habitat, which was never fully fleshed out after statehood. The initiative gives Fish and Game the authority to use modern, science-based safety standards for development around salmon streams, requiring things such as adequate water flows, fish passage, and good water quality that wild salmon need. It prevents major projects, such as the Pebble Mine, from doing substantial long-term damage to salmon streams. And it ensures that Alaskans, for the first time, have a voice in the permitting process for major development projects affecting salmon streams.

This initiative is doubly important because threats from large mining projects driven by foreign mining companies are mounting in Alaska. Among others, the Pebble Mine is being fast-tracked through federal permitting at record speed.

And we continue to face our share of ill-conceived dam projects — last summer it was the Snow River project on the Kenai River, which thousands of sport fishermen spoke out against and stopped.

We cannot afford to pull the rug out from under salmon on land while they face challenges in the ocean. We will be putting them in double jeopardy — a surefire route to losing runs for good.

With responsible development standards, we can ensure development moves ahead in a way that protects salmon rivers. But federal protections — such as the ones requiring mines to put up bonds to pay for damages to salmon streams and other habitat — are being rolled back left and right.

It's time for Alaska to step up.

Legislative leaders in this state have had two sessions to upgrade standards to protect salmon habitat, after the Board of Fish sent a letter urging them to do it in 2016 and tens of thousands of Alaskans voiced support for change. But mining industry lobbyists, among others, stalled the bills — balking at even changes to allow public input on salmon habitat permits.

Luckily, Alaska's founders anticipated a Legislature captured by special interests — and gave us the constitutional right to make law by ballot initiative.

This winter, almost 42,000 Alaskans signed on to put the Yes for Salmon initiative on the ballot in November.

Ahead of the vote, you will continue to hear denials about threats to our salmon. You might hear muffled acknowledgement that climate change is shifting our oceans. But you won't see any of the corporate opposition propose anything substantive to protect salmon — particularly the rivers they call home.

I refuse to put on blinders and hope it all goes away. I don't want face a future without salmon. I'm rallying my friends and neighbors now to protect the salmon we all love and depend on.

This is the best chance we've got, before it's too late.

This piece first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News, June 10 2018

Brad Kirr is a middle school teacher in Palmer and a sportfishing guide who works on the Kenai.


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