Special to The Times
It’s winter king salmon season now in Sitka, trollers prowling the fishing boundary as chinook fatten up on needlefish, herring and krill, in preparation for their spring journeys home to their native streams. I generally go out with Eric Jordan, a second-generation fishermen, or his son Karl. If we’re not fishing, we’re hunting the forests fed by the zombie corpses of these spawned out salmon, which enrich the soil of the Tongass, the world’s largest intact temperate rain forest.
This past November, Alaska voted on Measure 1, an initiative brought to the ballot by nearly 50,000 signatures, my own included, to protect the state’s salmon habitat. If Measure 1 had passed — it didn’t — Alaska would have become the first territory in the world to treat each of its ocean-run streams as salmon waterways, ensuring healthy fish for generations to come.
This move to protect king salmon would have been timely for Puget Sound, where orca pods have experienced a precipitous decline. Just 75 of the black-and-white predators continue to cruise the waters outside Seattle, a 30-year low. Orcas depend on king salmon as their main food source, while Seattleites depend on the orcas for names of sports teams, transit passes and a sense of identity.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee had it right when he said “the impacts of letting these two species disappear would be felt for generations.” Other countries and states can attest to this. The Seine, the Rhine, the Thames — all once hosted thriving salmon runs. Indigenous tribes along the banks of New England’s Connecticut River subsisted on salmon. Over the past 200 years, the specter of industrialism has moved from east to west as dams, mines and large-scale agriculture rip apart the chemistry of the water, destroying fish habitat and spawning grounds.
On the West Coast, where Lewis and Clark once marveled at the density of salmon runs, most stocks are proposed for, or listed under, the federal Endangered Species Act. Japan, China and southern Russia — the Amur Basin and parts of Sakhalin Island in Siberia — same story. The fish, known to be able to detect a single drop from their home stream mixed into 250 gallons of water, does not tolerate habitat degradation.
In 1959, when Alaska became a state, the framers of the state’s Constitution had the foresight to write sustainable management of salmon into their document. Article VIII requires Alaska to sustainably manage all renewable resources, including fish and game. (Today, commercial fishing creates 32,000 jobs, and $2 billion for the state annually.)
Had Measure 1 passed, it would have added a significant chapter to Alaska’s proud history of fish conservation, augmenting the protection of fish stocks with protection of spawning grounds. All streams touching saltwater would have been considered salmon streams, unless a review could prove otherwise. Before a resource extraction project could proceed, the onus of proof would have been on developers to prove that fish habitat would not be affected.
Of course oil and gas companies, along with an assortment of international mining groups, cried foul, and put together a $12 million campaign to stop Measure 1. It is environmentalists from the Lower 48 trying to stop real Alaskans from picking berries, collecting yearly dividend checks, doing most anything aside from blowing their nose, the campaign insisted. Amygdalae across the state lit up, and the measure failed 171,711 to 103,836.
The truth is, extraction companies across Alaska view the Trump administration as the stick that cracked open the piñata of the 49th state. Pebble Mine — a notorious operation proposing to blast a hole the size of downtown Seattle in the middle of the world’s most productive sockeye salmon nursery — continues to move forward. The ban on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been lifted, and logging companies dust off their saws as old-growth trees, once protected, come back online.
Those men and women who spent all those hours gathering those signatures to get Measure 1 on the ballot understand that it is Alaskans — those who brave the long winters and short nights — who make up the last line of defense for this land, for these quicksilver muscles prowling our oceans that allow us to subsist. Fish that nourish orca pods as they speed along the Inside Passage, calves breaching in view of the Space Needle.
Alaska is the country’s last redoubt for wild salmon. Measure 1 would have been a step in the right direction.
Maybe the next go-round, we’ll get it right.