Compass: Alaska Department of Fish and Game fails to protect Chilkat salmon habitat

This summer Haines celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve. Our mayor helped plan a float through the heart of the preserve that ended with a ceremony and celebration in Klukwan, the original protectors of the eagle gathering area known as the Council Grounds. While the governor and other dignitaries were no-shows, it was locals who wanted to see an area that is predominately experienced by thousands of cruise ship passengers each summer. The preserve is the centerpiece for Haines' tourist-based economy.

The 1982 creation of the preserve, and its fraternal twin the Haines State Forest, was heralded as a grand example of a community-based compromise that protected the great concentration of eagles, while allowing logging and commercial development in the state forest. As with any compromise, there were threats, hard feelings, and overlooked details, such as the unexpected annual arrival of nearly a million tourists to the region looking for something to see.

The intent of the preserve is clearly focused on protecting eagles, their habitats, and the salmon that draw them to this amazing confluence of rivers and mountains. By statute, these habitats are to be "protected and sustained" in perpetuity. The preserve statute was amended in 1986 to allow limited commercial activities.

The Department of Natural Resources began updating the preserve management plan in 2000. At this time Alaska Department of Fish and Game field biologists noticed the 30-passenger tour boats propelled by twin 150-horsepower outboards were creating large wakes. In spring, salmon fry emerge from redds (spawning beds), and smolt migrate toward saltwater. Emergence and migration peak in May, a time of relatively low water levels and turbidity. At this time silt and organic layers below the normal growing season vegetation line in stream banks are exposed and most vulnerable to erosion. Juvenile fish are most sensitive to this increased turbidity. Spawning sockeyes and stream banks are also vulnerable during the month of September.

ADF&G worked with DNR to incorporate these findings into the updated management plan. The goal was to allow large-scale commercial tourism, while still meeting the intent of the enabling statute. The significant recommendations by ADF&G were restricting jet boat tours in an area known for sockeye, king and coho salmon spawning during the months of May and September, and operating with no wakes and adequate water levels in backwater channels to protect high value rearing habitat.

Starting in 2005, when then-Gov. Frank Murkowski transferred the Habitat Division to DNR, these requirements were deemed too restrictive. Subsequently, the late Jay Hammond, former ADF&G commissioners, conservation and commercial fishing groups, and others have petitioned ADF&G to reconsider their recommendations. All such advocacy with ADF&G has failed. Unfortunately this is not an isolated example of an agency that increasingly ignores the best science and expertise of its local biologists.

DNR and ADF&G are the agencies charged with managing the remarkable resources inside the preserve. The lack of agency monitoring or enforcement led local conservationists to document that the no-wake provision, instituted to protect a high-value salmon rearing habitat, was repeatedly violated, as reported in a September 24 ADN article. This spring ADF&G denied a citizen group a permit to revegetate this same area due to lack of documentation of erosion, while also refusing to participate in any monitoring effort in the preserve. The documentation exists but ADF&G, for no stated reason, refuses consider that mistakes may have been made in the preserve.

Alaskans from all walks of life and from all political persuasions value wild salmon. We are commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen. We rely on state agencies, particularly ADF&G, to protect the sustainability of this remarkable Alaska resource, a wild resource that has disappeared from most of their natural range. Intensive human uses and failures of management have caused salmon to disappear and decline. If ADF&G is unwilling to protect salmon habitat inside a preserve where protection is "guaranteed" by state statute, salmon habitat in the entire state is at risk.

Ben Kirkpatrick is a retired ADF&G habitat biologist, represented ADF&G during the 2002 Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Management Plan update, and now holds the governor-appointed conservation seat on the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Advisory Council.