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Mat-Su gets $2.5 million for salmon, grapples with priorities

Zaz Hollander

The Mat-Su Borough Assembly just accepted $2.5 million from the Legislature, a major infusion of money intended to boost Cook Inlet salmon numbers.

The breakdown, at least for now, is $1.6 million for research and $900,000 for culvert fixes.

Seems like a win for a place where recreational fishing on world-class rivers in the Susitna system dropped by half over the last six years due to salmon declines and the closures that came with them.

Borough officials say more data on Mat-Su salmon could prompt changes to Cook Inlet net fisheries thought to intercept Mat-Su fish on their way north.

But a sudden skirmish over how to spend the money has briefly sent borough officials back to the drawing board.

Assembly member Ron Arvin immediately balked at the spending priorities during a meeting Tuesday night.

Arvin said he wants money to boost salmon numbers through hatchery stocking programs -- or at least a lot more to help fish move between spawning grounds and the sea, and a lot less for science.

"The public wants fish in the creek. There was substantive discussion that there was going to be some fry, some incubation, some stocking of the creeks, in particular ones that aren't infested with pike," he said. "There's scientists involved in this, but I'm not sure the community is all that lathered up about spending $1.6 million of a $2.5 million grant and the result is possibly fish in the creek when, 10 years from now?"

The Assembly approved the receipt of the money Tuesday night. But members voted down an accompanying resolution that would have approved the scope of work.

Borough planning staff said Wednesday they expect to talk with individual Assembly members this week to get a better idea how to proceed and come back with a plan at a later meeting.

Several Assembly members, however, spoke in favor of the funding priorities as written.

The research involves actively tracking fish rather than creating a "report that gets written and put away," Assembly member Steve Colligan said.

The borough wants to get a picture of where Cook Inlet fish end up, in conjunction with federal examinations of high seas drift-net fisheries, Colligan said.

"Fishermen love it if we dump more fish in the river but that really doesn't solve the other problems that we acknowledge we're missing." he said.

Assembly member Jim Colver, vice-chair of the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission, missed Tuesday night's meeting for travel.

"Our once robust wild salmon runs in the Susitna River system have been decimated by intercept fisheries in Cook Inlet," Colver said in an email Wednesday. "Until salmon management is in place to allow fish to pass through Cook Inlet, investing in stocking these creeks will be wasted. They will never make it back."

It was legislators who helped come up with the salmon funding targets, according to Bruce Knowles, chairman of the borough's fish commission. The seven-member borough body met with members of the Mat-Su delegation last winter in a three-hour meeting.

"When they got to Juneau, they asked us what we needed," Knowles said.

Lead sponsors of the funding were Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, and Reps. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, he said.

The commission held a series of meetings this year to fine-tune plans on how to spend the salmon money.

The $900,000 is to replace bad culverts that block salmon passage up creeks and streams, Knowles said.

The culvert issue is just one of many problems facing salmon and one that also gets federal funding, borough officials acknowledge. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spent $7 million replacing 83 problem culverts, according to borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan.

Rather than fish passage, the fish commission's biggest priority is getting solid data on coho and other stocks. Seven of the 11 salmon classified as "stocks of concern" by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game return to Mat-Su rivers, many of them prized chinook salmon.

The $1.6 million is for a program starting next summer to take genetic samples, especially of coho salmon.

Several borough officials said Wednesday that new data could indicate a need to adjust commercial net fisheries targeting Kenai stocks to the eastern part of the Inlet, away from Mat-Su fish.

Right now, the borough has no information on how many coho make it to spawning beds in the Susitna River drainage, according to environmental planner Frankie Barker. There's also scant data on Mat-Su stocks that are caught randomly by commercial fishermen.

Tests last summer showed fish tagged in Lower Cook Inlet tend to mill around for a while before heading north -- except one fish that took off for Kodiak, Barker said.

A state conservation corridor that held commercial fishing to the eastern part of the Inlet went into effect last summer, she said. "We had a pretty good silver season this year."

Knowles said he's a fan of stocking but not before the borough can establish goals for how many salmon should be coming back to spawn because stocking can increase commercial harvest.

"Let's hold off on stocking until we can get escapement goals and protect them when they come back," he said.

The Mat-Su was the only borough in the state to get direct fisheries funding from the last capital budget.



Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.