The Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership, representing 55 organizations that share an interest in sustaining salmon in the Mat-Su, hosted a conference in November. During the two days of the 2014 Mat-Su Salmon Science & Conservation Symposium, speaker after speaker gave detailed descriptions of recent and ongoing projects that are providing baseline data and documenting the scope of impaired salmon habitat in the Mat-Su basin.
There were several presentations on aquatic invasive species. Elodea, a highly invasive plant species, was recently discovered in Alexander Lake, transported there by floatplane. This infestation, if not eliminated, could rapidly spread throughout Alexander Lake and its creek system and beyond, providing excellent habitat for another invasive species, northern pike. In the 1990s, Alexander Creek supported a multimillion-dollar king salmon sport fishery that included numerous lodges, cabin and boat rentals and fishing guide operations. In 2008, ADF&G closed king fishing in Alexander Creek and later documented its decline and closure as entirely due to pike predation on juvenile salmonids.
In recent years, ADF&G has eliminated thousands of pike from the Alexander system but it will take years of continued mitigation before the salmon runs can recover. The spread of invasive elodea throughout the lake, creek and side sloughs will hinder ongoing efforts to rehabilitate this system.
Shell Lake is another fascinating story. In 2006, Shell Lake had nearly 70,000 sockeye salmon return to spawn, but by 2012, the salmon run had nearly collapsed due to pike predation and disease. The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association took eggs from the remaining salmon, then incubated and reared them at their Trail Lakes Hatchery. About 80,000 smolts from this hatch were released back into Shell Lake in 2014. Only about 20,000 of these smolts made it out of the lake and downstream towards the ocean. The other 60,000 smolts were consumed by the northern pike in the lake within a few weeks.
ADF&G has been documenting the pike infestation in the Mat-Su basin since the mid-1990s. Numerous studies and reports have identified the devastating consequences to the salmon populations; it is estimated that at least 50 percent of the salmon production in this watershed has been eliminated by northern pike. All species are affected and species that spend the most time in freshwater -- sockeyes, kings and cohos -- are the most vulnerable to pike predation.
At the symposium, we heard references to the work being done to replace culverts that block salmon passage. At this time, there are still over 400 culverts that impede the migration of salmon and need to be replaced in the Mat-Su basin. While there were no actual reports on the progress made, we know that it will take years of effort and millions of dollars to restore passage to the more than 600 miles of documented spawning and rearing habitat that have been made inaccessible to salmon due to improperly constructed culverts.
Pollution, high water temperature and turbidity can all affect water quality and ultimately affect the successful spawning and rearing of salmon. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation gave a brief presentation about impaired waters. Big Lake, Cottonwood Creek, the Deshka River, the Little Su, Lake Lucille, the Matanuska River and others are all impaired at some level from hydrocarbons (gas and oil), sewage, urban runoff, herbicides, fertilizers and dump debris.
Off-road vehicle and ATV traffic damage to salmon streams was presented as a long-term challenge. Baseline mapping of ATV stream crossings has begun. Most of the crossings evaluated were ranked as "extremely degraded." We learned that ORV/ATV traffic in the watershed is unregulated and increasing.
One of the keynote speakers at the symposium gave a powerful presentation on the efforts to conserve and restore Atlantic salmon on the East Coast and how partnering and collaboration among all stakeholder groups is essential for any conservation effort. This message resonated loudly and was endorsed by most of those attending. The Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership mission statement also echoes this message of collaboration.
Yet, in spite of all the scientific evidence of impaired salmon habitat, in spite of all the ADF&G reports that identify declining salmon production in the Mat-Su basin as a freshwater problem, there are still a few people with such a myopic point of view that they are unwilling to accept these scientific realities.
In a desperate and divisive attempt to blame someone else for their own problems, the Mat-Su Borough is proposing to waste the bulk of its recent state grant by hiring Outside consultants to invent new research projects about salmon movements in saltwater. Rather than killing pike, eliminating elodea, replacing more culverts or reducing pollution sources, they want to fund projects that fit their agenda to perpetuate the salmon allocation wars.
Wouldn't it make more sense to spend increasingly scarce state funds on local projects with already identified solutions that will benefit our salmon resources, rather than waste money on high-priced fishery consultants from Oregon?
Erik Huebsch is a lifelong Alaska commercial fisherman who lives in Kasilof. His family homesteaded in 1950 north of Palmer at Bonnie Lake, named for his grandmother.