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When Alaskans pull together to sustain salmon, we all benefit

  • Author: Mike Wood
    | Opinion
  • Updated: August 9, 2016
  • Published August 8, 2016

A Parks Highway bridge spans the Susitna River. (Bob Hallinen/ADN archive 2012)

Thanks to the recent actions of Gov. Bill Walker, Alaskans around the state can celebrate a brighter future for the free-flowing Susitna River and the rich salmon runs it supports on the first annual Alaska Wild Salmon Day coming up Wednesday, Aug. 10.

Each summer I have the privilege of running a setnet operation near the mouth of the Susitna River, catching salmon that rely on this iconic waterway and selling them directly to Alaskans to nourish their families through Su Salmon Co.

For the tens of thousands of us who live near and make a living off the Susitna River, the governor's decision to close down the expensive and ill-conceived Susitna dam project does much more than stop wasting precious state funds. It removes a cloud that has shadowed our lives and businesses for decades.

We all know, however, that this project has come up three times since the 1950s. We need to work to ensure that it is not simply paused until better economic times but, rather, put to bed for good.

Unlike so many of the other resources in our state that are finite, Alaska's wild salmon runs are sustainable and will last forever, as long as we work together to take care of them. I like to think of these fish as our state's swimming permanent fund, as Alaskans can depend on salmon every year to put food on the tables of families, create tens of thousands of jobs for our state and infuse billions of dollars into our economy.

The Susitna River and its salmon support commercial fishermen, subsistence users and hundreds of small businesses like lodges, fishing outfitters, guides, hotels, restaurants, tours and many more. To dam the river would have been a shortsighted decision threatening sustainable businesses and thousands of jobs.

Other states across the nation that once had great salmon runs similar to those we enjoy today now look back at them with nostalgia and regret.

We can avoid this fate if commercial fisherman like me work together with subsistence, sport and personal-use fishermen to protect salmon runs and encourage our leaders to never permit projects that destroy salmon habitat or block fish passage like the Susitna dam.

In an age of fierce allocation battles, this can be difficult. However with so much at stake we simply cannot afford to allow our differences to distract us from protecting the waterways that salmon rely on. If we fail to work together and repeat the mistakes that decimated wild salmon runs in every other state, we all lose.

That's why I'm so proud that tens of thousands of Alaskans, including salmon users of all types, banded together to ask leaders to shut down the Susitna dam project with one unified voice. It took years of hard work, time and sacrifice, but in July Alaskans around the state celebrated Walker's decision to close down the project.

The governor and his administration deserve immense credit for their foresight in making an economically sound decision that protects salmon, the Susitna River and the thousands of fishing and tourism jobs they support.

Now is the time to put together a long-term energy plan that makes sense for our economy and for our salmon. Such a plan can and should include low-impact hydropower projects where they make sense but should never endanger the salmon runs that support so many jobs and an Alaska way of life.

On Wednesday, let's all take a moment to celebrate the inaugural Alaska Wild Salmon Day and a free-flowing Susitna River. Let's also use this holiday as an opportunity to put aside differences and find ways to work together as people who share a love for salmon to protect our one-of-a-kind resource.

By doing so, I'm optimistic that 100 years down the road someone will be standing at the setnet site I fish, watching Susitna River salmon hit the net on a sunny summer day on Cook Inlet.

Mike Wood is an owner of Su Salmon Co. and board president of the Susitna River Coalition.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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