Alaska's sustainable salmon fisheries policy is one of the best things the state has going for it. Truly first class, it takes a broadly accepted piece of scientific wisdom — you shouldn't take more fish than nature can replace in a given year — and enshrines it in regulation. Alaska's courts have embraced the policy and ruled that the state's Board of Fisheries must consider that wisdom in any decision.
There's little wiggle room when it comes to conserving fish stocks. While I was on the Board of Fish from 2010 to 2016, people on the Kuskokwim River, for example, sacrificed a lot — including giving up one of their main food sources — to make sure their salmon stocks could rebound.
Unfortunately, the same wisdom and sense of shared sacrifice is not built into the state law that protects salmon habitat. Habitat protection sorely lacks strong science-based standards that can keep up with the pace of development in this state, especially given the pressure from well-funded foreign mining companies.
You may recall when the state's commissioner of natural resources proposed allowing PacRim Coal to wipe out wild salmon rivers in the Chuitna watershed and replacing those lost fish with a hatchery when the mining ended. That's perfectly legal under state law. State law also allows companies to snuff out salmon streams in one part of the state, as long as they protect streams in another part of the state. It's salmon river triage, and the public — by law — has no say in how these arcane measures are carried out.
I could see that Alaska was clearly not considering the costs of development on fisheries and communities when the Pebble mine proposal first hit more than a decade ago. I learned early on that the Board of Fish was not invited to weigh in on potential development-related habitat issues. Protecting salmon streams from pending development was not seen as the board's purview — that was up to the administration and Legislature.
Well, over the last decade the Legislature did basically nothing, save trying to weaken laws around salmon habitat.
Fishermen and citizens said enough is enough in 2016. They successfully petitioned the Board of Fish to ask the Legislature to act, by strengthening outdated and ineffective habitat protections and adding public noticing and public comment opportunities to the fish habitat permitting process.
The Legislature, led by coastal leaders, have proposed stronger protections. But we still have a long way to go before meaningful protections and public involvement are written into law — and we're heading into the final weeks of the legislative session.
People across the state are tired of waiting and are turning to a ballot initiative: the Stand for Salmon initiative.
They see large developments like Pebble mine again bearing down on us, while king runs are declining in Cook Inlet, Southeast and the Kuskokwim. They want assurances that wild salmon and the rivers they call home won't be lost. They want to make sure one of Alaska's greatest legacies will be passed on to their children.
We can't depend on foreign mining companies to police themselves — not with their track record around the world of leaving toxic messes for taxpayers and local communities to clean up.
This is Alaska's chance to get habitat protection right, before it's too late.
Political leaders have one more shot in Juneau, with the clock running out. If they can't put strong protections in place, then I say it's high time that the people have a chance to take action themselves — at the ballot box.
We've all waited long enough.
Tom Kluberton of Talkeetna sat on the Alaska Board of Fisheries from 2010 to 2016, serving as chairman his last year.