This should come as no surprise: Southeast Alaska is a haven for wild salmon. But while wild salmon habitat remains in abundance from Prince of Wales to Yakutat, it’s nearly gone most other places in the world.
Take our nearest US neighbors to the south: Washington, Oregon, and California. Although estimates vary, historic salmon runs used to blow Southeast Alaska out of the water. The Columbia River Basin alone is thought to have produced between 10-16 million salmon per year less than 80 years ago, including coho, sockeye, pink, chum, and spring, summer, and fall Chinook runs.
But the Columbia is not what it was. Enormous hydroelectric dams; pesticide runoff and urban pollutants; re-routing of natural waterways through irrigation; road construction, culverts and erosion from clear cut logging; and mining runoff have all contributed to the loss of the Columbia’s wild salmon.
Realizing their loss, for the last forty years, Washington and Oregon have established programs to recover the salmon that once buoyed local economies. The true gift that keeps on giving, salmon’s annual return provides not only income, but also healthy food. But recovery hasn’t been easy. For example:
• Salmon recovery isn’t cheap. Between 1978 and 2008, Washington and Oregon spent $12 billion to bring back salmon.
• Salmon are so important to the lives and livelihoods of Washington and Oregon residents that both states have penciled into their budgets billions more. Washington alone plans to spend another $5.5 billion on Columbia salmon recovery between 2010 and 2019.
• To date, estimates suggest that restoration and recovery efforts have managed to return salmon runs to less than a third of their historic averages.
What can we learn from this as Alaskans?
• Salmon are an undeniable component of the West Coast economy. So much so that Washington and Oregon alone are willing to invest more than 20 billion taxpayer dollars in recovery measures.
• In Southeast Alaska, we still have major river systems, like the Unuk, Stikine, and Taku that produce millions of wild salmon year after year.
• If salmon are a priority in Southeast Alaska as they apparently are in Washington and Oregon, it seems more economical, and certainly makes more sense, to simply maintain healthy salmon habitat (at low expense to the state budget) than it does to degrade and try to recover it later (at great expense to the state budget).
We in Southeast Alaska have an incredible advantage. Others have come before us and made salmon mistakes. They’ve degraded clean water, they’ve compromised habitat, and they’ve paid the price (and continue to do so to this day). We don’t have to repeat their mistakes. We can learn from them.
Clean water is Southeast Alaska’s history. We can make sure it’s our future as well.