By Carl Safina
A few years ago I visited Southeast Alaska and saw more salmon than I thought I’d ever see in my entire life. The question: will they be there for our next generation?
Southeast Alaska is one of the last places in the United States where wild salmon still thrive. A place where a healthy, fully functioning ecosystem churns out tens of millions of these fish every year, employing more than 7,300 people in fishing, processing and guiding jobs. A place where salmon underpin the culture and lifestyles of people with ancestral ties to the region dating back 10,000 years or more. It’s a cold and mossy rainforest of giant cedar, spruce and hemlock trees with nearly 18,000 miles of salmon-filled rivers.
Most of this place is designated the Tongass National Forest. This 17-million-acre forest covers most of Southeast Alaska and functions as a huge nursery for five species of wild Pacific salmon. At its most basic level, the Tongass is a salmon forest.
I and more than 230 other scientists will be calling on Congress to protect Tongass salmon. The vehicle is a proposal to Congress to help protect the 77 most high-value watersheds for salmon that remain open to development. These 77 watersheds comprise nearly 2 million rainforest acres. The new effort is called the Tongass 77.
Scientists, agency officials, fishermen and conservationists have determined that these are ”the best of the best” when it comes to producing salmon. These are high-yield waterways that year after year return high numbers of spawning salmon. They’re worth protecting.
By that I mean managing them for salmon production as priority number one. This doesn’t mean they’re locked up and nothing else can occur from a jobs perspective. Under this proposal, income-generating activities ranging from mining to hydropower can happen if they’re consistent with the top management goal of conserving the natural habitat for wild salmon.
If Tongass salmon are so healthy and rich in number, why do they need protection measures like Tongass 77? The history of salmon in the rest of the Pacific Coast, and in so many other parts of the world, tells the story. In states south of Canada, like California, Oregon and Washington, Pacific salmon no longer spawn in nearly half of their original spawning areas. A toxic mix of habitat loss from urban sprawl, agricultural run-off, dams, logging, privatization, and other stamps of human behavior have decimated salmon runs across the Pacific Northwest.
Alaska, and specifically the Tongass which produces one-third of the state’s total salmon harvest, is the country’s last bastion of healthy salmon country. And even in the Last Frontier, a slew of threats loom over Tongass salmon, including land privatization proposals, logging, mineral development and climate change. The Tongass 77, if enacted by Congress, would help permanently protect at the watershed scale — meaning from ridge top to shoreline — a large block of what’s left of the country’s wild salmon habitat. It would help ensure the long-term viability of these fish.
The Tongass 77 is a pro-active conservation strategy that makes sense for Southeast Alaska. Google the words Tongass and American Salmon Forest to find out how to get involved. Or go to americansalmonforest.org and sign on.
(Safina’s post originally appeared on National Geographic’s Newswatch
More than 230 scientists have delivered a message to Congress: it’s time to step up to the plate and do more to protect America’s salmon forest. Among them is Trout Unlimited’s senior scientist, Jack Williams. In this blog post, Williams explains what’s at stake in Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and why Congress should enact Tongass 77 legislation.
Tongass 77: Saving the Salmon Forest
Where the lone bridge crosses the creek, it looks like any number of small Alaska salmon streams. Our son, Austin, first took me there when he was working on the Tongass National Forest and I was lucky enough to make it back there each of the next several summers. In August the stream is stuffed full of pinks with a respectable sprinkling of massive, and strikingly marked chums. One year we were treated to silvers as well. I don’t think the stream is supposed to have silvers but I guess they didn’t read the regs. Black bears watch from what is usually a respectable distance. Bald eagles circle above. In my mind, this is classic Southeast Alaska.
Streams draining the Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska produce huge runs of salmon and big trout populations. The numbers of fish that originate from the Tongass are staggering: roughly 24% of Alaska’s overall salmon catch, 30% of all salmon caught along the West Coast of the United States, and close to 13% of the salmon harvested along the Pacific Rim. Southeast Alaska salmon are a $1 billion industry and responsible for over 10% of the region’s jobs. At nearly 17 million acres, the Tongass National Forest is huge, covering an area nearly 8 times that of Yellowstone National Park.
The Salmon Forest
The flow of water and fish between land and sea is so rapid in this region that the ecological distinctions between terrestrial and aquatic systems blur. Rainfall is truly impressive; topping 150 inches a year in many places. The outflowing water attracts millions of spawning salmon. Salmon runs can fill small streams overnight only to fill them again and again with each new freshet. As the salmon spawn and die their eggs and carcasses bring massive plugs of nutrients from the oceans into the forests. These nutrients work their way into algae, riparian grasses, and alders until the salmon and the forest seemingly are intertwined together as one for all eternity.
Despite its value as a natural salmon producer, there are plenty of threats poised to undo the recreational, commercial, and ecological benefits of the Tongass. There are several proposals that could privatize large portions of the Tongass, making them susceptible to intense resource development without the protections for salmon habitat afforded by federal regulations such as larger stream buffers. Additionally, several mine proposals and dozens of hydroelectric dam projects could degrade water quality and block spawning runs.
The Tongass 77
The science of salmon conservation has become increasingly clear. The best way to ensure the long term productivity of these big runs is to protect the best remaining watersheds where they occur. Right now, only about 35% of salmon and trout-producing watersheds on the Tongass are protected. Researchers from the Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and Trout Unlimited have identified the best of the remaining unprotected watersheds. We call them The Tongass 77. These 77 high value watersheds comprise 1.9 million acres of truly irreplaceable fisheries habitat, where the highest and best use of the land is to protect watershed values for the production of salmon.
Back down in the lower 48, I work mostly on trying to restore trout and salmon habitat. It’s a long and expensive grind. We have some good successes now and again, but often we suffer from what scientists refer to as an “eroding benchmark.” That is, those working on restoration of a stream usually have forgotten, or maybe never personally knew, what that stream looked like before it was degraded; nor do they know what it was capable of producing in its natural condition. By the time we get around to trying to fix the broken aquatic system, it has been degrading for so long that it’s a mere fragment of its former self … and no one is around who remembers what that former self was like.
In Southeast Alaska, we still have streams and salmon populations at or very near their historic peaks. We don’t have to search out an elder to remember their heyday. We still have streams where it appears possible to walk on the backs of the salmon. No eroding baselines here. And in most places, no big restoration budget is needed either, just the foresight to manage the best remaining watersheds for the salmon. The Tongass 77. I can’t wait to get back.
Jack Williams, Ph.D.
by Brendan Jones for The Huffington Post
The first time I hunted deer alone in Southeast Alaska, my friend drew me a map leading to a stand of old-growth trees in a river valley. I set off at a trot on a sunny November morning, following a trail along Indian River, which ran heavy with fall rains. I cut through a copse of alders, squished through a muskeg, and ducked into a scrub of salmonberry and devil’s club, the rifle barrel snagging on the thorned branches. I emerged on the other side into a fairy tale world of 600-1000 year-old western hemlocks and Sitka spruce – a cathedral of trees rising from a thick, moss-covered forest floor.
I remember slowing my pace, running a palm over the bark, the spruce-like potato chips, and the hemlocks like strips of bacon. Hunkering down beside a spread of winter chanterelle mushrooms, which I nibbled before falling asleep, like Dorothy in her field of poppies. Read more.