The recent debate over a Kenai Peninsula Borough ordinance designed to protect salmon habitat might give one of two impressions:
1. If you believe in the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution, you don’t favor protecting salmon.
2. If you favor protecting salmon, you don’t believe in the rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Of course, neither of those statements is true. If generalities can characterize any population, it certainly can be said of Kenai Peninsula residents that not only do they embrace the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but they also recognize the value of their wild salmon runs and will go the extra mile to protect them. There is disagreement on exactly what that looks like, but it’s hard to imagine a single borough resident not defending and supporting personal liberties upheld by the U.S. Constitution and more than lip-service protection of the borough’s unique wild salmon runs.
So where does that leave the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly when it comes to salmon habitat protection?
Hours of public testimony and pages of public comment lead us to this conclusion: The assembly should repeal Ordinance 2011-12, which was poorly conceived and executed. It should adopt a new ordinance (2013-18) shaped by science and public comment to protect salmon habitat within the borough.
The importance of protecting salmon habitat cannot be overstated. There are plenty of examples from other places on how not to do it. The lesson that should be learned from those places that once had wild salmon runs and no longer do is this: It’s not just the big things — dams, for example — that are detrimental to salmon, but the accumulation of lots of little things — a dock here, a little shed there — over time that cause damage.
If we value our wild fish runs and the unique lifestyle those fish runs offer all of us who live on the Kenai Peninsula, then we can’t be too careful. Because no one can say with certainty why our fish runs are in trouble, we need to consider all the possibilities: over-fishing, changes in the ocean and the bit-by-bit actions that imperceptibly lead to the destruction of habitat over time. While it may take a change in all of our behavior — and our way of thinking — preventing habitat damage is easier and cheaper in the long run than rebuilding habitat that’s been destroyed.
Protecting salmon, and our other natural resources, isn’t just a job for government. If we want to have fish for the future, we all need to play a role in protecting those fish and their habitat. Government and citizens need to work together for the best results. Education that starts early on the consequences of our actions on fish make regulations more palatable.
It’s not a matter of personal property rights vs. the fish. As residents of “the owner state,” all
Alaskans have a stake in our wild fish runs and the responsibility to protect them for the future.