Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 1:11 PM on Wednesday, June 20, 2012

If we want healthy salmon, we need to protect habitat




You can feel it everywhere. Wild salmon are streaming through Cook Inlet, and coursing up our rivers. Whether you sportfish or setnet, drift or dipnet, the return of wild salmon is what makes us Alaskans.

So now is the perfect time to recognize how lucky we are to have some of the last wild salmon runs on the planet, and equally important to understand what we need to do to ensure salmon remain a vital part of the Alaska lifestyle and economy for years to come.

In 2001, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly did what governments are supposed to do: It enacted an ordinance that provides significant benefits to borough residents by extending the decade-old salmon protections from 25 streams and their lakes to all salmon streams in the borough. The original ordinance — 21.18 — requires a 50-foot area of limited development on salmon streams and lakes in the borough to protect the water quality and shoreline habitat we know are important fish habitat.

It's no surprise salmon need healthy habitat to survive. We need only look to the Lower 48 to understand how a blind eye toward habitat protection has resulted in the demise of once prolific salmon runs. Sometimes it's a big dam project or some other large-scale development, but usually it's the less noticeable but equally devastating "death by a thousand cuts" problem — the wetlands fill here, the shoreline destruction there — that eventually adds up to habitat loss and diminished runs. It's a well-documented story everywhere salmon once thrived.

David Montgomery of the University of Washington wrote an important book a couple years ago called the "The King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon." In it, Montgomery traces the demise of salmon runs from Europe to New England to the Pacific Northwest. The common culprits? Habitat loss and poor fisheries management.

Fortunately, Alaska has taken fisheries management seriously, and while debates still rage over allocation, we're not stringing nets across river mouths anymore. But when it comes to salmon habitat protection, the "death by a thousand cuts" dilemma continues to unfold before our eyes. Just look at aerial photos of Cook Inlet in 1950 and compare them to today if you need proof.

That's why I continue to be a strong proponent of salmon habitat protection, and I strongly supported extension of Ordinance 21.18. The ordinance is not perfect, and last month the assembly loosened restrictions for small parcel owners.

On the one hand, our laws and rules are often ill-suited to grasp the complexities of natural systems, and there's a strong argument by scientists that 50 feet of limited development are not enough to truly protect our salmon.

On the other hand, there is a "don't tread on me" libertarian perspective that believes protecting salmon habitat encroaches on private property rights.

Alaska has a long, proud history of independent-minded individuals making do in the often trying circumstances found across our great state. Without dissecting the many arguments put forth against salmon protection, it's important to recognize a couple legal realities.

First, while private property remains a cornerstone of our American legal system, no one has a right to conduct themselves in a way that harms others. For example, I can't dump oil on my property because it might flow onto my neighbor's land or into the nearby creek. This basic legal concept dates back to ancient Roman law, was embraced by the English common law and forms an important foundation of U.S. law today. It's just common sense.

Next, Article VIII of our Alaska Constitution reserves salmon for "common use." That means salmon belong to all Alaskans. So while a property owner has well-established rights to develop his or her land, no one has the right to destroy habitat that support salmon that belong to us and our kids.

I am a strong supporter of private property rights, but I also recognize the need to balance individual rights for the collective good, especially when it comes to our salmon.

We're truly blessed with an incredible resource, and we have an obligation to our communities to ensure salmon endure for years to come. Salmon not only feed us and drive millions of dollars into our economy through local jobs, but they define who we are as Alaskans.

A poll by The Nature Conservancy last year drives home the importance of salmon to Alaskans: 97 percent of Alaskans said salmon are an important part of our economy, 80 percent said protecting habitat around streams was as important as protecting the streams themselves and two-thirds of Alaskans eat salmon at least once a month. Regardless of politics, religion or household income, its clear Alaskans have a unique relationship with wild, healthy Alaska salmon.

Ordinance 21.18 may need some additional refinements to strike the proper balance between private rights and community safeguards, but we're on the right path, and it's vital we all come together around the science of fish protection to make sure we don't follow the same road as Washington, Oregon and other places that once boasted proud salmon runs.

Mako Haggery represents District 9, the southern peninsula, on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

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