The Fight to Protect Alaska’s Salmon | Kate Taylor

"It pains me to think that the Columbia River once had wild salmon runs more prolific than Bristol Bay."

The de Havilland Beaver plane chugs as its water rudders cut through the green river and turns away from the dock where I stand. I wave to our guests. Looking at me through small windows, they wave back with big smiles. The pilot is flying them to the Nushagak river to fish for Chinook salmon with my husband, Justin, as their guide. I’m taking a couple out on the Naknek river today to try for Chinook on our home water. We are all anxious for the full force of salmon to reach us like a wall of silver bodied goodness.

photo: Rich Crowder

This is my eleventh year guiding in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Justin has been returning here since he was seventeen, when he first came up to commercially fish for herring instead of walking the stage to receive his high school diploma in Edmonds, Washington. Like his father, uncles, and great uncles before him, Justin returns to the Bay year after year -- now to guide instead of commercially fish. Three years ago, after working for a high-end fishing lodge for many years, Justin and I decided to start our own guiding company. We feel incredibly fortunate to depend on Bristol Bay’s wild salmon for our livelihood and to be able to share this incredible place with our guests every year.

When we finish up our guiding season in Alaska, we head south to the Lower 48. We spend the rest of our year on the rivers of the Oregon coast, just south of the Columbia River. While there are healthy populations of wild salmon left in the Pacific Northwest, they pale in comparison to the abundance of Alaska. It pains me to think that the Columbia River once had wild salmon runs more prolific than Bristol Bay. The Chinook salmon return in such low numbers that they no longer support a commercial fishery in Oregon. We’ve seen wild rivers dammed, forests cut down, water polluted.

I’m reminded of this contrast when I’m back in Alaska, when our guests can’t believe that their home rivers from Washington to California were once stacked with wild salmon like the rivers of Alaska. After moments like these I often ask myself, why did we decide it was acceptable to sacrifice our wild salmon rivers for the sake of development? And more importantly, how do we make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated in Alaska?

Thankfully Alaskans have banded together to form Stand for Salmon, a movement and organization working to ensure wild salmon runs are protected for generations to come. Close to 42,000 voters signed on to bring an update to the state’s fish habitat protection law before Alaskan voters this fall. The update would ensure development projects don’t degrade salmon habitat as the state continues to grow. It requires science-based standards to ensure extractive industries maintain clean water standards, healthy habitat, and fish passage. The initiative also mandates that the public be notified and given the opportunity to comment when development projects are proposed that could cause significant damage to salmon habitat.

The opposition says that improving the law to better protect wild salmon runs is unnecessary and will shut down new development in Alaska. I say being forced to choose between healthy salmon runs or development at any cost is a false choice. There is a way to create a salmon-rich future in Alaska and grow responsibly. This ballot initiative aims to do just that.

But international oil and mining companies have pumped over $5 million dollars into defeating the Stand for Salmon campaign and silencing Alaskans. The backers of the Pebble Mine—Pebble Limited Partnership—recently donated over 1 million dollards to the fight the initiative.
But while the opposition has deep pockets, there are thousands of Alaskans fighting to protect wild salmon and their way of life. Regardless of where you come from, it is our collective responsibility to steward the natural wealth of our country, and, when it’s threatened by greed, to band together to protect it.

I hope you’ll join me and Stand for Salmon today. You can make a difference by signing up to receive email updates about the campaign, donating to support the grassroots efforts to rally voters, and share the Stand for Salmon campaign with friends and family.

Top header photo: Rich Crowder

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