Alaska’s wild salmon are so much a part of the landscape, that it is unthinkable that they would not return with the summer season. But that is exactly what is happening, at least in part, in the Matanuska and Susitna River drainages. Of the salmon stocks of concern identified by the state’s board of fisheries, half are from the Mat Su, according to Larry Engle.
“And when you consider stock of concerns throughout the state of Alaska, you’ve only got a dozen of them. We’ve got six of them right here,” Engle says.
Engle sits on the MatSu Borough Salmon commission now, but he has a long history with the state’s fish and game department and ten years on the board of fish. He says not enough is known about why some chinook runs are not returning in many areas of the state
“As opposed to some kind of bad harvest practices in a given locality, or some kind of a fresh water issue that’s going on, but my guess would be it’s occurring out in the ocean, it could be ocean – related in environment, but that would be my priority area to look first, to see if that’s the causative effect, ” he says.
But a lot can be done on the local level to help salmon. The Borough’s salmon commission is one of the partners in the Mat Su Salmon Symposium, a group working on updating its plan to ensure healthy salmon habitat in the Mat Su Borough. Experts from a wide variety of organizations met in Wasilla for two days of information sharing and brainstorming on the subject. The conclusion:
“The biggie is obviously housing and urban development to our fresh water habitats. “
That’s Corrine Smith, Mat Su program director for the Nature Conservancy, and one of the symposium presenters.
“So there’s alteration of shorelines, there’s filling of wetlands, storm water runoff from impervious surfaces as we have more and more concrete and asphalt and we’re changing where water goes, ” she says.
She outlined the four goals of the salmon plan: to increase and protect runs, to mitigate threats and restore habitat. A 2008 plan has guided the group’s projects so far. Now, with new information on everything from invasive plants to changes in ocean temperature, the partnership will work on an update. The Mat Su area is the fastest growing in the state, but development plans don’t always coincide with healthy fish habitat, Smith says. She says it’ll take education to make the public aware of the importance of habitat protection.
“Cause everybody wants to live on a stream or a lake, and that can be done in a way that is not a negative impact to salmon, ” she says.
Larry Engle says people lose the benefits of food and recreation that salmon bring, as restrictions on sportfishing in the Mat Su due to poor chinook runs the past 4 summers caused lost fishing opportunity. He says the recent floods in the Matanuska and Susitna river drainages are certain to impact an already dire situation
“It looks bad. We’ve had several of our king salmon runs for the last five or six years have gone downhill. And we’re starting to get now returns from poor escapements in the past, so it’s even more complicated by a flood of a hundred year proportion that’s just going to worsen the already bad situation our fish are in, ” Engle says
Engle says salmon runs were healthy before 2009, when they suddenly took a dive. A University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research [ISER] study done for the Mat Su Borough based on 2007 data put the economic gains to the Borough from sport fishing between 63 and 163 million dollars in one season.