Effort Continues on Alaska Legislation to Protect Fish Habitat

Work continues in the Alaska House Special Committee on Fisheries on legislation to assure protection of fish habitat critical to the state’s economy and cultural heritage by establishing fish, wildlife and anadromous fish habitat permits in ways that do not overly restrict development.

The latest version of House Bill 199, which was introduced a year ago and is still in the House fisheries committee, is quite broad, and the committee is working to somewhat limit its impact on road construction and oil and gas development, an aide to the committee said.

The Stand for Salmon initiative slated to go to a statewide vote later in 2018 is designed to establish new requirements and a new process for permit applications, permit application reviews and granting of permits for any projects or activities affecting water bodies where anadromous fish are present. It would prohibit projects and activities determined to cause significant and unrestorable damage to such fish habitat.

Mine proponents and others invested in non-renewable resources contend that HB 199 and the salmon initiative would severely restrict their business efforts.

The committee heard recently from mine opponents concerned about adverse impacts of mine development and operation on the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery.

“The commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries all play a key role in keeping the region’s economy and cultures alive, and Pebble is too great a threat to each of those fisheries,” said Norm Van Vactor, president and chief executive officer of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. at Dillingham, Alaska.

While the company claims to have a small impact on salmon, the numbers it talks about refer only to sockeye. But the mine is at the headwaters of the coho and Chinook fisheries too, and the impact on all salmon species would be much greater than the numbers they gave.

“Any conversation the state enters into should be fish first,” Van Vactor said. “Just last summer about 60 million fish showed up. Bristol Bay is sustained by salmon.”.

University of Washington fisheries professor Daniel Schindler, who has done extensive research in the area, said “streams and wetlands will be drained, roads will fragment habitat parcels that fish need to move among, and toxins such as excess copper in the water will interfere with the ability of fish to navigate from freshwater to the ocean and back to spawn.

The mine, he said, will create acid mine drainage. “Copper is a known toxin to fish. We can’t forget the indirect effects of copper on fish. It affects their ability to smell. They smell their way home. If there is copper in the stream, it affects their ability to get home and to recognize predators.”