Voting yes for salmon helps future of Copper River fisheries

By Brian Rutzer

For The Cordova Times

As a commercial fisherman who came into the Copper River salmon fishery shortly after the Exxon Valdez disaster, I’m not one to take our salmon runs for granted. The fish in our waters are an incredibly valuable natural resource. The next generation needs to be able to trust in the resource in the same way that we have.

Yet we know from experience that the future of our salmon runs isn’t guaranteed. My own family history on the Columbia River should warn us all of what can happen when we push salmon to the limit. Most of Alaska’s salmon returns have been healthy over the years, though, as we saw this year on the Copper, fishing communities like ours take a hit when salmon runs don’t come in strong.

There are a lot of factors that commercial fishermen can’t control. Weather is a roll of the dice. Timing. The strength of the U.S. dollar and its effect on seafood exports. The list goes on.

Knowing this, I’m committed to controlling the things I can, such as quality.

And, I know enough about the salmon life cycle to care about what happens to our salmon habitat upstream. This is why I will stand for salmon and vote yes on Ballot Measure One.

Let’s look at the Copper River. It’s a powerful 290-mile-long river that’s rightly become famous over the years. The world-class fish we catch come from all throughout the 24,000 square-mile Copper River basin – this is where they spend their first years. Our salmon come from big rivers and lakes but also the small unnamed streams, countless ponds and wetlands that you might not think of as salmon habitat. Shallow little creeks may be too small to hold fully grown salmon, but it’s still valuable habitat for the small salmon fry. Without little salmon we don’t get big salmon.

As a commercial bush pilot, I’ve had a lot of time in the cockpit looking at all this water. I’ve noticed it’s all connected in surprising ways. We need to keep all of these connections intact. This is what voting yes for Ballot Measure One will help us do.

If we don’t act, we’ll be left with a fish habitat protection law that isn’t able to keep fish habitat safe when development gets proposed in places like the Copper River basin. Without needed updates, we’ll continue to gradually lose habitat – death from a thousand cuts. And if we do act?  It puts us in charge of managing our salmon habitat.

Voting yes for salmon on Ballot Measure One gives us a say by updating 60-year-old habitat laws, back when Cadillacs had big fins. There were fewer people in Alaska then and mega-development projects like Pebble weren’t on the table.

I’ve read Ballot Measure One and I’ve learned that it gives more opportunity for public comment. Unlike current law, Ballot Measure One also defines what “proper protections” need to be in place before development occurs. It sets standards for a two-track permit approval process. Small projects proposed in fish habitat would receive a less thorough review than the big projects that would create significant adverse effects. That is, your culvert project and a major mining proposal don’t require the same review.

Updating fish habitat laws should have been routine business for the Alaska Legislature to take up. Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak, who also represents Cordova and Prince William Sound, introduced legislation to do just that. But the do-nothing Legislature didn’t act, leaving fish proponents no choice but to turn to the citizen-led initiative process. With a total of nearly 50,000 signatures from every region in Alaska, the measure is now getting the attention it deserves on the ballot.

In this election season I’ve seen a lot of misinformation out there about our salmon. Multinational oil and mining companies have spent many millions to oppose Ballot Measure One, and this includes $600,000 from ExxonMobil.

For the future of salmon, fishing communities and our industry the choice is clear: Yes for salmon on Ballot Measure One at the ballot box on Nov. 6.

Brian Rutzer is a commercial fisherman who resides in Cordova.