'Fish-first' policy requires strong local role in Alaska water-use decisions

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By: Dorothy B. Larson

March 23, 2016

Here in Dillingham, like many places in Alaska, it’s always fish time. Either we’re pulling nets to harvest shimmering strong-muscled salmon, or fishing through the ice for smelt and other freshwater fish. Always, we’re eating the rich and nourishing fish that sustain our elders, our children and our heritage.

It surprises me that we need to write this message to our governor and his Department of Natural Resources: Alaska needs water policy that protects fish and their habitat so that our fishing livelihood and heritage are sustained.

Putting fish first simply means we recognize Alaskans as the owners of the state’s resources, and honor our right to participate in what’s happening with decisions that impact our streams and fisheries.

During Gov. Walker’s election campaign, he gave us the hope for better relations between tribes and the government with his administration than with previous ones. The handpicked fisheries experts on his transition team recommended a “fish-first” approach to decisions affecting salmon, to protect Alaska’s fishing livelihood and heritage. This is certainly in line with the Alaska Constitution, which states, “(w)henever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife and waters are reserved to the people for common use.”

In Bristol Bay and around Alaska, fisheries resources diversify our economy and sustain us through jobs and livelihood, contributing massively to local and state taxes. They also allow us to practice our cultural and traditional ways that both put food on the table and sustain us spiritually.

Our tribal government actively promotes sound decision-making principles that protect our shared resources, such as clean water, salmon and wildlife. We have not, however, been included in water-use decisions that affect the habitat for our fisheries. Also DNR is not mandated to work with the fish experts at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to figure out how water-use decisions may impact our fisheries. This is a problem.

In our area, DNR has issued hundreds of “temporary” water-use permits to take huge amounts of water out of our streams to be used for mining activities. As far as we can tell, DNR has no idea what impact these withdrawals have had on fish. If this wasn’t bad enough, the Pebble Partnership violated 40 of their temporary water-use permits for drawing water from unauthorized locations and DNR simply gave them the equivalent of a slap on the wrist with a $40,000 fine. This is the opposite of a “fish-first” approach and a far cry from the orders of the Alaska Constitution.

DNR doesn’t have a commissioner right now, and is in the middle of overhauling its guiding regulations for water management and mining in Alaska. This is a perfect time for the governor to honor his promise of open and collaborative government, and listen to local tribes, citizens and his own Fisheries Transition Team.

Gov. Walker and Lt. Gov. Mallott have the chance to get things right and set Alaska down a path of fish-first management. DNR should take a fish-first approach to improving its regulations to better recognize Alaskans as the owners of the state’s resources, and honor our right to participate in what’s happening with decisions that impact our streams and fisheries.

Specifically, DNR should only grant permission for companies to take water out of Alaska’s rivers, lakes and streams after it ensures enough water is left behind to protect our water quality and fisheries for generations to come.

DNR must ensure that there is always adequate water left in streams for fish, and that resource development projects never block the passage and migration of salmon to their spawning grounds.

A fish-first approach also requires DNR and other state agencies to guarantee transparency for and involvement of Alaskans who hunt, fish and depend on our water resources. It includes fairness to citizens by prioritizing our livelihoods and traditions over Outside corporations who seek to develop our lands. And finally it includes an efficient, fair and predictable permitting process -- when water flow and salmon passage are guaranteed, development proposals should be encouraged and reviewable.

Please, Gov. Walker, direct DNR to reform its water-use regulations to fix the wrongs of the past and restore Alaskans’ right to know and be involved in decisions that impact our streams and fisheries. Please also consider this an invitation to live our fish-fed life for at least an evening -- come to dinner out in Dillingham and join us as we celebrate another year of the bounty and blessing of salmon.

Dorothy B. Larson is tribal administrator for the Curyung Tribal Council in Dillingham.

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Source URL: http://www.adn.com/article/20160323/fish-first-policy-requires-strong-local-role-alaska-water-use-decisions

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