Alaska to vote on salmon habitat protection measure

Ballot Measure 1, the Salmon Habitat Protection and Permits Initiative, continues to draw controversies as Election Day is getting closer. The citizen-initiated proposition is also up for vote in the statewide elections on Nov. 6.

Salmon Ballot.jpg
Photo credit: Jian Bautista

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Begich indicated support for Measure 1, whereas Republican candidate Mike Dunleavy opposes it.

A ‘yes’ vote would support the establishment of a new permitting process for projects involving bodies of water related to anadromous fish such as salmon, trout and other fish species local to Alaska.

“When a fish species is anadromous, it means that they spend part of their life in the ocean and part of their life in freshwater. So, typically with the salmon’s life cycle… they spend a portion of their life in the ocean, and then when it’s time to reproduce, they will swim up to the freshwater streams and spawn in those waters,” Rachel Mills, UAA professor for environmental studies, said.

A ‘no’ vote would oppose the measure and leave existing regulations in place. Opponents of the proposition argue that the new requirements are not needed and will slow down economic development in the state.

Under current law, some waterbodies are designated as anadromous; projects with the potential to disturb anadromous fish habitat require a fish habitat permit issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The ADF&G is issuing between 1,500 and 4,000 permits per year, according to the department’s website.

The ADF&G believes that the current permitting process “effectively protects anadromous fish habitat,” the department said in a public notice.

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UAA student Edward Tubbs is working as volunteer for the Stand for Salmon initiative, which supports the ballot measure. He thinks that the protection of salmon is particularly important now that salmon populations are decreasing.

“It’s been hard to watch, honestly. A lot of [salmon runs] have been weaker and weaker, especially in places where we have seen more development – Southeast Alaska is a great example. There’s a lot of projects down there,” Tubbs said.

He thinks that the current regulations for salmon habitat protection are insufficient.

“The current catalog for what is considered salmon habitat in Alaska has not been updated for years,” Tubbs said.

The Stand for Alaska initiative is leading the opposition against the measurement. Members of the initiative argue that the reasons for the decline in salmon runs are caused by ocean problems and not by lack of protection in Alaska. The campaign is convinced that the statewide definitions imposed by the measure will complicate and limit economic development in the state.

“Projects like building a road or a water treatment plan in rural Alaska will be nearly impossible if this measure becomes law. Our communities cannot grow and thrive under policies like this,” Aaron Schott, campaign co-chair, said in a press release.

Stand for Alaska also cites a deterrent effect for businesses considering coming to Alaska as a reason against the measure.

Mills thinks that waste or pollution caused by the industry contribute to the problem but are not the only reasons.

“I think that it’s probably a combination of multiple things… There’s pollution, there’s overfishing, there’s just general climate changes,” Mills said.

Although the new rules would only apply to water bodies related to anadromous fish, the initiative would presume that all natural waterbodies are anadromous unless proven otherwise.

Though the ADF&G said that the initiative would not stop development in Alaska, it recognizes that site-specific determination would in some cases be “difficult, time consuming and expensive.”

The opposition initiative received more than $11 million to fund its campaign. ConocoPhillips is one of the largest contributors with a donation of $1 million, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

The support committee Yes for Salmon – Yes on 1 reported $2.1 million in financial support. The Alaska Center made the largest contribution with about $745,000. Stand for Salmon has not reported any contributions.

Mills highlights the importance of the public’s involvement in the decision making process and encourages students to read through the ballot measure even if it is “difficult and takes time to ingest.”

The polls will be open from 7 a.m. – 8 p.m. on Nov. 6.