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PUBLISHED: 5:32 PM on Wednesday, April 16, 2008
The threat of a summer without salmon
I met my first Chinook salmon in the San Francisco Bay in the early '80s.

Beth was attending a professional conference at Berkley and I had a free day to jump on a party boat. We trolled beyond the Golden Gate and Alcatraz and caught lots of kings. No giants, but lots of nice 8- to 10-pound feeders that to a Texan's eyes looked like giants.

We trolled fresh herring on cannon ball rigs, not downriggers. Every time a salmon struck, the huge iron cannonball released from the line and fell to the ocean floor. I've often wondered how many million cannon balls remain on the ocean floor. Imagine dropping an 8-pound chunk of iron or lead into the ocean with every fish today!

How things have changed in 20 years. Where once there was what seemed a limitless supply of salmon, only a fragment remain.

Last week, Federal officials closed all salmon fishing on the West Coast. The closure is in hopes of salvaging the remaining stocks of the Sacramento River Chinook salmon run, once among the greatest in the world and now teetering on extermination.

Which brings to mind another memory, of an elk hunt in central Idaho, near Redfish, a town given its name for the once huge returns of red salmon that returned there to spawn.

The year we hunted there, 1992, they were counting the returning reds on one hand. Dams and pollution obliterated that run.

It'd be easy to say that this devastation would never happen in Alaska. Don't believe it.

The ripple effect into our waters has already prompted slashed Chinook limits for both commercial and sport anglers.

Just a month ago we were writing that biologists expected the same 2-per day, 28-inch minimum limits for resident anglers that we've seen for many years. But the Pacific Salmon Commission cut this year's Southeast limits in half, to one fish over 28 inches through July, then only giants over 48 inches the rest of the year. And commercial limits are also cut 48 percent.

Sadly, competition for a smaller resource is pitting Alaska's sport and commercial fishermen against each other over what remains, not just for salmon but for other species -especially halibut.

The reality is these are fisheries that we enjoy during one tiny slice of the salmon's life cycle. These fish spend much of their lives far beyond our borders and are vulnerable to forces we are just now beginning to understand - dams on many rivers down south; pollution; and especially over-fishing by killer factory boats from the Far East, stripping the far reaches of the Pacific of all life, regardless of borders or limits.

These IUU vessels (illegal, unregulated, unreported) are the focus of legislation sponsored last year by Sen. Ted Stevens. Our Coast Guard is trying to police outlaw fishing fleets that are fishing those outer limit waters that these fish migrate through and where they are most vulnerable.

But make no mistake-as other fisheries collapse or are closed pressure will shift more and more to Alaska waters and fish.

It's not just an Alaska problem or a U.S. problem. It's a global problem and it's going to require global enforcement.

It's also going to take a commitment from each of us, lest we join our neighbors down south who'll have a summer without salmon.

My kids caught their first Chinooks in Southeast Alaska within the past couple of years - I hope their kids will still have the same chance in another 20 years.

Lee Leschper is general manager of the Capital City Weekly and advertising director of the Juneau Empire. Email him at lee.leschper@morris.com.


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