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PUBLISHED: 7:04 PM on Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Thank a salmon for Alaska's statehood
Fish Factor
Next year marks Alaska's 50th anniversary of becoming a state, and amidst all the hoopla, people are surprised to learn that it was salmon that spawned the push to statehood.

"One of the main reasons the territory was purchased from the Russians back in 1867 was because people knew that what some called 'Seward's Icebox' was actually packed with fish," said fisheries historian Bob King. "Spurred on by cod interests from Seattle, the industry was very quick to move in. Commercial fishing was Alaska's first industry."

King is chronicling the importance of commercial fishing in Alaska's history as part of a 50th anniversary project by the Dept. of Fish and Game. It was salmon, he says, that drove the push.

"The canned salmon plants started in the 1870s and by the early 20th century, canned salmon was the largest industry in the state and generated 80% of the territorial tax revenues. It had a position in the state economy that oil enjoys today," King said.

Until statehood, the federal government managed Alaska's salmon fisheries and used highly efficient traps to catch the fish. At one time more than 800 traps operated in Alaska, primarily for pinks in Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound.

"Alaskans hated the traps with a passion right from the beginning, because they took jobs and revenues out of the communities. Alaskans wanted to be out catching those fish themselves," King said.

"When the state constitution was being crafted in 1955-56, the delegates did not want to micro-manage fisheries, so they didn't ban fish traps outright," he continued, "But they did put in a clause that said there will be no exclusive right of fishery allowed in the state. And they put in the model principles of sustained yield and management that Alaska follows today."

The 55 delegates cleverly used the issue of fish traps to get people to the polls to ratify the constitution, King said.

"They included a ballot measure that asked should the state ban fish traps. They knew that people were so opposed to the traps that they would go to vote on that, even if they had questions about the constitution. And in fact, the gimmick worked," King said with a laugh. "The constitution passed by a 2-1 margin, but the measure to ban the traps passed 5-1. So a lot of people came out to voice their opinion about fish traps, and the constitution passed easily along the way."

The fisheries that the new state inherited from the feds were in bad shape. The salmon catch in 1959 of 25 million fish was the worst since the turn of the century, and total seafood production was just 324 million pounds.

In contrast, salmon catches today regularly top 200 million fish, and more than 5 billion pounds of seafood cross the Alaska docks.

"The success in our fisheries today got started at statehood," King said.

The commemorative booklet on the role fisheries played in Alaska's statehood will be available by the end of the year.

'High-libut' prices

It used to be that halibut prices would dip during the summer when salmon fisheries were in full swing. But that hasn't been the case for several years, and this year is no exception. Halibut prices are higher now than when the fishery opened in early March.

Halibut prices are broken out into three weight classes - under 20 pounds, 20-40 pounds and "40 ups". At Kodiak, dock prices last week were at $4.10 - $4.30 - and $4.60-$4.70 per pound for larger sizes. At Homer, halibut prices were reported at $4.20 - $4.60 and $4.80. Dutch Harbor prices were holding steady at $4.05 - $4.30 and $4.65. . In Southeast Alaska, halibut was fetching $4.40- $4.55 and $4.70 a pound at the docks.

One big buyer called the Alaska halibut market 'an amazing thing,' adding that more fish has moved at higher prices than ever before. Another said despite its 'elite' and high priced status, a 'huge and expanding distribution network' of smaller markets demands the popular fish.

Federal data show that about 16 million pounds remain out of Alaska's 50 million pound catch limit for this year. Homer holds the lead for halibut landings, followed by Kodiak, Seward, Sitka, Juneau and Petersburg. Alaska's halibut fishery ends in mid-November - and fewer fish are likely to be available for harvest next year.

Chemicals and fish don't mix

Common pesticides widely used by agriculture and livestock industries pose "a serious risk of extinction" for Northwest salmon, say federal experts. The findings were released in a draft report last week as part of a 10 year court battle between NOAA Fisheries and a coalition of fishing and environmental groups.

A court ruled earlier this year that the Environmental Protection Agency must assess the effects of 37 pesticides on 28 salmon stocks, listed as threatened or endangered. The court agreed that the chemicals had been placed on the market without a complete understanding of their biological effects.

In the first of at least nine studies, researchers have concluded that pesticides can harm salmon, even when they are used as approved by the EPA. The pesticides can affect the fishes' sense of smell, their ability to feed and avoid predation. By law, the finding of jeopardy means changes must be made to protect the fish. The court issued interim measures requiring that pesticide users must apply toxic chemicals a certain distance from streams. That could be what the agencies propose as a permanent solution.

The EPA results follow a stream of similar reports on how contaminants disrupt the chemical balance of aquatic creatures. Last year, for example, a study by Oregon State University and federal scientists showed how low levels of copper impairs the noses and avoidance ability of small salmon. OSU's -

"In the environment that has some serious implications. If there are predators around and the fish are not able to respond to these danger signals in the water, they would be the next snack for these larger predators in the water," said study author Jason Sandahl.

Scientists for years have said federal agencies are underestimating the hazard pesticides pose to salmon. The collapse of West Coast salmon stocks this summer drew headlines to the fact that chemicals and fish don't mix.


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