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Anchorage Daily News
April 18, 2005
By Ed Backus and Phil Mundy

Let's find out why salmon runs decline

Compass: Points of view from the community

The 2005 salmon fishing season is almost here, bringing with it the usual mixture of optimism and gloom depending on where you live. Optimism is the order of the day in much of Alaska, where people look forward to strong salmon returns. While Alaskans understandably take great pride in top-performing runs in Prince William Sound, Bristol Bay and the world renowned Copper River, people in Western Alaska don't share that sentiment.

The dark side of Alaska's salmon runs can be found in the rivers of the Arctic, Yukon and Kuskokwim region, which have been steadily declining for two decades. More alarming than the declines themselves is the fact that we can't explain why they're occurring. And we can't explain why because we don't have enough of the right information. AYK is one of the least studied salmon regions in Alaska. As a result, managers are now scrambling for information to explain the declines, which underscores the lack of reliable data on salmon abundance.

State of the Salmon has convened the first major international conference in Anchorage this week to begin to address these challenges. The conference will look at the big picture of salmon health — not just from river to river or region to region but from a North Pacific perspective. While we've known for decades that management actions taken in one part of the North Pacific affect salmon populations in other, far away parts of this vast region, we have a very limited understanding of why. As a result we are virtually powerless to make vital course-correcting decisions.

State of the Salmon will introduce its international monitoring strategy — a new framework to synthesize information from around the North Pacific — to nearly 200 biologists, habitat specialists, fisheries and agency managers and international leaders from Russia, Canada, Japan and the United States. The monitoring strategy will for the first time give scientists and managers a panoramic perspective of salmon status and trends, a solid and broad foundation from which better conservation and management decisions will be made for decades to come.

The strategy brings a process and a monitoring system to substantially increase efficiency and enable people to share data and use information to improve salmon knowledge. It also offers a tremendous opportunity to leverage additional resources to complement existing agency efforts.

The stakes couldn't be higher for Alaska. The fishing industry is the state's largest private employer. Salmon fishermen earned $162 million, or about 17 percent of the total amount Alaskan fishermen received for their catch in 2002. Alaska is also the breadbasket of the North Pacific salmon fishing industry, having been responsible for two of every five salmon caught in the region.

A deluge of recent news reports — from the growth of the salmon farming industry to imminent approval of genetically modified salmon to the emerging threats of climate change — remind us that our wild Alaskan salmon, and salmon across the North Pacific region, face more challenges than ever.

But Alaska has long been a pioneer in sustainable salmon management. In the State of the Salmon monitoring strategy, Alaska has a historic opportunity to provide an important benchmark for managers throughout the North Pacific. By leading the way in collaboration to implement the monitoring strategy, Alaska can chart the course for shared success across the interconnected North Pacific and safeguard Alaska's treasured salmon runs and the thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on them.

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