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Alaska Fish Factor: Boaters Rewarded for Protecting Salmon

13 June 2016
 Alaska Fish Factor: Laine Welch Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska’s seafood industry for print and broadcast since 1988. She also has worked ‘behind the counter’ in wholesale and retail seafood businesses in Alaska and Cape Cod, MA. Laine lives in Kodiak, Alaska.

US - Boaters from Homer to the Mat-Su valley can help protect salmon and other aquatic creatures and get discounts from popular businesses by doing so.

A pilot program launched this spring is an offshoot of Cook Inletkeeper’s Clean Boating program that began in the Valley five years ago.

“It all started with oil and gas pollution in Big Lake,” said Heather Leba, director of the group’s Clean Boating Discount program.” The Department of Environmental Conservation was doing water quality testing in 2006 and they determined that Big Lake was an “impaired water body” due to oil and gas pollution, and it exceeded levels allowed under the Clean Water Act.”

“People were upset and shocked, so the community came together and developed an action plan, and within it was a stipulation for education and outreach. And that’s how Cook Inletkeeper got involved,” she added.

In times of high recreational boating, large amounts of oil and gas pollution, primarily from older, carbureted two stroke engines, concentrate mainly around boat launches.

“The pollution stays in the water column for a few days and can evaporate over time,” Leba explained. “But if you have constant boat traffic over holiday weekends, of if the weather is really good, that pollution persists and can then start to harm aquatic life.”

Other DEC “water bodies of concern” include the Little Susitna River, due to high levels of turbidity - the influx of silt and other particulate matter which can make it difficult for salmon and other fish to breathe. Also being monitored is the Deshka River.

“Everybody loves to fish king salmon on the Deshka and there are a lot of recreational and commercial guiding boats there. That river is not impaired, it’s just a river to watch, so we’ve been doing outreach to increase knowledge about oil and gas pollutions to boats in the Valley,” Leba said.

To get people engaged in protecting local lakes, rivers and coastal waters, Inletkeeper has partnered with local businesses to offer incentives for becoming cleaner boaters. The outcome is the Clean Boating Discount Cards program.

To participate, boaters take a free and fun online boating course through the Boat US Foundation. That’s followed by a quick survey, and then simply signing up for the discounts.

“I get all that information and then mail you a packet with your card and the list of businesses, more discount coupons, and you can start using them right away,” Leba said.

Fifteen businesses have signed on so far, and each has the freedom to participate in ways that work for them. Sportsman’s Warehouse, for example, gives 10 percent discounts on all fishing department items in stores statewide. Denali Brewing Company, Cabela’s, Kaladi Brothers and NAPA offer various coupons, and the list goes on.

Leba said there is growing boater awareness that minimizing oil and gas pollution will result in healthier salmon and cleaner waters throughout Cook Inlet, but added one caution.

“I think the hydrocarbon pollution is not going to go away,” she said, “unless two stroke engines are either banned or become obsolete.”

About 25 boaters have signed up so far for the Clean Boating Discount Cards. Learn more about the program at the Cook Inletkeeper website.

A mighty wind - Chinook salmon are returning to the Yukon River, and while low numbers mean no commercial fishery again this year, the king counts are becoming more encouraging.

Even with 55 years of Yukon data, it’s a tough run to track because the timing is so unpredictable, said Phil Mundy, Director of NOAA Fisheries Auke Bay lab in Juneau. Mundy has been studying Alaska salmon since the 1970s, but said it was Yukon elders who taught him how to fine tune the run timing.

“They told me ‘the wind blows the fish in the river - everyone knows that, young man.’ And I wondered how that works,” he said, adding that Cook Inlet fishermen told him the same thing about sockeye salmon.

“They said, ‘it’s when the wind blows and you get the biggest tide closest to July 17. Everyone knows that.’ But we couldn’t figure out exactly how the wind was doing what it did. I didn’t think the fish put up their dorsal fin like a sail to blow into the river, but there had to be something because they seemed to be right,” Mundy mused.

“I used to count fish from airplanes, and I’ve seen this at Cook Inlet and at Bristol Bay where you get the river water piling up against the marine water on the river plume. Then you’ll see the salmon weaving in and out along the edge of the front between the fresh water and the salt water. They will pile up if there is no wind to mix that fresh and salt water to make it brackish. They will mass up on that front until some other trigger, which we probably don’t understand, sends them all in.”

In 2006 Mundy saw a scientific article that focused on how salmon make the change from fresh to salt water and vice versa.

“There’s this thing called a calcium ion switch, and it is triggered by alternating exposure to different salinities,” he explained. “Young salmon can’t swim straight into salt water because it will kill them, and it’s the same for adults in the ocean returning to their fresh water home streams. They have to have alternating exposure to different salinities.”

At the Yukon, Mundy said the wind mixing the water even trumps early ice melts as the best indicator of the salmon arrivals. He added that today satellites from the Alaska Ocean Observing System make the salmon run predictions easier and more reliable.

Saint Salmon - As Alaska’s salmon season gets fully underway, it is fitting to acknowledge the patron saint of salmon – Saint Kentigern of Scotland.

Born in 518, Kentigern was the illegitimate son of a king’s daughter. He trained as a priest at a monastery, where his pending sainthood evolved around a dangerous love-triangle.

Legend has it that King Riderch of Strathclyde suspected his wife, Queen Languoreth, of having an affair, because she had given one of her favorite rings to a court favorite.

When the alleged paramour was sleeping, the king took the ring and threw it far out into the River Clyde. Then he angrily demanded that his wife show him the missing ring and threatened her with death if she could not produce it. In her misery, the queen beseeched the priest Kentigern to help her.

Kentigern took a fishing rod to the spot where the ring had been flung into the river. He quickly caught a salmon and cut it open. Amazingly, the ring was found in the salmon’s belly. The queen was able to deliver the ring to her doubting husband and peace was restored.

From the time of his death in 603, Kentigern was regarded as Scotland’s patron saint and the cathedral at Glasgow was built in his honor. To this day, Kentigern’s figure and symbols, including a salmon, make up Glasgow’s coat of arms.

So who knows - perhaps a quick prayer to the patron saint of salmon will lead more fish to your nets.

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