A Team Effort: Conserving Alaska’s Fisheries
By the Alaska Staff of Trout Unlimited

fly fishing Alaska

The Tongass National Forest in Southeast is an angler’s dream. Trout Unlimited champions an effort to conserve a collection of the highest-value salmon and steelhead watersheds within the forest that lack permanent protection, called the “Tongass 77.” © Sam Roche

Residents and thousands of visitors each year enjoy Alaska’s beautiful landscapes, wild rivers, abundant wildlife, and strong fisheries. We get to wade into rivers with few other humans around us, without development on the horizon, and cast to wild trout and salmon runs knowing we have a good chance for success. We’re lucky here.

Watching our Lower 48 neighbors, we know it won’t remain this way forever without anglers paying attention and speaking up when the waters that provide family outings, fill our freezers and inspire love for our home become threatened. Increasingly, resources we rely on face threats that force us to decide what type of future we want for our state.

The Alaska staff, members, and volunteers of Trout Unlimited envision a future where visitors and our communities value, care for, and enjoy resilient, clean, and healthy waters where salmon and trout thrive. To achieve this, we work closely with anglers, tribes, commercial fishermen, outfitters and guides, tourism operators, chefs, and many other Alaskans who care about our rivers and fish.

We’ve helped conserve waters in our three focus areas for years—Bristol Bay, the Tongass National Forest, and the Southcentral region. We also contribute to all four Alaska-based Fish Habitat Partnerships. We accomplished a lot in 2020 and anticipate another busy year in 2021. Here’s what’s in store:

Bristol Bay

Flying low in a small plane, you can cover a seemingly endless patchwork of tundra, wetlands, lakes and rivers for hours and not see a single fence, road or building. The wild, clean, winding rivers make this region home to wild, trophy rainbow trout and the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon run. TU works to safeguard the Bristol Bay region from the Pebble mine proposal. The proposed mine’s massive size, proximity to prized salmon and trout rivers, and need for on-site, perpetual waste storage makes it the wrong choice for Alaska. We tirelessly collaborate with local partners and anglers across the country to ensure Bristol Bay’s world-class fisheries and the people who depend on them continue to thrive.

In 2020, we worked to ensure the public and our elected officials saw through the slick talk of Pebble’s high-dollar D.C. lobbyists and PR tactics. We focused on the science that shows unequivocally that the proposed Pebble mine cannot operate safely alongside Bristol Bay’s world-class streams and fisheries. The Army Corps of Engineers recently denied Pebble its most important federal permit. In 2021, we will work to secure the permanent, upfront protections the Bristol Bay region deserves so that the Pebble conversation can finally be behind us. Visit SaveBristolBay.org to learn more.

We will also introduce the 12th class of Bristol Bay-area youth to flyfishing during the Bristol Bay Fly Fishing and Guide Academy. We facilitate a training program focused on preparing them for local jobs in the tourism and sportfishing industry. Click here to learn more.

Tongass National Forest and Transboundary Rivers of Southeast

The Tongass is our nation’s largest national forest, which comprises thousands of mist-covered islands, deep fjords, tidewater glaciers and soggy muskegs that provide ideal habitat for a vast array of wild plant and animal species, including healthy salmon and trout populations. It’s intact, productive, and quiet—an angler’s dream.

TU champions efforts to conserve wild areas such as the Tongass 77, which are a collection of the highest-value salmon and steelhead watersheds that lack permanent protection. We also partner with the U.S. Forest Service, which owns and manages the Tongass, to restore impacted waters, repair roads that block salmon migration, and transition the forest to more sustainable management that focuses on fishing, recreation and tourism, and away from damaging and costly clear-cut logging of old-growth forest. In 2020, the national Roadless Rule was repealed on the Tongass, which means we have our work cut out for us in 2021 to ensure key areas for salmon and trout in the forest are conserved. Click here to learn more.

Additionally, we find and identify waters that support salmon and steelhead, but that are not currently documented in the state’s official record, called the Anadromous Waters Catalog. By documenting previously unknown runs of salmon and steelhead, the waters supporting those runs can receive additional conservation measures. Visitors and members of the community can help with this exciting work! Click here to learn more.

We also have our eye on a mining boom underway in northwest British Columbia. Pollution from those mines flows downstream into southeast Alaska and threatens our salmon, rivers, tourism jobs, and our unique way of life. Fifteen industrial mines are planned or advancing in Canada and are likely to harm the waters and fish-based economies of Southeast with no financial benefit to Alaska, meaning Alaskans face all the environmental burden and risk with none of the economic benefit. We will work in 2021 to engage the U.S. State Department and promote internationally agreed-upon protections. Click here to learn more.

Southcentral: The Eklutna River

bears in Alaska

The Alaska staff, members, and volunteers of Trout Unlimited envision a future where visitors and our communities value, care for, and enjoy resilient, clean, and healthy waters where salmon and trout thrive. © Sam Roche

Southcentral Alaskans love to visit Eklutna Lake for its stunning scenery and popular trails, or to wet a line with the hope of catching a coho or king salmon at the Eklutna Tailrace. But few know the history of the Eklutna River and how it may once again become a productive river. In 2018, a nearly 90-year-old abandoned dam on the Eklutna River was removed, giving salmon access to nearly eight miles of upstream habitat. However, due to a second, still-remaining dam and water diversion at the outlet of Eklutna Lake, not enough water is available for fish to utilize the recently reconnected habitat. With tribal and conservation partners, TU is working with local utilities to bring the Eklutna River back to the thriving waterway it once was. Click here to learn more.

Fish Habitat Partnerships

As a founding member and sponsor of the Southeast Alaska Fish Habitat Partnership, host of the Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership, and steering-committee member of the Southwest Alaska and Kenai Peninsula Fish Habitat Partnerships, we help restore fish habitat and support data-gathering efforts across much of Alaska. Two projects we are looking forward to include an effort on the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers, where scientists are studying stream temperature, flow and juvenile salmon to increase our understanding of how a warming climate affects our salmon runs and our ability to forecast returns. Additionally, strategic fish-passage programs will open up access to the most critical habitats for both adult and juvenile salmon in the region. Visit seakfhp.org and matsusalmon.org to learn more.

Join Us

We always welcome new members and partnerships to help safeguard the rivers and fish we love. Find us on Facebook, Instagram @troutunlimitedalaska, or email our director, Nelli Williams.

This blog originally appeared in the Conservation column of the January 2021 issue of Fish Alaska, titled ‘A Team Effort: Conserving Alaska’s Fisheries’.