Endangered habitats and fisheries around the state are affecting the populations of many of Alaska’s popular salmon species. Trout Unlimited is on a mission to protect fisheries through education. Wild-salmon populations are declining around the state and every angler can help.
Story by Marian Giannulis
Alaska is home to some of the most prized and spectacular rivers on the planet. The intact watersheds of Bristol Bay produce over half the world’s sockeye salmon. Roughly 15,000 miles of clean, undammed creeks and rivers flow through the temperate rainforest of the Tongass, providing optimal habitat for salmon and steelhead. Trophy rainbow trout rivers in southcentral and western Alaska draw anglers from around the world. The Yukon River is the longest in Alaska and underpins a culture and way of life for many Indigenous communities. Simply put, Alaska is the best of what’s left when it comes to wild rivers and coldwater fish.
But there are signs that something is wrong in paradise.
Alaska’s salmon (and the trout that depend on them) face a myriad of challenges, some better understood than others. Dissecting the complexities of salmon decline is no easy task, but experts have consistently pointed to habitat—and keeping it healthy and intact is one of the best ways to ensure salmon runs can thrive. That means good spawning areas, plenty of places for juvenile fish to eat and find protection, connected migration routes, and cold, clean water.
Under pressure by projects
Alaska’s ample intact habitats are increasingly under pressure by projects that could contribute to declining runs of salmon and put at risk sustainable fishing and tourism industries as well as the subsistence lifestyles that thrive across much of the state. To add urgency, both communities and fisheries are grappling with the cascading impacts of warming water temperatures and extreme weather events, all side effects of a changing climate.
Although much of Alaska’s 365,000 miles of river habitat remains intact, logging, mining, road building, and other activities have degraded fish habitat in many parts of the state. Thousands of failing culverts impede migration and disconnect miles of habitat.
Fortunately, Alaska still has the opportunity to reverse concerning trends and get the wild-fish story right. But we need to act swiftly.
Alaska is a big state, and thankfully there are dozens of organizations, agencies and individuals who are rising to meet the challenges cold-water fish are facing. Trout Unlimited focuses on protecting and restoring trout, salmon, and steelhead habitat. We’ve successfully helped put the brakes on the Pebble Mine and improved the management of the Tongass National Forest so that it better supports fish, tourism and recreation. That work will continue, and to meet the growing need to care for habitat in other regions, TU has expanded our work into other key areas of the state. Together with local communities and anglers, we are working to keep salmon and trout populations thriving in these crucial watersheds for generations to come. We are a contributing author to the wild-salmon story—and we want a happy ending. Go to prioritywaters.tu.org/alaska to join us in learning about and caring for these special places.
A rainbow trout caught in a Susitna River tributary. © Trout Unlimited
The world’s most productive wild-salmon fishery has been in the public spotlight for nearly twenty years, gaining the attention of millions of people hoping to defend the region from the relentless threat of industrial-scale mining. Bristol Bay salmon are a keystone species that supports the rich surrounding environment teeming with bears and trophy rainbow trout, underpins the subsistence way of life for the region’s many Indigenous Tribes, and boosts a $2 billion recreational- and commercial-fishing economy. Trout Unlimited has worked to care for Bristol Bay for almost two decades. We advocated for the Army Corps of Engineers Pebble Mine permit denial in 2020 and the Clean Water Act protections finalized in 2023. Our guide ambassador program in Bristol Bay promotes conservation and advocacy opportunities to a vast group of visiting anglers.
Still work to be done
Although Clean Water Act protections for the headwaters of Bristol Bay have halted the proposed Pebble Mine for now, there is still work to be done to defend these safeguards from legal challenges and to secure permanent safeguards that protect the entire watershed from industrial mining. Visit SaveBristolBay.org to learn more and join us.
The Tongass National Forest
Part of the world’s largest remaining intact temperate rainforest, the Tongass hosts abundant wild salmon and steelhead runs in its tree-lined rivers and streams. The forest also stores an immense amount of carbon and plays an important role in buffering the effects of climate change. We advocate for a future Tongass that prioritizes fish and recreation, and we work to restore habitat that has been degraded and disconnected by logging and road building. We have several restoration projects in Yakutat and on Kuiu Island that will reconnect important spawning and rearing habitat for fish.
Areas Not Documented
Additionally, across the Tongass, countless streams that support salmon and steelhead are not documented in the state’s Anadromous Waters Catalog, and thus don’t receive basic habitat protections through state law. Our staff works closely with volunteers to add rivers and streams to the Catalog by documenting the existence of salmon and steelhead in unlisted rivers. This work has led to better protection for 67.4 miles of habitat. Go to AmericanSalmonForest.org to get involved.
The Kenai Peninsula
At more than 400,000 angler days per year, the Kenai River is Alaska’s most popular sportfishing destination. More than 600,000 salmon are harvested each year. Through events, social media, and business- and community partners, we educate and engage anglers in better caring for fish and their habitat to ensure one of Alaska’s most productive rivers stays healthy and thriving.
In 2020, we launched our first large-scale restoration project in southcentral Alaska on Resurrection Creek, a popular fishing destination near Hope, Alaska. Through a unique partnership, we are restoring 2.2 miles and 74 acres of riparian habitat important to Chinook salmon. This is the first time a conservation organization and mining company, Kinross Alaska, have partnered together to restore fish habitat in the state.
An angler fishing the Kenai River. © Trout Unlimited
Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley
Over half of Alaska’s population lives near these watersheds. And while Alaskan’s salmon pride runs strong here, the salmon populations here are some of the most threatened in the state. We are responding to emerging threats like the West Susitna Industrial Access Road, a 100-plus-mile industrial access corridor that would cross more than 80 salmon streams. We are proud supporters of the Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership. Our major restoration effort on the Eklutna River is working to bring flows back to a river that has run dry for over 60 years and to reestablish five Pacific salmon species that traditionally have supported the Native Village of Eklutna.
Flowing from Canada and across Alaska before emptying into the Bering Sea, the third-longest river in North America is an integral food source for local and Indigenous communities. The recent collapse of two Yukon River salmon fisheries has left widespread food insecurity in the region. Historical and ongoing mining from both small- and large-scale operators have degraded habitat throughout the region. We are working with local and federal partners to identify, prioritize, protect, and restore critical fish habitat, especially for Chinook salmon, in Yukon River tributaries.
Caring for fish is an all-in effort. We collaborate with a broad range of organizations and agencies to get this important work done, ranging from state, federal, and local agencies, to Tribes, local communities, businesses, and other non-profits. Most importantly, our vast group of anglers and fish-loving advocates make this work possible. You can get involved by visiting prioritywaters.tu.org/alaska and by following @troutunlimitedalaska on Facebook and Instagram.
Trout Unlimited’s mission is to protect, reconnect and restore North America’s cold-water fisheries and their watersheds. Visit prioritywaters.tu.org/alaska to learn about our work in Alaska. Marian Giannulis is the Alaska Communications & Engagement Director for Trout Unlimited.