Howard Delo

Last Thursday, the Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership’s Summer Site Tour of work being done along the Little Susitna River was held. Because of the ongoing pandemic, participants needed to provide their own transportation, and because of the specific sites to be visited, a significant amount of walking was required.

As a member of the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission, I was invited to attend. I gave the invitation serious consideration because these events have always been informative, and I usually learn a lot. However, because of my “bum” ankle and the amount of walking, I had to decline. I asked Jessica Speed, the Mat-Su Basin Project Manager, Trout Unlimited Coordinator, Mat-Su Basin Salmon Habitat Partnership, for a trip summary.

She had Grant Robinson, the new Outreach Coordinator for the Partnership, send a summary. Grant comes from a background of news reporting, specifically, in fisheries and habitat, for KTUU television.

I’ll be sharing a lot of what was sent to me in the summary and other documents. “The Little Susitna River drainage is approximately 110 miles long and starts as a clear, rushing mountain stream at 4,500 feet in elevation. It descends into a slowly meandering, muddy river draining marshy lowlands to where it meets Knik Arm. The river runs through the Susitna Flats State Game Refuge, an area set aside by the Alaska State Legislature for salmon spawning and rearing habitats.”

Continuing, “Research on this anadromous water body has included temperature monitoring, bank modification, water quality, and fish passage. The Little Susitna River produces all five species of Pacific salmon in Alaska as well as Arctic lamprey. Other indigenous species include Dolly Varden, rainbow trout, sculpin, and stickleback.”

The tour began at Reed Lakes Trailhead, Archangel Rd., Hatcher Pass, where a presentation on the freshwater habitat needs of salmon, and what the Mat-Su Valley and Little Susitna River can provide was made. The next stop was the Schrock Road Bridge at Little Susitna River, Wasilla. The presentations there included stream temperature monitoring in Cook Inlet and the Mat-Su Basin; thermal requirements of local salmon, and future suitability of the Little Susitna as salmon habitat in a warming climate; and the role and effects of instream flow.

After lunch at the Riverside RV and Camper Park in Houston, more presentations were made concerning the impacts to salmon habitat from aquatic invasive species; and a community perspective on the value of the Little Susitna from a sport fishing, recreation, and quality of life perspective.

The fourth and final stop was at the Little Susitna River Campground, in Houston. Presentations there included tools to maintain healthy salmon habitat and a final wrap-up and take-away thoughts from the tour.

Robinson included several comments in his summary. I’ll quote some of them. “While each presenter spoke about their work and area of expertise, certain themes seemed to bubble up. The most persistent theme was that it’s most effective (and cheaper) to conserve salmon habitat than to try to fix it after it has been damaged.”

Continuing, “One example of that is aquatic invasive species. A biologist with ADF&G explained how northern pike have had major negative impacts on salmon habitat in South Central Alaska. Pike are voracious predators that eat juvenile salmon. The Department has spent considerable sums of money to kill northern pike to restore lakes to be better habitat for young salmon. While “the cat’s out of the bag” with pike, many other aquatic invasive species such as zebra mussels do not yet have a foothold in the MatSu.”

“Taking steps to prevent the spread of invasive species is best, but once they are found, it’s important to take care of the problem before it becomes too big and too expensive to fix.”

Robinson continued, “Other threats that salmon face are a warming climate and loss or degradation of habitat. While there isn’t a clear answer to the question of how we can ensure salmon can thrive in a warming climate, scientists with UAA, US Fish & Wildlife Service and Cook Inletkeeper (are) working collaboratively to continuously monitor stream temperatures and other information that can serve as “vital signs” for a stream’s health as salmon habitat. Collecting this information will shed light on what we can do to minimize negative impacts.”

Jessica Speed concluded with, “Yes, the tour was good and… I hope, left participants with the idea that policies and development practices that balance societal needs while maintaining healthy salmon habitat will be key going forward — particularly in a rapidly changing climate.”

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