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Juneau fisherman takes his case to preserve salmon runs to Washington

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Posted: Saturday, March 31, 2012 9:27 am | Updated: 1:52 pm, Wed Jan 16, 2013.

JUNEAU, Alaska - Jev Shelton has been fishing commercially for 51 years. For the last 40 of those, fishing has been his primary source of income. The Juneau resident and former member of the Pacific Salmon Commission grew up in Washington, just south of Vancouver, B.C.

"I grew up addicted to fishing," he said.

Shelton fished commercially through high school, during the summers while he was in college at Harvard University and while he was earning a graduate degree in child psychology at the University of Michigan. He moved to Juneau in 1970 and worked at the University of Alaska Southeast while continuing to fish.

Shelton is passionate about protecting the habitat of Southeast Alaska's abundant salmon runs, which produced the most valuable salmon harvest in the state in 2011, topping $203 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The Forest Service is the primary management agency for the Tongass National Forest, a 17 -million-acre rain forest that covers most of Southeast Alaska. According to Shelton, the Forest Service announced in May 2010 that it would transition away from old-growth logging and focus more on second-growth management, salmon watershed restoration, tourism, fishing and other industries. Shelton was encouraged by the announcement but said the federal agency's budget for the Tongass has yet to reflect its stated goals.

Citing the Forest Service's budget figures, Shelton said the agency spends $25 million per year on logging and roads compared with the $1.5 million on restoring watersheds. That's a ratio Shelton would like to see change.

"You get the impression that timber is still a big part of this economy and that's not the case," said Shelton.

According to Shelton, citing Alaska Department of Labor statistics, only 200 private-sector jobs in Southeast Alaska are tied to logging. Compare that to the 7,300 or more fishing and seafood industry jobs and you can understand why the Forest Service budget does not reflect on the ground economic realities, he said.

Shelton would like to see more of the Forest Service's budget reallocated from timber and put toward the restoration of salmon habitat that "has been seriously interrupted and in some cases destroyed by logging processes in the past."

On March 5, Shelton and several other Southeast Alaska fishermen traveled to Washington, D.C. for a week-long lobbying trip. The purpose was to meet with key "members of Congress who are on the committees that have direct influence on the Forest Service budget," Shelton said. He met with top Forest Service officials and staff members from various congressional delegations, including those with members on the Appropriations, Agricultural and Resources committees.

According to Shelton, the Forest Service has estimated that it will take about "100 million dollars to restore the salmon habitat" that has been impacted in the Tongass. He said at that rate it will take 50 years to repair the damage.

"One of our points is that since they have made restoration their priority they need to make good on that," said Shelton.

Restoration work will create jobs, Shelton noted.

"It should be understood that by restoring salmon habitat we will not only create jobs in the woods, but boost salmon production which means bigger runs and more employment in fishing and processing," Shelton said.

Shelton wants people to understand that the Tongass is a "salmon forest." It is one of the largest producers of salmon in the world.

"We had a bigger salmon harvest here last year than Bristol Bay," said Shelton. "Agencies that manage the Tongass need to start managing it for salmon first. When you look far down the coast to Washington, Oregon, you see a lot of endangered species listings. It's not because it's from over-fishing; it almost exclusively stems from loss of habitat."

Shelton said it was a very worthwhile trip.

"That doesn't mean we all get what we want but there is an appreciation for the kind of thing that we were suggesting," he said.

Shelton remains optimistic about the future of salmon fishing in the Tongass.

"I think commercial fishing has a bright future in this region," he said. Management by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is "very good," and there has been a lot of progress made over the last 10 years. But we should never be complacent when it comes to Alaska's salmon, he said.

"Both nature and economics have curve balls in their arsenals."

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