Wild salmon. Clean water. Clean Air. Carbon storage. Mitigation of climate change. Tourism, commercial fishing — and billions of dollars in economic benefits.
Since 2018, the Alaska Sustainability Fisheries Trust (ASFT) has quietly released reports that upend managers’ historical ways of thinking about Southeast Alaska and the Tongass National Forest – and redefine current management priorities and future. ASFT’s annual “SeaBank” report describes and quantifies the benefits derived from Southeast Alaska’s trees, estuaries, streams, lakes, rivers, coasts, ocean and more. These benefits include goods and services that “renewal” annually, provided that the natural capital on which they depend is never “extended”.
In SeaBank parlance, Southeast Alaska’s natural capital produces economic outputs from seafood industries and visitors worth billions of dollars annually to Southeast Alaska residents. of Alaska, non-resident workers, visitors and society as a whole. Ecosystem services provide this revenue stream as natural capital. It is a complex interplay of plant and animal communities and their environment that interact as a single functional unit – SeaBank.
“SeaBank’s 2020 report highlights Southeast Alaska as one of the most productive ecosystems in the world,” said Sitka-based commercial fisherman Linda Behnken, founder of the Alaska Sustainable Fisheries Trust. . “The natural capital of Southeast Alaska produces economic outputs worth billions of dollars a year, every year, for Southeast residents, visitors, and society as a whole. This coastal ecosystem is also incredibly vulnerable to rapid climate warming and industrial activities that decrease the productivity of the underlying natural capital.
The ASFT released its SeaBank 2020 report late last year.
Key findings include:
- SeaBank’s annual “fish dividend” makes Southeast Alaska, along with Bristol Bay, one of the top two ecosystems for commercial salmon production.
- SeaBank’s scenery, fish and wildlife, and remote recreation opportunities are assets that attract more than 1.5 million visitors each year – two-thirds of all visitors to Alaska and more than any other region in Alaska. ‘State.
- Coastal areas such as Southeast Alaska are the most economically productive ecosystems in the world, not only for coastal communities, but also for national economies and global commerce. Coastal systems represent only 8% of the planet’s surface, but generate 43% of the global economic value of ecosystem services.
- The Tongass National Forest, which is the heart and lungs of the Southeast SeaBank, sequesters 44% of all carbon sequestered in US National Forests.
- Southeast Alaska has one of the largest estuarine systems in the world. Estuaries provide erosion control, help purify water, are breeding grounds for a variety of animals, and are nurseries for salmon, forage fish, and shellfish. Three-quarters of all fish caught in Southeast Alaska use its estuaries during some part of their life cycle, including salmon, halibut, sablefish and rockfish.
- Estuaries are extremely threatened by climate change, especially seagrass beds and kelp forests.
- Extreme weather events such as record heat, intense snow and rain associated with atmospheric rivers, marine heat waves, snow droughts (when rain falls instead of snow) and other abnormal weather events will increase .
- Southeast Alaska has already warmed by 3° Fahrenheit over the past half century; average temperatures could rise an additional 3-5°F by 2050. Southeast Alaska could experience the largest change in the number of winter days above freezing in all of America North.
- Ocean waters are becoming more acidic. This makes it more difficult for crabs, crustaceans, krill, pteropods and other species to build and maintain their shells. Their populations will decline, which will impact the animals that feed on them, such as salmon.
- Together, industrial logging and climate change pose a “double jeopardy to salmon”.
Forests help keep waterways at the right temperature and keep water quality high. Industrial logging, however, has “damaged salmon habitat in some of Southeast Alaska’s most productive watersheds.” Failing logging road culverts also eliminated hundreds of miles of salmon habitat for fish, resulting in “millions of dollars in losses for Southeast Alaskan anglers.”
Industrial logging has cut “nearly a third of the most important and valuable old-growth forest stands of tall trees”, with ramifications for ecosystem integrity, tourism, hunting and more.
The Forest Service is taking comments until Jan. 24 on its proposed plan to restore roadless protections in the Tongass National Forest. On a larger scale, the United States Department of Agriculture announced in July 2021 its plan for what it calls the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy, or SASS, which prioritizes sustainable, community uses. culturally significant properties of Tongass, and which eliminates industrial scale. logging of old growth forests.
“As our region assesses resource management decisions and develops climate change adaptation strategies, we believe it is essential that stakeholders and policy makers consider the true value of ecosystem goods and services. of SeaBank so that we make informed, long-term decisions that address climate change, protect Southeast Alaska’s natural capital, and ensure more sustainable coastal economies,” Behnken said.
Mary Catharine Martin is the director of communications for SalmonState, an organization working to make Alaska a place where wild salmon and the people who depend on them thrive.