By Joey Kraszeski
There has been some controversy in our community about riparian buffers, which would extend protection to freshwater salmon habitat. As an Alaskan, I regard salmon to be an iconic embodiment of ourselves. Heroic in their persistence, stamina, and determination – salmon reflect the qualities we value as a people.
Riparian buffers are vegetated areas near a stream, river, or lake that protect water quality and assist with temperature regulation, while mitigating impacts of adjacent land uses. Riparian buffers act to intercept sediment, nutrients, pesticides, and other materials in surface runoff.
These buffers are a vital component in efforts to reduce erosion by providing stream bank
stabilization. Riparian buffers also serve to provide habitat and wildlife corridors in developed areas. Wild Pacific Salmon are anadromous, meaning they swim upriver from the ocean to spawn. Salmon are cold-water fishes and cannot normally tolerate temperatures above 65 degrees. At each stage of their life cycle, salmon survival is directly linked to the quality of their habitat. Salmon eggs are laid in nests, called redds, formed in the gravel at the bottom of cold swift water stream beds or lakes. It takes up to 90 days for the eggs to hatch; alevin is the name for newborns still absorbing their yolk. Tiny salmon, called fry, leave their gravel nest and begin to swim and feed for themselves. Fry are vulnerable and must hide under rocks and among vegetation to avoid predation by birds, insects, and other fish.
Young salmon, upon reaching 6 inches in length, are known as parr. As they grow, parr consume; plankton, small crustaceans, terrestrial insects, and larvae inhabiting the riparian zone. Parr will continue to feed in their freshwater habitat for up to 3 years. A critical period for the salmon, is the process referred to as smoltification, when their physical characteristics change, preparing them for entry into saltwater. Any additional stress such as high temperature, low oxygen, pollutants, or dams can further complicate the situation and lead to an increase in salmon mortality.
After swimming more than 2000 miles throughout the northern Pacific Ocean, salmon return to their natal habitat to spawn. At this stage their digestive tracts shrink and the salmon cease to feed, it is the dissolved oxygen in the water that sustains them upriver and allows salmon to complete their lifecycle, creating the next generation.
I wear many hats these days; mother, volunteer, gardener, explorer, builder, forager, fisher, and graduate student. Within my research, I have come across many publications that indicate a correlation between riparian buffers, extending protection to salmon habitat, and an increase in property value, for lots in close proximity to those buffers.
Results of many studies point to a triple bottom line of economic prosperity, environmental quality, and social equity that may be achieved through the use of riparian buffers. Appropriately sized and managed buffers will see returns of monetary investment by way of increased property value, higher rents, increased occupancy, and higher resale value.
Property values are not secured if a residents’ house or garage is in danger of being flooded, or if erosion threatens to undercut and collapse their buildings. Riparian buffers afford resiliency to the property from flooding and storm runoff. Properties, with a view of water, from a safe distance are shown to have the highest value. Stewardship of this caliber enhances the scenic beauty and enables residents to maintain their quality of life. Visitors are attracted to greenspace created by buffers, benefiting local business owners.
Outside, streams where salmon once thrived are now barren. The decline in the vitality of our nations’ waters was not from a singular event, it was a process, a death by a thousand cuts. When we, as Alaska residents, come together and maintain or improve fish and wildlife habitat, we are engaging in a natural continuation of our neighborly tradition, our way of life. As we protect our salmon we protect our property, our lifestyle, and our future.
Joey Kraszeski is a Homer resident
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