On Alaska visit, Buttigieg touts funding boost to help salmon cross the road

A man in a suit. Behind him, out of focus, is a large ship.
Pete Buttigieg at the Port of Alaska on Tuesday. (Dev Hardikar/Alaska Public Media)

It sounds like an Alaska transportation riddle, but how does a salmon cross a road? The answer will soon be “with financial help from the federal Transportation Department.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation is sending Alaska more than $44 million to install fish-friendly culverts and other means to get migrating salmon to the other side of roads. Nine Alaska projects are in the first round of grants from a new DOT program for fish crossings.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he was surprised to find it part of his portfolio.

“When you take on a job like secretary of Transportation, there are some things you know you’re going to be working on — planes, trains, and automobiles,” he said during an interview in Anchorage on Tuesday. “And there are other things, like anadromous fish passage, that you do not realize will be on your plate.”

Anadromous fish are salmon and other species that live in the sea as adults and travel up freshwater streams to spawn.

Roads that cross fish streams are supposed to be designed for fish migration, but Alaska still has a lot of culverts that fish can’t get through. Sometimes the problem is water volume, with the culvert acting as a pinch point. Some culverts are perched too high above the stream bed.

The nine Alaska grants are for projects around the state, from Klawock to King Salmon. The largest grant is $20 million to the state of Alaska to improve a dozen stream crossings along the Parks Highway. The state says when complete, that project will open more than 50 miles of anadromous streams, leading to hundreds of acres of lake habitat.

Buttigieg said by helping fish, the program helps fishing communities.

“This is not just a question of conservation or preservation,” he said. “It’s also a question of economic security and food security.”

Funding for the Culvert Aquatic Organism Passage Program comes from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Nationwide, it supplies grants of $200 million a year.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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