Elizabeth Earl

Providers await impacts of Medicaid cuts; dental services axed

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s cuts to the state Medicaid budget have providers holding their breaths as they wait to see the impacts. Dunleavy vetoed about $58 million of general fund support for Medicaid programs from the Legislature’s enacted budget on June 28. The Legislature, divided between special sessions in Wasilla and Juneau, failed to override the vetoes, and so the cut stands for now. Because Medicaid is a federally matched program, the dollars the state cuts lead to forfeited federal dollars as well. The $58 million general fund cut is compounded by those federal dollars, meaning at least $77 million less in total. Though there’s no immediate impact for hospitals, but one of their concerns is for the end of the next fiscal year, when money starts running out to reimburse providers. The state suspended payments for about two weeks in June due to a Medicaid funding shortfall, forcing hospitals to wait until the turnover of the fiscal year to be paid. While hospitals are again being paid, there’s the possibility that if funding is cut, the suspension could go on for longer next year, said Jeannie Monk, senior vice president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “Right now, in terms of hospitals and Medicaid, everybody’s okay,” she said. One Medicaid service would be eliminated entirely if the vetoes stand: adult preventive dental medical coverage. Up until this year, Medicaid recipients were able to access preventive dental services such as cleanings and X-rays. Dunleavy vetoed $27 million supporting the program, which would stop the preventive program, though emergency situations would still be covered, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Providers say it’s more than a luxury. During the regular session, legislators and providers argued for the retention of the program, saying it was an essential part of preventative health and provided opportunities for people to encounter the medical system who might not have otherwise gone in for a doctor’s appointment. Without the benefit, there’s a concern that those patients will just wind up in the emergency rooms with abscesses and acute dental conditions, Monk said. The same is true of the homeless population, with the vetoes applying to social services that help run homeless shelters. For patients at federally qualified health centers, that means paying a sliding scale fee. Though that fee reduces the patient’s cost, it’s still about 25 percent of the total charge, said Jon Zasada, the policy integration director for the Alaska Primary Care Association. “I think a lot of folks know that once you start doing the cleaning, fillings, and other procedures, it becomes a lot more expensive,” he said. “Let’s say a cleaning or a tooth pulling … a patient could easily have a bill that at full cost is multiple thousands of dollars, and then they would be responsible for $1,000, which they generally are not able to pay.” Other states who have cut their preventive dental services for Medicaid have studied and tracked increases in emergency room visits for dental reasons, Zasada said. Though that isn’t something Alaska has done in the past, it’s something the APCA will be looking into, in part because of the inefficiency of treating those problems in an expensive place like an emergency room, he said. “Certainly an abscess or an infection, when treated in an emergency room, is far more expensive than when it might be under control because someone has access to preventative care,” he said. At hospitals, those patients would be eligible for financial assistance, or charity care. Hospitals generally have to eat that cost later. That’s not the case for federally qualified health centers; they often have grants to help cover that shortfall from the sliding scale fee. But with more patients not able to pay for services, they may have to rely more on those backup funding sources. For the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, that means probably looking for more grants to support their services and relying on patients who come with private insurance, said Tammy Green, the CEO of Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center. “We have figured out that we have a fair amount of our dental patients that are on Medicaid with our dental benefit,” she said. “We’re going to have to figure out where else to shoulder that in our business.” The Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center has integrated medical, dental and behavioral care, and patients who come in for dental services are frequently referred for medical services and vice versa. Without the dental benefit, patients may not be as likely to receive care in the first place, which may lead to more serious conditions down the road and may hamper their ability to get jobs. Green said a number of the patients who have had dental services have written to the clinics and said oral care played a role in their ability to be employable by correcting their speech or smiles. The other problem is that the caseload may go up as other providers in the area stop taking Medicaid patients, she said. “I think the other piece about these cuts is that in our community, the dentists will no longer be able to see the Medicaid patients and we are going to be deluged, but more importantly, I think the hospital emergency rooms are going to end up (seeing these patients),” she said. The House Finance Committee, meeting in Anchorage July 15, introduced House Bill 2001 to reinstate many of the cuts from the line-item vetoes, including Medicaid, and using remaining state funds to pay the Permanent Fund dividend. Zasada said the APCA hadn’t formally endorsed the bill, but “anything that would reinstate funding for broad health care services amongst all of the other things, we are supportive of.” During a press conference July 15, Dunleavy said his administration hadn’t had time to review the House’s new bill yet but planned to continue discussions with legislators later in the day. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cultivators still seeking changes to cannabis excise tax

Questions continue to bubble up about potential changes to state cannabis taxes to keep the current structure from hampering business in the future. Alaska voters legalized recreational marijuana use in 2014, but it took about 18 months for the first cultivators to be licensed and open their doors. When they did, they began paying into the cultivation tax that Alaska assesses on commercially grown marijuana. Generally, any part of bud or flower is taxed at $50 per ounce and the remainder of the plant is taxed at $15 per ounce. That tax is assessed entirely on weight, rather than scaling with price. According to growers, that’s going to be a problem. From the beginning of the program through April 30, the state has assessed more than $28.5 million in taxes. That’s just the cultivation taxes, as sales taxes are assessed by local governments. As cultivators have ramped up production to meet sales demands — retail sales reached $130.4 million in 2018, up from about $57.5 million in 2017 — that tax amount has gone up as well. Cultivators have had to account for it in their businesses and so far have been able to do so, in part because with limited supply, the price has stayed relatively high. That’s not always going to be the case, though, said Jana Weltzin, an attorney representing cannabis businesses through the firm JDW Counsel. “That price will go down because supply will go up, and the demand will stay the same,” she said. In a presentation to the Marijuana Control Board, she presented a case for the Legislature to consider changing the way taxes are assessed in the future to prevent the strangulation of businesses. Based on Notice of Violations, some businesses aren’t even keeping up with their taxes now, she said. The Marijuana Control Board does not have any control over tax policy; the Legislature has to set it by statute. Weltzin said she recognized that but wanted the board to be informed of the problem so they could help educate legislators and advocate for a policy change. Since the inception of the program, cannabis-related businesses have hired many of their own employees but have also led to work generated in ancillary businesses. Between the taxes and indirect economic impacts, the businesses have stimulated enough activity to create a return of about $3 per dollar spent, much at the local level, she estimated. But looking forward, the inflexible tax structure may put excessive pressure on cultivators. Because Alaska assesses the tax based on weight, the amount that will be taxed will not change. The sale price will, and Alaska should respond by revising its tax structure to not jeopardize businesses, Weltzin said. She pointed to states like Nevada, which balances its tax revenue from cannabis between a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent sales tax. Colorado splits its revenue evenly, at 15 percent on both an excise and a sales tax, according to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Tax Foundation. Alaska, on the other hand, set a dollar amount per ounce rather than on a percentage. “We are the only solely based weight excise tax,” Weltzin said. “We maybe need to bob and weave and adjust our approach.” In a hypothetical example, she noted that a rough average of costs per month for a 5,000-square-foot cultivation facility at about $97,300 per month, not including rent and advertising. Based on the average sales price of $2,800 per pound, that leaves about $31,500 in profit to cover items like rent, advertising and local taxes. That doesn’t go a long way, and once the price begins to go down, that would cut into the profit. She suggested an approach like a 10 percent tax on sales from cultivators to manufacturers and a 10 percent tax on sales from manufacturers to retailers, but emphasized that this is not an industry-generated idea — it was just to get the conversation started, she said. “If we get tagged as the industry that doesn’t fulfill its tax obligations, most of the people aren’t going to understand that economically, with an inflexible price floor like we’ve set here with $800 per pound, it’s not possible,” she said. “While we strive to make the state money, the state needs to be our partner. The state needs to move and ebb and flow with the market like we do.” Board member Loren Jones said that while he understands the situation, consumers ought to be paying the taxes in the retail price because it should be built into cultivators’ business plans. The Legislature is unlikely to want to see the tax revenue go down, he said. In the case of local governments, businesses have to plan around local retail taxes when planning prices and expenses, he said. “If (businesses) say they can’t make money if they pay (local governments) the 5 percent, they’re doing it wrong,” he said. The Alaska Marijuana Industry Association hosted a call-in on the same topic on July 15 night and sent out a call for industry stakeholders to send in comments to the industry organization on the topic before July 22 to work on a proposal to send to the state. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet salmon fisheries into full swing after rough 2018

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct that the 2018 Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery closed two days early. Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries are now in full swing, with promising sockeye returns finally showing up. East Side setnetters in the sections north of Kasilof opened for their first period July 8, and the personal-use dipnet fishery on the Kenai River opened July 10. They join the drift gillnet fleet and other Upper Cook Inlet setnetters as well as the inriver sportfishery and the Kasilof River personal-use fishery. As of July 8, nearly 80,000 sockeye salmon had passed the sonar in the Kenai River. That’s more than double the number that had passed through on the previous date in 2018, when only 37,513 had passed, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The Kasilof River sonar has registered about 98,635 sockeye, ahead of the 81,076 counted in 2018. Both rivers saw an uptick in daily passage on July 8 compared to July 7. Commercial fishermen throughout Upper Cook Inlet have harvested about 186,305 sockeye so far, according to ADFG. They’ve also harvested about 18,736 pink salmon, the second-largest component of their harvest so far. The pink salmon runs fluctuate wildly on a two-year basis in most areas, peaking in even years in Upper Cook Inlet. The run would normally be small this year, but ADFG has already had to apportion the pink salmon run within the sockeye run in the Kenai River. The managers run a fishwheel near the sonar site to help apportion the run when the pinks comprise more than 5 percent of the samples during the day. “The pinks in an odd year are usually earlier,” said Brian Marston, the commercial area management biologist for Upper Cook Inlet. “Now is exceptionally early for pinks.” The catch hasn’t been exceptionally high so far, he said. The managers apportioned both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers for about three days, but the passage on both rivers has dropped since then. Pink salmon usually peak in the area in early August. One of the major hallmarks of this summer so far has been the heat. Southcentral Alaska has smashed heat records in Anchorage and Kenai, with temperatures soaring into the upper 80s and up to 90 degrees on the Fourth of July. Along with the atmospheric heat, and possibly contributing to it, is increased sea surface temperatures across the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Data from the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks show that the waters around Cook Inlet are several degrees Celsius above average. While the effects of warmer ocean temperatures are unclear this summer so far, past studies have connected warmer water temperatures with changing marine organism behavior, including fish. So far, Marston said he hasn’t heard reports of particularly abnormal sockeye behavior. The lack of wind this summer may have made it harder for fishermen to hit aggregations of salmon, so members of the fleet have reported some tough fishing. The only direct data ADFG collects on sea surface temperature in Cook Inlet are with the Anchor Point test fishery, which takes place off the coast of Anchor Point as a way of gauging run timing coming into Cook Inlet. In the winter, ADFG collects data on the temperature of the Gulf of Alaska as a way of informing the run timing of the run the following year. Marston said the data they gathered this winter showed that the run this year is likely to be three or four days early. Stream temperatures are also significantly warmer than usual. The Kenai River at Soldotna, which is usually about 54 degrees Fahrenheit in July, measured at 64 degrees on July 9, according to the National Weather Service. Little Willow Creek in the Mat-Su Valley clocked in at 74 degrees. Those warm temperatures may discourage salmon from entering the lakes. Marston said the ADFG weirs in Mat-Su Valley lakes— Chelatna, Judd and Larson lakes — just went in and no fish have passed them yet, but with nearly 80 degrees measuring in some of the lakes, sockeye may not be eager to leave the cooler streams to head into the lakes. For all systems, ADFG is expecting about 6 million sockeye salmon to return to Upper Cook Inlet. With escapement goals totaling about 2 million, that leaves about 4 million for harvest, 3 million of which would go to the commercial fleet. The bulk of those sockeye are bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, the two largest producers in the inlet, followed by the Susitna River. The forecast, which is slightly greater than the 20-year average, was welcome news for fishermen, who endured one of their worst sockeye seasons in recent memory in 2018. The harvest, about 1.3 million salmon total, was about 61 percent fewer than the recent 10-year average. Fishermen were out of the water for a big chunk of the season due to the poor sockeye return, and ADFG closed the Kenai River dipnet fishery two days early. The sockeye did eventually show up, but for the first time in recent memory, more than half the run showed up in the river after Aug. 1. So far, the run timing has been right about on average. About midway through July, ADFG reevaluates the run projection and adjusts management accordingly. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Best practices help Juneau absorb leap in tourist traffic

JUNEAU — On a given summer day in Juneau, it can be hard to tell that there may be 10,000 tourists roaming around the island. In certain areas, it’s easy to see the crowds pouring off the cruise ship docks, headed for the main stretch of downtown. But a few streets away, the sidewalks are clear, the bus shelters empty, the benches unoccupied. Most of the traffic comes from the cruise ships that visit the capital each summer. When all six docks are occupied, they can deliver enough passengers to double the population of Juneau, which is home to about 30,000 people. This year, over the course of the whole summer, cruise ships are expected to bring about 1.3 million tourists through the state, with the majority of them landing in Juneau at least briefly. That’s more than half of the estimated 2.2 million total visitors expected in Alaska this season. That’s a significant increase, even over last year’s traffic. However, the businesses in downtown Juneau are taking it in stride. On the Saturday before the Fourth of July, some workers said the summer had been going well so far, with the busiest days on Mondays and Tuesdays or “six-ship days.” The extra numbers haven’t upset the flow of business too much so far, they said. The number of people coming to Juneau every summer has increased dramatically in the past few years. In 2016, the city received more than 1 million visitors, a 19 percent increase versus the year before. Two years later, more than 1.17 million people came to Alaska by cruise ship. In fact, visitation to the state has increased every year for at least the last five years, according to statistics from the McDowell Group, with more cruise ship passengers for the past three years than the number in 2009, before a drop in Alaska tourism after the 2008 financial crash. But so far, Juneau has handled the increases well. The city’s Tourism Best Management Practices, or TBMP, coordinated by the industry, have been in place since 1997. They’re not officially required by any government agency, but the tour operators and other businesses in the industry have agreed to operate within their parameters to keep the impact of visitors to a minimum. “A lot of (the provisions) came about through a process like now, in the 1990s, when the industry was growing and the city was admittedly behind the eight ball,” said Kirby Day, who manages the port operations for the Holland America Group in Alaska. “As the years went by … we built those into what we do today.” Though they’re not enforced by the city, the program has good compliance, with about 130 operators and about 3,000 employees included, Day said. Even when an operator disagrees with a proposed rule, they’ve been able to work together until everyone is on the same page. The group meets as a whole about once a year to go over complaints from the summer and update or address the guidelines to keep on top of changes. Operators have taken it on themselves to work on improving service while reducing impacts, too. The aviation operators in Juneau, which include a handful of fixed-wing services and a number of helicopter tours, meet at the beginning of every summer to discuss their flight patterns, call frequencies and the landmarks they use to better coordinate their traffic. It’s a major step for safety, said Joe Sprague, the CEO of Wings Airways, which operates flight tours to the Juneau Icefield. (Wings Airways is partly owned by the Binkley family, which also owns the Anchorage Daily News and the Alaska Journal of Commerce) Wings operates a fleet of five DeHavilland Otters, which carry 10 passengers each. But planes that big were a conscious choice and investment; there are now fewer planes in the sky, which improves safety, Sprague said. The new planes are also equipped with 900-horsepower engines that operate relatively quietly. “It took investment, but the result is that we have fewer flights that are quieter, which the neighbors appreciate, while still accommodating the same number of guests,” he said. While the cruise ship docks are regularly crowded with visitors, they generally spread out. Wings Airways gets about 85 percent of its customers from cruise ships, Sprague said, and the majority are booked through the cruise line companies ahead of time. But the operators also regularly bus people out of the downtown area to locations like Mendenhall Glacier or to Auke Bay for whale-watching tours, coordinating them within the city. Lines at downtown businesses and popular tourist sites can get long when buses arrive, but there are still relatively quiet downtown neighborhoods even when the docks are in full swing. Even as the number of tourists increases, new companies are stepping in to offer various excursions. The city has been instrumental in planning with the industry to keep the process streamlined as well, looking to projects like the installation of new stanchions near the cruise ship docks to improve the flow of people through traffic. “It’s planning and have some process and intentionality about what you’re going to do with (visitors) when they come,” Sprague said. Each individual cruise passenger doesn’t spend that much money in Juneau — about $162 per person, with the majority going to tours and excursion activities. But combined with other visitors, the cruise lines and crew members, it can make a significant total: $218 million in direct spending in 2016, according to the McDowell Group. That meant about $13.5 million in tax revenue for the City and Borough of Juneau, with about $10.4 million of that in sales taxes. Another $14.2 million came in from marine-related revenues, including the state cruise ship passenger tax and Juneau’s marine passenger fee. Most other industries in Alaska have been shrinking or holding level since 2015. Tourism, however, has been riding the wave of an improving economy in the Lower 48. Other areas of Alaska have been brushing up their efforts to attract tourists to get in on a cut of that spending. So far, they are seeing an increase — just more than 2 million tourists visited Alaska last year, with about 900,000 of them visiting areas by air, car and rail. As they look to expand their industries, trade group Alaska Travel Industry Association is working on policy and marketing efforts to attract tourists year-round, including expanding winter tourism. Though Juneau has a head start on other cities and boroughs, some are starting to look at its best practices, according to Julie Jessen, communications and public relations manager for ATIA. “Haines has also started a discussion on tourism growth and planning,” she said in an email. “As tourism — particularly the cruise sector — continues to project growth, more and more communities may seek examples like the TBMP.” She added that the ATIA will host a community and industry discussion Oct. 7 about the growth of the cruise tourism industry in Juneau as a lead-in to the annual conference and trade show, and will include a plenary session with how other communities are handling growing visitation. When the industry first implemented the TBMP in 1997, the city received about 600,000 visitors per year. In the 20 years since, the number has more than doubled, even though people thought at the time that Juneau couldn’t handle any more visitors, Day said. No program will be perfect, but the TBMP plan has helped mitigate impacts and made Juneau a different place than it would have been without them, he said. Every community looks different, but the template for the protocols would work anywhere, he said. “Growth in visitation is taking place everywhere,” he said. “Places like Homer, Talkeetna, anybody, can take this template and pare it down to what works in their community.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Woodrow officially takes director’s helm at ASMI

JUNEAU — Alaska’s seafood industry has a new captain at the helm of its main marketing agency. Jeremy Woodrow, previously the organization’s communications director, officially took over as executive director of he Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute this June. He replaces former executive director Alexa Tonkovich, who left the position in December 2018 to pursue a master’s degree in international business. In some ways, it’s the top of a long ladder for Woodrow. Born and raised in Juneau, he started as an intern with ASMI in 2001 and worked with the organization’s former public relations firm Scheidermeyer &Associates Alaska. After a stint in the communications department at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, he returned to ASMI as the communications director in 2017. Though he’s not in commercial fishing at present, he said his family has a long history in it. That connection has helped inform his involvement in the ever-changing fisheries of Alaska, and though ASMI stays out of fisheries policy, there are plenty of other tangles to sort out. High on that list is the increasing volatility in fisheries. Salmon fisheries in particular are always fluctuating from year to year, but fishermen have had unpredictable disasters followed by banner years followed by disasters, which is a relatively new phenomenon, Woodrow said. In response, some fishermen are looking to diversify their income or their fishing portfolios to help offset that uncertainty, he said. The fleet is consolidating as well, especially in the larger offshore fisheries. However, Alaska’s wild seafood products have never been more valuable. “While our fisheries have been fully exploited for several decades, we have seen the value continue to go up, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “That shows that there is value in the fish. There are other ways to gauge value than just the price of fish at the dock. More people wanting to get into it, the price of boats …. all that generates money to fisheries economies.” Part of that is due to increasing seafood consumption in the U.S., but part is also due to the increasing price wild Alaska salmon has been able to command in markets. Salmon is the most valuable commercial U.S. species, with a total value of $688 million in 2017, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Alaska salmon accounted for 98 percent of landings in 2017. The average landing price for all species — the majority of which were pink salmon — was 65 cents, according to NMFS, but once those salmon are sent to the supermarket, consumers are paying significantly more for them than for Atlantic salmon or salmon from elsewhere. That’s in part due to ASMI’s work over the years to promote the Alaska brand, Woodrow said. The state’s fisheries have a good story to tell: comprehensively managed fisheries, small communities and a fleet dominated by small boats and local fishermen. “We have such a great generational story to tell, a management story to tell, all that, wrapped into an incredible place,” Woodrow said. Things are changing there as well, though. The ongoing trade conflict between the U.S. and China has presented ASMI with a complex new marketing landscape. China is Alaska’s single large market for seafood, and the organization has spent about two decades building relationships with buyers and processors there. A significant portion of Alaska’s fish are exported to China and reprocessed there, with most bound for either export to other world markets and the U.S. or for domestic consumption in China. On top of that, other countries are increasing their salmon farming efforts and marketing in the U.S., attracting consumers with lower prices for salmon. Norway, for example, is ramping up efforts to market its salmon in the U.S., and Iceland is in the process of expanding its aquaculture industry for salmon. ASMI has been clear about its intentions to remain in China, Woodrow said. With 1.3 billion residents and a rapidly expanding middle class, the country is too big a market to abandon because of tariffs. While the disagreements over trade have merit, the tariff battles have impacted seafood demand there, Woodrow said. “We do agree that something has to change (in U.S.-China trade), but this conflict going on has definitely created extra headwinds for the Alaska seafood industry,” he said. ASMI received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop markets for seafood in other countries, focusing on Southeast Asia, Woodrow said. The organization has also established a presence in South America, with an office in Brazil and significant interest in seafood among people there. There’s also an opportunity to take some of the reprocessing market there, reducing some of the dependence on China for that service. There are also opportunities for marketing other products. Mariculture is a growing industry in the state, with expanding interest in kelp and geoduck clam farming. Most of those products are currently bound for foreign markets, but there’s growing interest in the U.S., especially among younger consumers, who are more open to tastes for different palettes. But it’s not only alternative products. Pollock — the single largest commercial fishery in the U.S. by volume — also has an opportunity. “A great example is pollock roe,” he said. “I guarantee you very few Alaskans or Americans have ever eaten pollock roe, but pollock roe is incredibly popular in Japan … the size of the pollock roe is very similar to the size of fish eggs that you see on sushi. That’s a perfect segment for it to come into the U.S. market.” The ASMI board announced Woodrow’s hire as executive director June 10, saying the board was excited to have a lifelong Alaskan to lead the agency. “The Alaska seafood brand is as strong as ever and we are confident that Jeremy’s leadership will advance the direction and mission of the agency,” said Jack Schultheis, chairman of the ASMI board of directors, in the announcement. Going into the role, Woodrow said one of the things he considers with each decision is how Alaska fishermen will accept decisions that ASMI makes, in part because the agency is ultimately paid for by the fishermen with state funding zeroed out over the past few years through budget cuts. “Anytime that we have a marketing plan, I always keep in the back of my mind how will an Alaska fisherman react to this, because they’re always our first audience,” he said. “We have to make sure they understand they’re getting good value.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Invasive elodea leads to Alexander Lake shutdown

Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed sportfishing on Alexander Lake with the goal of controlling the spread of elodea.  Mat-Su Valley residents and state agencies are trying to gather enough support to stop an invasive water weed in the area before it’s too late. Elodea, an aggressive aquatic plant, has made itself at home in several large lakes in the Susitna River drainage. When it was first detected in Alexander Lake in 2014, it only covered about 20 acres; by this year, it had increased to 90 percent of the lake’s area. Nearby Sucker Lake is in a similar state. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed Alexander and Sucker lakes to all sportfishing this summer, specifically targeting controlling the spread of elodea. The plant often hitches rides on boat propellers, in bilgewater and on floatplane floats. Kristine Dunker, who manages the invasive species program for ADFG, said she didn’t expect the closure this summer to impact the invasive northern pike population in the lake much because it will open again in the winter, when people frequently fish for them there. ADFG encourages people to harvest as many northern pike as they can, which can devastate salmon populations in lakes. While elodea is just a plant, it’s more than an innocent bystander. When it’s invasive, it can grow so thick as to make lake water anoxic. Salmon can have a hard time navigating a deeply forested lake to find food as juveniles or spawning areas as adults, and other fish can be flat out strangled in the lakes for lack of oxygen. What’s more, it can spread by fragmentation — only a small piece has to be introduced to good habitat for the plant to flourish. It can survive under ice, and does well in slow-moving, shallow water. “It’s really gotten bad in the Mat-Su,” said Mike Wood, the president of the Susitna River Coalition, a conservation group focused on protecting Susitna River fish habitat. The Susitna River Coalition is among the participants in a task force aimed at eradicating elodea from the Mat-Su Valley. Led by the Alaska Department of Natural Resources, the group includes ADFG, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District and a number of landowners. The main point is not the direct threat to fish at present, but the potential for elodea to move out of those two lakes and affect the rest of the system, said Dan Coleman, a natural resource specialist with DNR’s Alaska Plant Materials Center. Coleman said he thought the chances of keeping elodea out of the rest of the Mat-Su were “very good” if the project successfully eradicates the weed in Alexander and Sucker lakes. “These are just source populations sitting out there right now,” he said. “The sooner we get going on this project … the better.” With the current prescriptions needed to kill the elodea, DNR estimates the cost at $850,000 for the first year for both lakes — and that’s just for the herbicide. Some organizations have already committed funding, including the Mat-Su Salmon Habitat Partnership and the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission, but it’s not enough to carry the project through. The group is looking for federal and state grants to support the eradication program, said Nicole Swenson, the conservation director for the Tyonek Tribal Conservation District and coordinator of the elodea task force. The local funding they’re looking for would serve as match funds to access federal grants, she said. The sticker price may look high, but the price to eradicate it in the future would be much higher, she said. “This project is getting close to a million (dollars) per year based on the predictions,” she said. “And the state is hurting, as we all know, for money, and we were just chasing grants and putting it all together. We’re piecemealing it together — when it takes a million dollars a year to get it done, (it’s difficult).” Alexander Lake is complicated, with multiple streams feeding into it, multiple outlets and a system of wetlands around it. The strategy the group would use would include releasing two herbicides — diquat and fluoridone — into the lakes and maintaining high enough concentrations for long enough to kill the elodea. Alexander Lake in particular has high water turnover — all the water in the lake is flushed out within 10 days, Coleman said. Seeking additional funding, Wood said the Susitna River Coalition approached Donlin Gold for help. Donlin, which is working to obtain permits for a proposed gold mine in Southwestern Alaska, has proposed a pipeline to run through the Mat-Su Valley to Cook Inlet for natural gas to power the operations. However Donlin’s community projects committee did not receive the request with enough time, and the requested amount — $700,000, according to the company — was too much for the budget, according to external affairs manager Kristina Woolston. The company only had a few days to respond, and when the Susitna River Coalition reduced its request to about $172,000, Donlin’s community investment committee did not have enough time to adequately consider engaging in a project of that size. “We would consider working with Fish and Game, sport fish groups, industry and other local entities to solve the problem, not just treat the symptoms,” Woolston wrote in an email. Melissa Heuer, the executive director of the Susitna River Coalition, said the group saw the project as a way for Donlin to contribute to a conservation area near the pipeline corridor, which will be impacting wetlands in the construction process. Donlin has agreed to conditions set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to do 4.5 acres of wetlands mitigation in the Mat-Su Borough in connection with its project, in addition to wetland conservation projects in the Calista region and in Cook Inlet. “Where things could actually make a difference, I don’t think this was a time for (Donlin),” she said. “Hopefully they’ll come through in the future. I think they still would be a good partner, and people would appreciate seeing a company step up.” The Mat-Su is far from the only place with elodea infestations in Alaska. The plant was first discovered in Eyak Lake near Cordova in the 1980s, thought to have been introduced from someone dumping an aquarium in the lake. Since then, it has spread to Chena Slough near Fairbanks, Lake Hood in Anchorage and several lakes on the Kenai Peninsula, among other locations. Residents say they think the elodea in Alexander Lake was likely introduced there by floatplanes arriving to fish in the lake. There haven’t been any definitive documented cases of elodea infestations negatively impacting salmon runs in Alaska yet, but that may be due to a lack of data, Swenson said. It would have been great to address the elodea a few years ago when it first surfaced, but time is of the essence now, Heuer said. “I think if we could have done it two or three years ago, that would have been great,” she said. “I think we’re really just reaching a key time that we still have an opportunity to stop it before it gets out of control. If we don’t stop it now, it’s just going to grow exponentially. Once it moves out of these water bodies and into the rest of the Mat-Su, it’s going to be almost impossible.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

MSA reauthorization still stalled with 2018 House bill expired

More than a decade has passed since the last reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act was signed into law, but the latest effort has stalled in Congress. The act, originally passed in 1974, is the nation’s landmark legislation on federal fisheries policy. In the intervening years, Congress has passed a number of reauthorizations, most recently in 2006, tweaking language and adding provisions. The House passed HR 200, sponsored by Rep. Don Young, in July 2018. However, it never progressed through the Senate and thus expired at the end of the 115th Congress. Young’s bill included a number of new provisions — most notably, changing the word “overfished” throughout the bill to “depleted” — and allowing regional fishery management councils consider economic impacts to communities when determining catch limits. One of the reasons Young decided to include changing the word “overfished” to “depleted” was to recognize non-fishing impacts on stock abundance, said Zack Brown, Young’s press secretary. “The term ‘overfish’ implies that our commercial fishing industry alone has the potential to impact fish stocks and the overall health of our marine ecosystems,” Brown wrote in an email. “’Depleted’ is a far more comprehensive term that takes a broader and more evidence-based assessment of the risks to marine life.” The language change applies in a situation like the St. Matthew’s Island blue king crab stock. The stock hasn’t been fished since the 2016-17 season because of low abundance, and only four years overall since 1999, but was declared overfished in October 2018 because the estimated biomass was below the minimum stock size threshold specified for the crab fishery management plan. A protected area was established in 2008 and expanded in 2010 to include blue king crab habitat. The MSA requires a stock rebuilding plan to be established for overfished stocks, and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted a purpose and need statement for the rebuilding plan at its June meeting in Sitka. But it’s not just fishing affecting the stock. Stock projections show recruitment in the St. Matthew’s blue king crab stock falling since the mid-1990s. Fishing and bycatch have played roles in the fishery’s decline, but fisheries have been restricted or closed off and on since 1999, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Environmental factors on the populations may be at play impacting the stock, according to a report to the council. Young wanted the language to reflect threats to stocks beyond just fishing pressure, Brown said. “While using the term ‘depleted’ still allows for oversight of fishermen, it also encompasses other potential threats such as predation and ocean acidification,” he said. Young’s bill would have also granted more flexibility to councils in crafting rebuilding plans to account for species’ lifecycles. The current MSA requires stocks to be rebuilt within 10 years of being declared overfished, which may not be possible for certain species. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council agreed with allowing for the term “depleted” to be used in the act to account for cases like the St. Matthew’s blue king crab, but didn’t agree with the proposed change of including economic impact to communities in the determination of catch limits, according to a February 2019 letter to Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. The letter, signed by council chairman Simon Kinneen, noted that the measure would tilt the development of harvests away from their scientific basis. The council would have two choices: ask the Scientific and Statistical Committee to consider social and economic consequence, driving it away from science, or close fisheries early before the total allowable catch has been reached, according to the letter. “Incorporating social and economic factors into the determination of annual catch limits as proposed in the draft will severely impact the conservation and management of resources in the North Pacific by increasing scientific and management uncertainty and reducing public transparency and participation in the decision-making process,” Kinneen wrote. “From our perspective, this may be a cure in search of a problem.” Though HR 200 expired with the last Congress, some elements made it into law as a separate bill: the Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2018, or Modern Fish Act. The rest of the provisions will have to start from scratch back in the House, likely with some edits, Sullivan noted in an email. “With the changeover in the House leadership, I expect the Democratic majority will have their own priorities and will want to advance their own legislation on this, and other topics,” he wrote. Sullivan agreed with the inclusion of the language change from “overfished” to “depleted,” noting the North Pacific council’s support. He said that while on the whole the MSA has resulted in Alaska’s fisheries dominating the nation, eliminated foreign fishing off Alaska’s coasts and kept stocks from being overfished like those in other regions, there is room for reconsideration as time goes on. “While I think it’s always healthy to reexamine and update our laws as a matter of course—particularly as technology and science evolve—I have heard from Alaska’s fishermen that my role as a steward of the MSA should largely be that of a doctor practicing the mantra of ‘First, do no harm,’” he wrote. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Council turns down petition sought to protect Adak processor

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Steve Minor's last name. The Aleutian Islands won’t be getting an emergency boost in quota for Pacific cod, despite stakeholders’ assertions that the processing plant in Adak needs it to survive the next season. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided not to approve an emergency petition from a group of Aleutian Islands stakeholders at its meeting June 9, instead taking a longer route through a discussion to look at the set-aside options for the area. The petition had sought an emergency quota set-aside of Pacific cod, separate from the general Bering Sea-Aleutian Islands quota, to help sustain the shore-based plant and thus the community. Adak, a small community on an island west of Unalaska that once housed a naval base, relies heavily on Pacific cod processing. The community there taxes fishery landings to pay for public services as well. In recent years, the shore-based processors have had to increasingly compete with larger companies’ catcher-processor vessels participating in the Bering Sea Pacific cod fishery. The fishery has grown as well, and as the fishery is not under rationalization, fishermen have complained of an increasingly dangerous “race for fish” that makes the season shorter and shorter. In spring 2019, the Bering Sea Pacific cod “A” season lasted less than two weeks. Since 2016, the Aleutian Islands area has had a leg-up in the fishery through a provision in the council’s management plan for the area called Amendment 113. Essentially, it created a priority quota for cod to be delivered to shore-based processing plants west of the 170-degree west latitude line in the Aleutian Islands, protecting Adak’s plant from being outrun by the at-sea processing vessels. However, in May, a federal judge ruled in favor of a group of fishermen that complained about that amendment being against the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, saying the council needed to either revise or remove the amendment. The City of Adak is appealing the decision, but in the meantime, the fishermen and plant operator hoped to get an emergency policy from the council to protect the plant in the upcoming season. Steve Minor, who testified to the council June 8 on behalf of the petitioners, said the proposed petition wouldn’t have ensured that fish were delivered to the Adak plant, but it provided a chance to do so. “The emergency rule will not restore Amendment 113,” he said. “It also does not guarantee that a single pound of Pacific cod will be landed by any shore-based processor, but it will create opportunity for us.” The petitioners argue there is an emergency because with the increasing participation in the Bering Sea fishery, the season is shortening as vessels run up to the halibut protected species catch limit quickly, forcing all the other fisheries closed to protect halibut. Fishermen have told the council in the past that with the pressure to fish quickly, vessels may not move off a particular ground even if the catch of halibut is high because they are concerned about not keeping up. With the challenge of more vessels fishing on the same limit of halibut, the petitioners argue they’re concerned that without a set-aside of 5,000 metric tons above the guideline harvest limit of Pacific cod, they may not get a season at all. George Pollock of Aleut Enterprise urged the council to establish a Limited Access Privilege Program fishery, which would add additional protections for that area. The community is working on developing other fisheries, such as for geoduck clams, he said. “These activities are directly or indirectly supported by shore-based Pacific cod processing,” he said. However, Bering Sea trawlers opposed the emergency petition. In the complaint filed over Amendment 113, the Groundfish Forum, the United Catcher Boats, B&N Fisheries Co. and the Katie Ann LLC complained that the set-aside for the Aleutian Islands did not meet the MSA criterion for conservation purposes, and the court agreed. Heather Mann, representing the Midwater Trawlers Association, told the council the petition did not meet the criteria for an emergency and was instead another attempt to reinstate Amendment 113. “(Emergency rules) are not a management tool to be used as an end-run around court decisions,” she told the council. “In this case, the criteria have not been met.” The council members did not agree that it was an emergency and voted instead to ask staff to produce a discussion of trawl catcher vessel harvests and the set-aside in the Aleutian Island Pacific cod fishery. Council alternate member Rachel Baker, representing the State of Alaska for Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang, proposed the amendment, saying that she didn’t think that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would view it as an emergency even if the council sent it on. “I as one council member can’t do that,” she said. Council members Craig Cross and Bill Tweit agreed with her, saying they would support the motion of looking at the problem holistically. Council member Andy Mezirow said he was disappointed the members had not done more to support Adak, and council member Theresa Peterson said she would have preferred some kind of more immediate action to help the community out of its predicament. “This is most likely going to take a long time,” she said. “I think about the vulnerability of the plant and those dependent on the success of the plant to move forward.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet fishermen celebrate ‘Return of the Reds’ with hope for 2019

Cook Inlet fishermen are looking forward to their salmon season with high hopes that the sockeye will arrive in better numbers than last year. On June 11, fishermen and processors grilled up some of the first Cook Inlet salmon of the year at the Pacific Star processing plant in Kenai, gathering to build excitement for the coming season. The plant is now receiving salmon from the west side of Cook Inlet, while the fishermen in the drift gillnet and east side set gillnet fleets gear up for their first expected openings in the coming weeks. The event, dubbed the Return of the Reds, was reminiscent of the recent gatherings in Anchorage and Seattle to receive the first Copper River salmon of the year, a heralded fish in the culinary and fisheries world. The Kenai version is the first in what the Alaska Salmon Alliance hopes will be a new annual tradition for the area, said ASA President Nate Berga. Retailers, fishermen and local government officials gathered at Pacific Star and donated proceeds from sale of grilled fish to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. The event was less about promoting the processor or the industry than connecting Alaskans with their locally available fish as well as building excitement for the season, he said. “The biggest thing that we wanted to focus on is getting fresh Alaska salmon onto Alaskans’ plates,” he said. Alaska salmon is an internationally valuable commodity, with a huge percentage being shipped overseas to Asia and some being consumed in the Lower 48. Many Alaskans fill their freezers with salmon they harvest themselves at personal-use dipnet fisheries or in sport fisheries, but others may not have the chance — and the ASA wants to see Alaskans more connected with their commercial fisheries, Berga said. Commercial fisheries are also one of the largest private industry employers in Alaska, and most of the Cook Inlet fishermen live in the state according to permit data. “This is a time when our state is struggling,” he said. “This money is staying here.” Upper Cook Inlet faced a terrible sockeye harvest in 2018 — about two-thirds below the recent 20-year average — with the total estimated run coming in at 1.7 million sockeye to the Kenai River and 697,000 to the Kasilof River. Fishermen sat on the docks for much of the season, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the Kenai River dipnet fishery a day early with an eye toward making escapement goals. The sonar has yet to click on for the Kenai River, the major driver in the region, this year, but early reports from sport fishermen on the river indicate good abundance. The Russian River sport fishery opened June 11 at midnight, with more than 8,400 sockeye past the weir on Lower Russian Lake as of June 10, though it takes about a week for sockeye to typically make it to the Russian River from the lower Kenai, according to ADFG. The large early numbers and fish holding in the Kenai River prompted ADFG to open the area known as the Russian River Sanctuary — a section of the Kenai River close to the confluence of the two rivers — earlier than usual, according to a news release. “Looks like the Russian River is off to a strong start. We haven’t seen numbers like this for several years,” stated Area Management Biologist Colton Lipka. “Sport fishing for sockeye salmon in the Russian River area will likely be good to excellent.” If ADFG’s forecast proves out, about 6 million sockeye will return to the stream systems throughout Upper Cook Inlet this year, about 200,000 more than the 20-year average. That increase is mostly in the Kenai River, where the forecast estimates about 3.8 million salmon to return this year. The Kasilof, which is the second-largest sockeye system in the region, is forecasted at 873,000 sockeye, which is about 94,000 fish less than its 20-year average. Sockeye are the primary driver in Cook Inlet, but fishermen are also out for chum, silver and pink salmon as well. In Lower Cook Inlet, fishermen are oriented toward pink salmon harvests, both wild and hatchery, and some smaller sockeye runs than further north. ADFG’s preseason forecast about 2.4 million in commercial common property harvest for the area. That’s only the commercial common property harvest, as researchers have recently found a high percentage of hatchery-marked fish in Lower Cook Inlet streams, possibly confusing the traditional spawner-recruit forecasts the department has done in the past, according to the forecast. Other species were also produced as commercial common property harvest forecasts, including 125,000 sockeye, 84,800 chum, 13,700 silvers and 452 kings, according to the forecast. The first Cook Inlet drift gillnet period is expected after June 19 this year, which would fall on June 20, while the East Side setnet fisheries won’t open until the first regular period on or after June 25 in the Kasilof section and July 8 in the Kenai and East Forelands sections. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Rural telecoms, including Alaska, worry over Huawei order

A new rule about how telecommunications companies can use some of their funding from the federal government may poke a hole in their wallets, especially as they are looking to migrate their networks to 5G. From selling its cell phones and laptops to providing high-level networking equipment, the U.S. government has effectively banned the Chinese telecom company Huawei from doing business in the United States. President Donald Trump cited national security concerns in his May 15 executive order in response to worries from Congress and the Central Intelligence Agency regarding Huawei’s close relationship with the Chinese government and the potential for security breaches in network buildouts using Huawei equipment. The Federal Communications Commission had its own rulemaking process already going on a similar topic, beginning almost a year earlier in March 2018, which would ban the use of Universal Service Fund monies in buying equipment from Huawei or a number of other Chinese telecommunications companies. The commission is citing national security threats to the communications supply chain in the proposed rule. Huawei, the No. 2 smartphone maker in the world, is one of the largest telecom equipment providers in the world, and its equipment already helps deliver service to many areas of the United States. Because its equipment tends to be less expensive than its competitors, many smaller and rural telecom providers have bought the company’s equipment, and the rule means a huge economic cost to them. Companies probably aren’t going to be able to cobble together networks with some Huawei equipment, though. According to a number of filings with the FCC about its proposed rule, companies are concerned about interoperability between Huawei equipment and other equipment they have to purchase in the future. But they’re also concerned about the increased expense — according to an FCC filing in November 2018 from the Rural Broadband Association, some companies have been quoted two to four times as much for the same equipment from Lucent or Ericcson, two other primary suppliers. Alaska’s rural geography presents a challenge for telecom providers. Much of rural Alaska is served by GCI along with a number of smaller local companies that also provide services in rural areas. AT&T is the largest provider of mobile phone service in the state. Larger companies can spread their costs across multiple geographies and many customers; small rural companies don’t have that option, and swallowing millions in expenses to rip out and replace equipment that the U.S. government has now banned is a fairly large expense. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, is co-sponsoring a bill to help address some of that cost. The United States 5G Leadership Act would set aside $700 million for U.S. telecom providers to replace Huawei equipment in their current infrastructure. The bill is dependent on the FCC finalizing its proposed rule banning companies from using Universal Service Fund monies to buy Huawei equipment. Sullivan has heard directly from Alaska telecoms that are currently using Huawei and ZTE equipment, said Mike Anderson, communications director for Sullivan’s office. ZTE is the No. 2 Chinese telecom company behind Huawei. “Senator Sullivan will very much be monitoring how any prospective legislation such as this bill or regulation will impact our carriers, and engaging policymakers like the FCC accordingly,” Anderson wrote in an email. “Part of why he was pleased to partner with (Mississippi Sen.) Chairman (Roger) Wicker on this bill is because unlike any other proposed solution, it included a funding mechanism for ripping and replacement.” The $700 million figure isn’t set in stone, as the bill sponsors don’t have a precise inventory of equipment that needs to be replaced, in part because wireless equipment is more difficult to inventory, Anderson said. There is language in the bill allowing for additional funding if the original amount is not enough. “We estimated that we needed $800 million to $1 billion for our carriers, but that only covers about a dozen companies,” Carrie Bennet, general counsel for the Rural Wireless Association, told NBC News in a May 27 story. “I don’t want to insult the bill they’ve introduced. It’s great that someone has focused on what this is going to cost, but this is not enough money.” Alaska was significantly behind in implementing 4G infrastructure, particularly outside the urban areas of Anchorage, Juneau and Fairbanks. Network connection is expensive and the geography and distance makes it logistically difficult. However, companies are now catching up with faster speeds, particularly in urban areas, and newly installed cell towers in western Alaska as part of GCI’s infrastructure investment there. But as they do, the country is looking toward 5G, the next generation of wireless communication standards with higher speeds and lower latency times. AT&T included Anchorage in a 2018 announcement of its initial 5G network rollout, initially announced to be deployed in 2019 and 2020. A May 31 press release from the company stated it has spent $250 million in Alaska from 2016-18 to improve its network. So far, the company has updated its network to 5G Evolution in Anchorage, Bethel and Kusilvak, which enables customers in those areas with 5G-enabled devices to access faster speeds, wrote AT&T spokesman Brent Camara in an email. “While we have not yet announced specific plans for 5G cities in Alaska, we continue investing in building the network our customers need today and preparing for the future,” he said. Like in the past, rural residents may not see the service their urban neighbors do from major carriers for a long time, even as speeds increase significantly in urban areas. That’s one of the reasons organizations like the Rural Wireless Association advocate for policies that support rural providers — because the small companies based in rural areas will build out those areas rather than focusing on the bigger, more valuable markets. Daryl Zakov, senior counsel for the Rural Wireless Association, said the organization has a number of issues it advocates for to support rural networks as the world moves to 5G, including advocating for the FCC to auction off smaller license service areas so rural companies can more effectively bid on them and implement new rules on roaming service partnerships. The telecom market has consolidated in the past decade, with regional companies going under or merging; four companies dominate the U.S. market while smaller rural companies serve more constricted areas, with two currently trying to merge. The four big companies — Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — will likely be focusing their initial buildouts in urban areas rather than expanding coverage to rural areas, if they get there at all. Smaller rural companies, on the other hand, don’t have to choose between urban or rural settings for their infrastructure focuses, Zakov said. “(Urban areas are) where (the big companies) are going to start their coverage,” he said. “When rural carriers start building out, that’s going to be in the rural areas. In every generation, urban areas have been built out before rural areas.” Sprint and T-Mobile told the FCC in filings they will build out rural 5G coverage if their merger is approved. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Copper River sockeye show up early, give optimism for fleet

Copper River fishermen are getting a nice change of pace from the last two years this season as the sockeye run is shaping up better than expected so far. As of June 2, approximately 240,234 sockeye salmon had passed the sonar at Miles Lake on the Copper River, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That’s about 65,000 more fish than the cumulative management objective so far on the river, which is based on average past escapements. It’s definitely better than in 2017 and 2018, when slow and weak sockeye runs kept commercial fishermen at the docks as managers struggled to make escapements. On the same date in 2018, only 55,840 sockeye had passed the sonar. There’s a significant lag between fish entering the mouth of the Copper and Miles Lake, which is far upstream — about 33 miles — and the passage time can depend on the water levels, according to ADFG. There’s also a lag between the passage at the sonar site and the popular Chitina personal use dipnet fishery area, which is about 70 miles upstream from the sonar. So far, commercial catches have been good, too; 326,257 sockeye have been landed in 2,801 deliveries. More than half of that total was landed in the periods on May 27 and May 30, with about 189,000 sockeye harvested between the two days. It’s not a banner year, but it’s also not too shabby in the context of the last two years, said Jeremy Botz, the commercial gillnet area management biologist for Prince William Sound. The run in-river is a little ahead of schedule, but so far, the run may shake out close to the forecast estimate. “This’d be pretty typical for timing for a peak in the fishery,” he said. “The run has been ahead of the curve, especially in-river. (It’s) right about anticipated in the commercial fishery, throughout the first two periods. We’re far enough into it now to have what appears to be a pretty reasonable fishing schedule.” The Copper River fishing season kicks off with kings. In 2017, concern for enough king salmon escapement in the river prompted commercial fishing restrictions on the fleet that curtailed early sockeye harvest; in 2018, the run lagged through May into June, leaving fishermen in the typically first-on-the-market Copper River mostly emptyhanded. The overall run shaped up into a decent season, but only toward the latter half. The forecast for this year in the Copper is somewhat lackluster — between hatchery and wild production, ADFG projected about 1.5 million sockeye, with wild production at just more than 1.4 million fish and Gulkana hatchery production at about 98,000 fish. If it proves true, the wild run would be about 31 percent less than the recent 10-year average and the hatchery run would be about 69 percent below the average, according to the forecast. In the forecast, managers warned caution. While the Copper River’s sockeye salmon forecast is widely regarded as the most reliable in Prince William Sound, managers have been unpleasantly surprised in the last two years as sockeye failed to materialize in the numbers or schedule they predicted. Managers have indicated that warm water conditions in the Gulf of Alaska may have contributed to poor survival for salmon. The Copper River has separate goals: one for the upper drainage and the other for the lower drainage, Botz said. The fish in the earlier part of the run tend to be headed farther upstream, while those in the latter part of the season tend to be more delta-bound fish. “Last year (the run) kind of came online in the second half of the season,” he said. “That’s still a big question mark.” It’s good news for Cordova, where a large number of the residents depend on the commercial fishing industry for their income. In general, the fleet is optimistic about the run, said Chelsea Haisman, the executive director of the Copper District Fishermen United trade group. “Our whole community — the schools, the restaurants, the small businesses — not just the commercial fishermen, depends on healthy salmon runs, so it is a breath of fresh air for everyone here,” she wrote in an email. “The weather has been tough in the early season, but as we move into June, we’re definitely ready for some calmer days and a little more sun.” The Copper River’s salmon run is typically the first Alaska wild salmon to hit the market and thus commands a high price. Chefs on the West Coast were reportedly asking $55 for a Copper River sockeye dish upon first delivery this May, and fishermen reportedly getting $9 to $10 per pound at the dock for sockeye and $14 for kings. Typically, supply goes up at the season goes on and the price drops, with fishermen in other areas seeing much lower prices for their salmon by the time they come online in June. Bristol Bay typically floods the market with sockeye in June and July, pushing the prices significantly down. It’s also a canary in the coal mine for other salmon runs across the Gulf of Alaska, including Cook Inlet and Kodiak. Last year, all three tracked together with disappointing sockeye salmon runs and widespread closures. Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen are due to hit the water in mid-June, though some fisheries in Lower Cook Inlet open at the beginning of June. In the Kodiak Management Area, managers may announce sockeye salmon openers after June 1. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Solar energy lighting up more of land of Midnight Sun

A new industry is lighting up Alaska. Anchorage residents in particular have seen solar panels going up on buildings in their communities in the past five years. But across the state, more Alaskans are turning to the sun to power their homes and businesses. Over the last four years, Arctic Solar Ventures in Anchorage has seen 200 percent year-over-year growth, according to owner Stephen Trimble. This year, the business will mark its first megawatt, or 1,000 kilowatts, of installed solar power. “That’s a big achievement,” he said. “We have systems operating from Homer to Talkeetna.” Despite common conceptions about Alaska being too dark and snowy to be practical for solar, the technology has a long history in the state, particularly in rural Alaska. The first Solar Design Manual for Alaska was published in 1981, with a revised fifth edition published in May 2018 by the Alaska Center for Energy and Power and the Cooperative Extension Service. Off-grid cabins, fish camps and rural communities have long looked to alternative sources of energy as the cost of power in Alaska remains high. However, even Railbelt homeowners and businesses have been moving toward solar power. There are a number of motivations for that, but a major one is likely the plummeting cost of solar installations. Between 1980 and 2012, module costs fell about 97 percent, according to a November 2018 study published in the journal Energy Policy. “I would say in rural Alaska it’s become quite popular because it’s quite cheap,” said Erin Whitney, the manager for the solar technology program at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power, or ACEP. “It’s easy to install. Kits are pretty much turnkey. A wind turbine requires a massive foundation, which requires heavy equipment. If you’re in a rural village, it’s expensive, whereas a solar panel setup — that can be installed in a day.” Trimble said installers in Alaska have become somewhat innovative with methods to maximize the solar energy available, even during the winter. For instance, some buildings have solar panels installed vertically on their walls to prevent snow buildup, even though Anchorage gets far less snow than it used to as the climate warms, he said. “Between March and October, you actually have more than 12 hours of daylight per day, even down in Anchorage,” he said. “We’ve done probably 20 or more homes that are 100 percent net solar for the year. At the end of the year, they net out having received 100 percent of their power from solar. For a lot of folks, that’s really surprising; it’s that peak season of March to October that we have so much that it makes up for the dark months of winter.” The primary increase in solar power installations in the past decade or so has been on the Railbelt, Whitney said. The Anchorage metropolitan area, with approximately half the state’s residents, is pivoting toward solar in a number of areas. The Solarize Anchorage campaign is blazing forward this summer in the Turnagain, South Addition, Spenard and Rogers Park neighborhoods, helping residents band together to hire a solar energy contractor for their homes. ACEP and the Alaska Center have helped the residents with the logistics of the campaign, Whitney said. The installations aren’t cheap — a ballpark figure comes out to about $5,000 to $10,000 for a single homeowner, with larger installations costing more — but the discount comes from bulk purchasing and installations. “Solarize is a concept that’s been done all over the Lower 48,” she said. Multiple utility companies in the state have either installed solar or are seriously considering it. Golden Valley Electric Association installed a 563-kilowatt solar farm last year for about $850,000 after a $225,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grant program incentivizing rural energy development. Chugach Electric Association is currently planning to install an approximately 500-kilowatt solar farm in Anchorage for an estimated $2 million, while Homer Electric Association’s board of directors proposed a community solar project to its members but didn’t get sufficient commitment to move forward with one, according to HEA’s 2018 annual report. There’s appetite for solar outside the Anchorage area. In Soldotna, local business River City Books is moving to a new building with a system of approximately 15 kilowatts on its roof installed by Anchorage Solar. Part of the project takes advantage of federal programs — one being the USDA rural energy development program and the other through federal tax credits for qualifying solar energy programs. Five projects through the USDA were authorized for funds on the Railbelt outside of Anchorage and Fairbanks in 2018 alone, according to the USDA’s Energy Investment Map. A number of Arctic Solar Venture’s systems have gone into communities along the Railbelt outside Anchorage. This year is the last year for programs to qualify for the full 30 percent tax credit, Trimble said. Next year, the credit will begin decreasing and will ultimately fall to a 10 percent tax credit for installed solar systems. “Whether you’re politically conservative or politically liberal, it doesn’t matter, because if you’re assessing solar as a potential customer, there’s the environmental benefits, there’s the immediate electric bill savings on a daily, weekly, monthly basis that are very substantial,” he said. “Most of our solar installations produce power at about a third of the cost of what they pay.” In addition to the decreasing cost of installation, utilities began allowing net metering in Alaska in 2010. Through net metering, homeowners or business owners can produce power from small energy systems and offset their energy bill through a utility company. Net metering in Alaska is currently capped at 1.5 percent of total retail demand. Beyond that, it’s up to the individual utility to decide whether to allow more, Whitney said. The future growth of individual solar installations could be inhibited there. “There’s certainly some discussions being had right now on whether it makes sense to change that limit,” she said. “Once you’re above that limit, it’s up to the goodwill of the utilities to continue allowing it.” Raising that limit would reduce uncertainty for residents and certainly for installers. Trimble and a number of other solar installers recently banded together and formed their own trade association: the Alaska Solar Energy Industry Association, or AKSEIA. The continuation of the net metering program is on the group’s list of issue interests, as well as regulatory certainty from the state, he said. But the members are also able to share information and communicate about projects, as well as keep to an ethical code that will protect consumers from bad actors as the solar industry grows, he said. “As any new industry tries to take shape, there can be people who come along when they see economic opportunity … and you get unqualified people doing work that can cause damage to homes, potentially produce injuries; at minimum, giving solar a bad name,” he said. “So we came up with this industry code of ethics to start introducing consumer protections from our side. We very much want to self-police and self-govern the industry, and everyone’s been very receptive.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Fishery observer survey seeks answers for high turnover

Many of Alaska’s commercial fisheries depend on observers having a place on board, but fewer than a fifth of them feel appreciated by the industry, according to a new survey. Fishery observers sail on vessels with fishermen in federal waters and keep track of catch and bycatch and take biological samples throughout trips. Managers use this information to evaluate stocks and manage fisheries. The job can be tough, requiring up to a month at a time on the water in rough conditions, and turnover can be high. The survey, conducted by the National Marine Fishery Service in 2016, asked 553 observers why they did the job and what their experiences have been like. Although three-quarters of them thought the job helped them in their careers and about 69 percent said the days at sea matched their expectations, nearly half them reported being harassed. Only 20 percent said they felt valued by the fishing community, and many said they were disappointed by a lack of opportunity to learn more about science and management, according to the survey findings, published in May. The original intent of the survey was to help improve retention. Most observers quit after a few years — the West Coast, with about 5½ years, has the longest average tenure. Alaska’s average tenure is about 4.8 years, according to the survey data. Although observers have to have some training or education before taking the job, there’s a lot they learn through experience. “Because the technical skills observers possess take time to hone and are essential to good data collection, retaining knowledgeable and hardworking observers is important to NOAA Fisheries,” the report states. “It is widely recognized that an observer’s job requires field skills and scientific knowledge that may require many deployments before gaining proficiency.” Many of the observers start their careers young, between the ages of 20 to 29, and leave the job as they get older. Most cite a chance for fieldwork as a major motivation for taking the job, but relatively low pay, lack of a predictable schedule and distance from home leads them to leave later. About 46 percent reported being harassed on the job, though, with only about a third reporting it every time. About 40 percent reported it some of the time and 27 percent never reported, according to the survey. “This survey also did not specify what type of harassment observers may have experienced or reported during their careers,” the survey states. “Incidents reported in this survey could include anything from a glare, to interfering with a workstation, to physical or sexual assault.” Observers cited different reasons for not reporting: disappointment with how the report was handled, a chance to resolve the issue at sea, worry about work reputation or choosing to let the issue go. Connected to the reports of harassment, the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement is conducting a followup anonymous survey specific to the North Pacific region. Preliminary data was presented to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2018, with final data included in a report to the council in December 2018. Only 25 percent of observers responded, according to the Office of Law Enforcement report. Responses indicated that incidents of harassment fell between 2016 and 2017, though 45 percent of female observers still said they experienced verbal sexual harassment in 2017 though few reported it. The national observing program is massive. Alaska alone had about 413 observers, and about 4,423 trips were either observed by a person or an electronic system in 2018, according to the 2018 annual report on the observer program in the North Pacific from NMFS. Some of Alaska’s vessels require full coverage, such as catcher-processors, meaning all of the catch is recorded on every trip, while others only require partial observation, such as catcher vessels fishing for halibut or sablefish, meaning only some of the fishing trips are observed. About 53 percent of the respondents worked in Alaska, with the majority in halibut or groundfish fisheries. One of the common problems is a shortage of certified observers for fisheries in the region; not enough observers have been certified in fixed-gear lead level 2, or LL2, fisheries. Survey respondents cited too much work with low salaries as the reason for not seeking further certification, or a lack of flexibility in choosing deployments. Alaska-based observers responded that they were happy with the variety of deployment types, according to the survey. Changes are on the horizon for fishery observer coverage, though; vessel owners are beginning to install electronic monitoring devices or use electronic reporting systems. Most survey respondents said they supported electronic monitoring and reporting, though electronic systems can’t collect the biological samples that observers do. Last year was the first year that Alaska commercial fishing vessels were allowed to use electronic monitoring systems, and according to NMFS reports, it went off without a single violation on the 145 vessels that used those systems. The agency planned to open up an additional 20 spots to vessels for electronic monitoring in 2019. EM is particularly attractive for smaller vessels, where it’s hard to fit an additional person on board without leaving a crewmember behind. It may also pencil out to be cheaper; the 2018 annual report from NMFS cites an average daily cost for EM of between $956 and $1,527, while the average observer cost per sea day on a partial-coverage vessel was $1,380. The survey findings noted that the program will communicate better that electronic report and monitoring may have practical applications but that EM “is unable to replace observer coverage in all circumstances.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Local governments weigh onsite cannabis consumption options

As the Marijuana Control Board is working on hemming up the regulations for on-site consumption, local governments are wrestling with how to handle their own rules. Cannabis entrepreneurs have long awaited state regulations allowing their customers to partake at retail locations. The board approved an initial set of regulations in December, with requirements such as only allowing smoking in a freestanding building with ventilation and limitations on individual consumption. Business owners said this would provide a more reasonable place, especially for tourists, to partake responsibly without violating laws against consuming in public. Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer signed the regulations in early March, but the MCB has a few more changes to make, including defining what a “freestanding” building is and allowing more voice for residents of areas outside the jurisdiction of a local government. However, city and borough governments are deciding whether to let the state regulations stand or enact their own. There has already been a wide variety of opinions, ranging from applying no additional regulations to completely banning it within city borders. Fairbanks has already tackled it, while Anchorage and Kenai have ordinances pending and the City and Borough of Juneau is still considering information. The Anchorage Assembly was originally set to consider an ordinance to just allow the consumption of edible cannabis products on site, but a second ordinance would have allowed smoking in facilities as long as they met other requirements, including those for freestanding buildings and ventilation. Consideration of the ordinance was postponed at its May 21 meeting. One of the snags in approving onsite consumption is the state law banning smoking in enclosed public spaces and workplaces. Under the state law, the definition could include smoke from marijuana products and outdoor areas may be permitted under the law. However, the onsite consumption rules passed by the Marijuana Control Board would allow for the smoking of marijuana products as long as the facility has proper ventilation and is freestanding, with a smoke-free area for employees to monitor the activities in the consumption area. In late April, the Fairbanks City Council adopted an ordinance to permit onsite consumption as long as licensees met the other requirements for an endorsement through the Marijuana Control Board. Fairbanks City Attorney Paul Ewers said the city would probably defer to the state’s enforcement of the non-smoking law, as it’s not a city ordinance. “If it was a city ordinance, we definitely would (enforce it),” he said. “Our approach as a city would probably look to the state attorney general.” The City and Borough of Juneau is debating the same point about the smoking law. City Attorney Robert Palmer wrote in a memo to the council that if the members want to approve the consumption of cannabis by smoking in onsite consumption endorsements, they’ll have to have a “rational argument to distinguish marijuana from tobacco” or allow both. Currently, Juneau bans all onsite consumption by ordinance, and Palmer wrote that he wasn’t aware of a tobacco consequence if the edibles portion is repealed. “However, the definition of edibles would need to be narrow to avoid vaping and other inhalation forms of consumption that can affect nearby people,” he wrote. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Kenai City Council rejected a regulations package for onsite marijuana consumption within its city limits and introduced an ordinance at its May 15 meeting to ban it entirely. The council referred the ordinance to the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission, as it required a zoning code change, and is scheduled to hear it again June 5. “We feel this ordinance is necessary to protect public safety and welfare,” wrote council members Glenese Pettey and Jim Glendening in their co-sponsors’ memo. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services is not currently conducting any specific research into the effects of secondhand exposure to marijuana smoke, but DHSS Commissioner Adam Crum and Division of Public Health Director Jay Butler wrote a joint opinion article in December 2018 opposing the onsite consumption of cannabis, noting that some studies indicate little difference between the effects of inhalation of tobacco and marijuana smoke. The department leans on three main bodies of existing research about the effects of secondhand marijuana smoke, DHSS spokesman Clinton Bennett said in an email. Two of the studies — one from the World Health Organization in 2016 and two from the state of Colorado in 2014 and 2016 — indicate that secondhand cannabis smoke impairs lung function and contain many of the same cancer-causing chemicals in tobacco smoke, he wrote. The Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office is seeing public comment on its draft regulation revisions for onsite consumption — including further definitions for “freestanding” and setting up a process to give residents outside a local government’s jurisdiction a way to weigh in on an onsite consumption endorsement — until June 19. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Marathon files permit to import LNG at Nikiski plant

After buying a mothballed liquefied natural gas export plant in Nikiski, Marathon Petroleum is planning to flip it around to become an import terminal. Marathon Petroleum, the newly-merged oil and gas giant formerly known as Tesoro and then Andeavor, owns the former ConocoPhillips LNG terminal on Cook Inlet and the refinery directly across the Kenai Spur Highway from it. In March, Marathon subsidiary Trans-Foreland Pipeline Co. filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate an import terminal at the LNG plant. The plant is about a half-mile from the proposed site of the liquefaction plant for the Alaska LNG Project, a megaproject proposed to bring stranded natural gas from the North Slope to Nikiski for export to Asia. The Alaska Gasline Development Corp., the project lead, and producer stakeholders ExxonMobil Alaska and BP Alaska have all filed motions to intervene in Trans-Foreland’s application, citing their interest in the Alaska LNG Project as justification. “AGDC may be affected by the modifications to, and ultimate use of, the Kenai LNG Plant for which authority is sought in this docket,” AGDC’s motion states. “AGDC is an interested party that may be affected by Commission action on this application. AGDC’s interests are not adequately represented by any other party, and its intervention is in the public interest.” AGDC spokesman Jesse Carlstrom referred back to the language on the motion when asked to clarify how the project would be affected by Trans-Foreland’s proposal. He said AGDC’s motion to intervene was made independently of other parties. ExxonMobil did not respond to a request for comment. BP spokeswoman Megan Baldino said the language used in the motion to intervene is standard practice. “BP filed the intervention basically to reserve our right to comment in the FERC process,” he said. “Interventions like this are fairly common.” Trans-Foreland’s application states that it wants to import LNG to use in a cool down project for the terminal. The facility is currently in a warm idle status and the LNG would be used to bring parts of it back into active status — the liquefaction side would remain in warm idle status. The modifications wouldn’t require any expansions of the existing footprint of approximately 161 acres, according to the application. In addition, the boil-off-gas — a byproduct of re-gasifying LNG — could be delivered to the nearby refinery to power its operations, according to the application. “After completion of the Project, the Kenai LNG Plant will be able to deliver up to 7,000 MMBtus (million British thermal units per day), with the average delivery of approximately 5,000 MMBtus/d to the Refinery,” the application states. One million British thermal units are roughly equal to a thousand cubic feet, or mcf, or natural gas. Delivering the gas to the nearby refinery would reduce Marathon’s need to buy gas from the local utilities, Homer Electric Association and Enstar Natural Gas Co., to run its operations. The refinery is one of the area’s biggest industrial consumers of natural gas. HEA declined to comment on Trans-Foreland’s application. Currently, the main natural gas producer in the Cook Inlet area is Hilcorp, which owns many of the offshore oil and gas producing assets in Cook Inlet and a number of onshore pads. HEA’s only firm contract for natural gas is with Furie Operating Alaska — which operates the offshore Kitchen Lights Unit in central Cook Inlet — but Furie has had production issues and failed to deliver on its gas contract obligations for months this spring. The utilities covered the lapse with spot market purchases and stored gas in the joint Cook Inlet Natural Gas Storage Alaska facility known as CINGSA. Gas production in Cook Inlet declined sharply from 2005 to 2012, prompting the state to pass tax credits aimed at revitalizing oil and gas development in the inlet. Utilities in the area, concerned about gas shortages, began to look for options to import LNG or compressed natural gas in 2012, according to a Northern Economics report on the Cook Inlet oil and gas industry published in 2014. Generally, oil and gas is more expensive to develop in Alaska than elsewhere. A March 2018 report from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources noted that there are significant gas reserves remaining in Cook Inlet, but they would only be economic to develop at prices of around $6 to $8 per mcf or more. Recent Hilcorp supply contracts have been in the neighborhood of $7 per mcf. The estimated volumes identified in the Inlet could supply demand through 2030, according to the report, but costs to develop it will also likely rise. Worldwide, natural gas prices have been falling as more production comes online. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects production to continue growing both domestically and internationally through 2019 and 2020, putting downward pressure on prices. Marathon wouldn’t be able to purchase LNG from U.S. Gulf Coast suppliers because there are no U.S.-flagged LNG tankers in operation, and the Jones Act requires ships traveling between U.S. ports to be built, crewed and flagged here. LNG export terminals are planned but not currently in operation on Canada’s west coast. Trans-Foreland has not yet filed the request to import LNG but plans to do so by the end of the third quarter of 2019, aiming for a first delivery of natural gas by August 2020, according to its application. The existing application does not identify a specific amount of gas the company is seeking to import. Marathon had not responded to a request for comment by deadline. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Legislature passes bill repealing most telecom regulations

One of the handful of bills that passed through the Legislature this year updates many of the state’s regulations on telecommunications companies. Senate Bill 83, sponsored by Sen. Chris Birch, R-Anchorage, successfully passed the House and the Senate May 14, the day before the regular session ended and the Legislature moved into a special session; it now awaits the governor’s signature. The bill repeals a number of statutes regulating telecom providers, including ratemaking authority, standards for equipment and services and Carrier of Last Resort, or COLR, regulations, which are designed to protect rural communities in the event that all telecom providers want to stop serving an area. Telecommunications companies in Alaska broadly backed the bill, saying it would free up resources for them in an increasingly competitive environment. The Regulatory Commission of Alaska supported it as well, with the sole opposing vote coming from chairman Stephen McAlpine. RCA staff, however, raised a number of concerns about the future for telecom service across Alaska if the bill becomes law. The members of the Alaska Telecom Association, who range from statewide providers like Alaska Communications to small local telephone companies, argued that economic regulation of telecommunications providers is outdated, clumsy and consumes resources that could be better put toward operations. Christine O’Connor, the executive director of the ATA, noted that the statutes have not been fully updated in about three decades. “We tried to tackle that starting in 2014 with a petition to the Regulatory Commission,” she said. “They made some minor changes, but it didn’t end up relieving the burden. Some companies ended up with more complexity, not less. They had those petitions in 2014, and five years later we said let’s just do a full cleanup of these statutes.” The telecom market has become more competitive in Alaska in recent years, with consumers increasingly preferring mobile and web-based communication services as opposed to traditional landlines. Landlines are still important, though; O’Connor said approximately 4 percent of Alaskans depend solely on landlines, while 48 percent still maintain one in addition to another service. As the market shifts, the traditional monopoly-style regulation of telecoms becomes outdated for everyone, she said. Under the new regulations, telecommunications providers would no longer have to file informational tariff reports with the RCA. The filings are to inform the RCA of intended changes rather than to request rate increases, and the companies argued that the filings are time-consuming and unnecessary. GCI, one of the largest carriers in the state, spends significant time on filing the tariffs with the RCA, said Heather Handyside, vice president of corporate communications and community engagement for GCI. The company, which began as a landline provider about 40 years ago, has a dedicated team that sinks significant time into producing the reports, she said. “We all can understand here in Alaska how dramatically telecommunications have changed in the last 40 years,” she said. “The regulatory environment hasn’t changed in 30 years, and we’re still operating today with regulatory guidance from 30 years ago. That’s really a part of what SB 83 does: eliminate the onerous and unnecessary paperwork that our company does.” The bill does not mean the telecom providers will disengage entirely from the RCA, Handyside said, but it will “streamline” the process for everyone. It would also eliminate statutes requiring utilities to charge “just and reasonable” prices, removing RCA oversight over rates, and repeal the ability of the RCA to designate a Carrier of Last Resort. Companies argued in their letters and presentations that the Federal Communications Commission will still hold requirements for companies seeking to leave an area to justify it, but the RCA staff raised concerns about the potential for loss of service in rural areas. In documents submitted to the Legislature, ATA argued that COLR creates uncertainty for carriers because the RCA can change it at any time. In a memo to the RCA, Common Carrier staff member David Parrish outlined concerns about many of the items in the ATA’s proposed bill, highlighting particularly the elimination of economic regulation, the elimination of COLR regulations and how the changes would impact RCA’s ongoing review of its subsidy program, known as the Alaska Universal Service Fund. In letters and presentations to the Legislature, telecom providers mentioned how a number of states in the Lower 48 have taken similar actions to deregulate their telecommunications providers. The RCA staff memo contested that the situations in the Lower 48 and Alaska are the same. “What has not been clear is whether those states have taken the approach of completely deregulating even the least competitive markets within their respective jurisdictions,” the memo states. “ATA has not indicated that other states have so limited the enforcement tools available to their utility commissions for whatever jurisdiction those commissions retain to render that jurisdiction de facto unenforceable.” In the event the Legislature passed the bill, the staff memo recommends the RCA immediately open rulemaking processes to reinstate some of the provisions eliminated from statute. In a House Labor and Commerce hearing on May 1, McAlpine told legislators that his primary motivation for opposing the bill was concern about service in rural Alaska. In a May 13 hearing, Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, shared similar concern with the House Judiciary Committee, saying the bill was moving quickly and could have impacts on residents like those in the rural areas of Southeast. “These communities for the main part don’t have cell phone service,” he said. “Landlines are the only means of communication these communities have. So therefore, it becomes a life and safety issue, as well as a commerce issue.” The House Labor and Commerce Committee added an amendment to allow the RCA more flexibility to hire on a telecommunications industry expert, which it does not currently have. Rep. Adam Wool, R-Fairbanks, co-chair of the committee, said a number of people had approached him about a “brain drain” at the RCA because of more attractive jobs in the private sector. O’Connor said the bill will result in immediate time and cost savings, especially for small providers that may have to bring in consultants to complete the filings required by the RCA. The RCA staff memo referred to the bill as deregulation, and O’Connor said the industry and ultimately the commissioners disagreed with that analysis. “I would say it’s just a difference of philosophy,” she said. “I’m on the record at the RCA saying that we felt it was time to update these statutes. This one staffer said he felt like it’s a go in another direction. Naturally since our goal was to become more efficient and we were responding to a lot of comments over time … saying we’re doing a lot of work here on telecommunications here that’s outdated and needs to be stripped away.” The amended bill passed the Legislature on May 14 and awaits transmittal to Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy for his signature. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Alcohol, marijuana officers still blocked from public safety networks

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to state that the chairs of the alcohol and marijuana control boards sent a letter to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, who sent a letter to the state Attorney General. Enforcement officers with the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office are still struggling to work around the loss of access to the state’s public safety information networks. The office employs a number of enforcement personnel to inspect licensed premises and to investigate potential violations. The majority of the office’s work is in alcohol licenses, though marijuana licensees take up an increasing portion of staff time. Until December 2018, the enforcement staff members were considered peace officers and had access to the Alaska Public Safety Information Network and the Alaska Records Management System. However, last fall, the Alaska State Troopers informed AMCO that its enforcement officers would no longer have access to those networks because they were not considered peace officers. DPS could provide the information, but the AMCO staff would be locked out. About five months later, the AMCO staff members are still struggling to get the information they need to conduct investigations, said Executive Director Erika McConnell. “Some information has been provided in a timely manner,” she told the Marijuana Control Board during its meeting May 1. “Some requests have been ignored or go unfilled after repeated requests. This continues to be a frustration for the office.” The state provides access to the networks to criminal justice agencies and to peace officers. It is a debatable point whether AMCO is a “criminal justice agency,” McConnell said, but enforcement staff have always been considered peace officers. She said the reason the interpretation has been changed is still unclear. Though the chairs of both the Alcohol and Marijuana Control boards wrote a letter to the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development requesting that he send a letter to Alaska Attorney General Kevin Clarkson requesting a clarification, there has been no response as of the May 1 meeting, said Marijuana Control Board chairman Mark Springer. Division of Enforcement Director James Hoelscher noted that the lack of access hampers the enforcement officers at AMCO despite the fact that the departments have the same goal. The investigators within AMCO have police backgrounds for inspection purposes. “It’s been burning — it’s been something in the back of my head for quite some time now and caused significant issues and questions,” he said “In my opinion, it is very clear that we are peace officers. What it boils down to is you have enforcement who is required to enforce Title 4 and Title 17 and we have been hamstrung on almost every level of the way to do that thing.” The Department of Public Safety did not reply to a request for comment as of press time. Impacts of legalization examined Meanwhile, AMCO is working on a data-sharing project of its own with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Public Health. As part of the plan to legalize recreational cannabis in Alaska, the Legislature set up an excise tax with 25 percent going to marijuana education and treatment programs. The DHSS is working on issuing grants to promote youth education and substance abuse prevention, but as part of its education programming wants to conduct monitoring on the effects of marijuana legalization in the state, according to an outline submitted to the Marijuana Control Board. “Surveillance of youth and adult populations monitor trends in knowledge, awareness, attitudes, behaviors and use in the population,” the outline states. “We have incorporated marijuana-specific questions in our existing surveys to get a sense of how these attitudes and behaviors may change over time. Data from these surveys informs public health activities, providing the evidence behind evidence-based approaches to changing behaviors.” Part of the system for tracking commercial cannabis involved serial numbers for each plant, known as the Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting Compliance, or METRC. DHSS wants to use the data there to track retail sales to see what types of products Alaskan adults are buying, while protecting licensee information. According to a draft data use agreement, the division wants information such as the price per usable gram, the value of sales, the number of transactions, the sales by product type, the average percentage of THC per gram and the number of sales by product type, among other data points. Eliza Muse, the acting director of the Office of Substance Misuse and Addiction Prevention, told the Marijuana Control Board that the division is keeping an eye on how use is affecting health of the Alaska population at large. “We’re also monitoring population health status to identify trends and potential health outcomes related to marijuana use,” she said. “We’re tracking data points such as marijuana-impaired driving or motor vehicle crashes, calls to our poison control hotline related to accidental ingestion, tracking emergency room treatment for children and the number of people entering treatment with marijuana identified as the primary substance of concern. “I do want to say that we have a lot of data points pre-legalization and post-legalization and we are not seeing an increase in any of those areas right now.” The Marijuana Control Board plans to review the data use agreement with DHSS at its July meeting. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

No plan for Seward coal terminal three years after last shipment

Nearly three years after it went dark, the future of the Seward Coal Loading Facility is still unclear. The conveyor-belt loading dock extends out into Resurrection Bay from a yard near the Alaska Railroad Corp.’s terminal in Seward. From 1984-2016, it was used to load export shipments from the Usibelli Coal Mine near Healy. At its peak in 2011, the railroad moved about 200 coal trains back and forth to supply export demands, and the operation employed about 100 people between operator Aurora Energy Services, the railroad and Usibelli, according to information from the Alaska Railroad Corp. That changed in 2016, when the railroad decided to shutter the facility indefinitely after years of coal export declines. By that time, exports had decreased about 95 percent from a peak of 1.1 million metric tonnes in 2011 to 68 tonnes in 2016, only serving one ship as opposed to the 18 required in 2011. Cheaper coal from Indonesia and Australia pushed down the market price, cheaper natural gas entered the scene and the U.S. dollar was very strong, making it harder for Usibelli’s export business to pencil out. With that little volume, the railroad corporation operated the facility at an approximately $1.2 million deficit, according to the 2016 document announcing the closure. The facility isn’t useful for much else, but would remain intact for now, according to the announcement. “While unsuitable for unloading passenger vessels or cargo ships, the SLF dock can provide mooring services,” the announcement stated. “In light of the railroad’s mission to foster economic development, the facilities will be left intact for now to facilitate resumed operations in support of our customer if new opportunities arise. That meant Usibelli’s coal would be kept in Alaska to supply the state’s six coal-fired power plants. At its peak, about half of the mine’s production was being exported, so the operations took a hit when the export market disappeared. The company still views it as a temporary halt in its exports and is constantly looking for ways to reenter the market, according to Lorali Simon, the vice president of external affairs for Usibelli. However, the railroad corporation’s decisions about its coal operations have made that a higher threshold, she wrote in an email. “The Railroad, who has experienced tough financial circumstances for many years, made certain decisions regarding the Seward Facility that make it difficult to respond quickly to export opportunities,” she wrote. “The Railroad sold the coal cars used for the export business; (and) the Railroad put the facility into ‘cold storage.’ It will take capital (both time and money) to get the facility back up and running.” In 2016, the railroad corporation estimated that it would cost about $200,000 to bring the facility back online, take a 30- to 90-day lead time and require about eight shiploads annually to break even. However, that was before some of the coal cars were sold. In its 2016 announcement, the railroad corporation stated that it offered the aluminum coal hoppers to Usibelli for purchase, but the coal company declined. The railroad corporation does still maintain a fleet of coal cars. Though the railroad corporation does not have updated figures, it’s likely more expensive than that to get the facility online again, said Tim Sullivan, the director of external affairs for the railroad. “It’s probably a little bit more than that now,” he said. “If you leave it to lay fallow for a while, the costs go up.” Sullivan didn’t have an estimate available for what it would cost to dismantle the facility. At this point, the railroad’s plans for the coal loading facility haven’t changed, he said. Though it can’t be used for much else, ships can moor to it if necessary although that has been infrequent. The railroad has been reevaluating its facilities in Seward in recent years, aiming at repairing the passenger and freight docks, but those plans don’t really affect the coal loading terminal at present. The loss of the coal exporting business hit both companies in the wallet. Usibelli, which in 2011 employed 150 people, today employs about 100 people. Most of those employees have been lost through attrition rather than layoffs, Simon said. “Since roughly 30 percent of our employees are second-, third-, and fourth-generation employees, and the average tenure was close to 15 years in 2011, many folks naturally retired,” she wrote. The railroad corporation has taken hits in several markets in recent years, with a decline in the coal export business and in the oil field. Freight makes up the majority of the railroad’s revenue, with much of that coming from shipping materials north for oilfield explorations. Though the oil patch has been rebounding with increased exploration on the North Slope and potential new exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last few years have still been financial tough on the railroad; its workforce has declined by about 100 to 150 year-round employees, Sullivan said. “We’re focused on the services that we continue to provide,” he said. “We saw the export coal market reduced and went away, and at the same time we were seeing the refined jet petroleum coming down from the North Pole refinery … decline and then disappear as well. It was a couple big hits for the Alaska Railroad. We’ve taken measure of those issues and we think we’ve gotten to a point where we can continue to weather what’s going on.” Since the beginning of the year, average coal prices on the market have declined, with production so far in 2019 about 7.2 percent behind the production at the same time in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The long-term projections are for coal’s share in the U.S. energy generation sector to decline between the present and 2050, giving way to renewables and natural gas, according to the EIA’s 2019 Annual Energy Outlook. The U.S. is expected to continue to be a net coal exporter, but the actual amount of coal exported is not expected to increase because of competition from other producers closer to global markets, according to the outlook. At the same time, in the years since the Seward Coal Loading Facility closed, the federal administration has drastically changed to one much friendlier to coal. President Donald Trump’s administration has made several moves to change rules previously set in place during Barack Obama’s administration, including moving to reduce restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Congress also invoked the Congressional Review Act to repeal the Stream Protection Rule put in place during the Obama administration. Simon noted the repeal of the Stream Protection Rule and said the reduction in regulations “has allowed the mining industry to get back to work.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Study pinpoints trend toward fisheries specialization

Commercial fishermen in Alaska have gotten older in the past three decades. As it turns out, they’ve become more specialized, too. Fewer permits overall are in the water; between the early 1990s and 2014, commercial fishing permits in Alaska decreased by 25 percent. On top of that, fewer individual fishermen are moving between fisheries. From 1988-2014, the number of individuals holding multiple permits declined from 30 percent to 20 percent, according to a study published in the journal Fish and Fisheries. The bottom line: fishermen are increasingly putting all their economic eggs into one basket, and that makes them more vulnerable to the ups and downs of fishing. The study was born out of a workgroup that met through the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California Santa Barbara, said co-author Anne Beaudreau, an associate professor of fisheries at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The original intent was to study the long-term effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, but the data on fisheries specialization arose out of that work, she said. “As we worked on this, we realized there are so many things that have caused long-term changes in the Gulf of Alaska; in the fisheries, it’s really hard to see the long-term effects of the oil spill,” she said. “A lot of the focus of the working group was on the biological effects … this paper sort of came out of the end of that.” The group examined case studies in commercial fisheries: the Prince William Sound herring fishery, the statewide Pacific halibut fishery, salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay and in Prince William Sound, and fisheries in the region affected by the Valdez spill. All the fisheries have their own driving dynamics and factors of change, but common threads among many of them were long-term participation declines and increasing specialization. Some of that may be loss of opportunity; the cost of entering fisheries has steadily increased as limited entry and fishery rationalization have come into play in Alaska fisheries. Some of the fisheries in the case study are also not available due to losses in populations. The herring fishery in Prince William Sound, for example, crashed a few years after the Valdez spill and has never truly recovered. This is not an across-the-board trend, though. Some fishermen have been able to look elsewhere as their fisheries change, Beaudreau said. “I would say that fishermen are really good at diversifying,” she said. “I think that tends to be part of the nature of commercial fishing. You’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty — changes in fish populations, changes in regulations, changes in markets — all these are pressures that commercial fishermen are really good at responding and adapting to … For somebody, (finding opportunity) might mean specializing in something. For others, that might mean diversifying.” Specialization doesn’t always mean immediate impacts. For Bristol Bay, where sockeye salmon reign supreme, fishermen have actually seen less variability in their income and higher overall income. However, the point is the long-term fragility. Sockeye salmon are vulnerable to ocean forces, as was seen in the lower-than-expected returns across the Gulf of Alaska in 2018 that left fishermen in Kodiak, Chignik, Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound holding loose nets for much of the season. But the long-term warning flags of fishery instability remain, Beaudreau said. “I think it’s really more of the longer term concern,” she said. “If you’re putting all your eggs in one basket, what happens if there’s some major impact to sockeye populations?” The specialization study is the latest in a spate of research in recent years on cost of entry, reduction in opportunity and the increasing average age of commercial fishermen in the state known as the “graying of the fleet.” Fishermen statewide have noticed a trend among their peers that fewer young people are getting into the industry, but the studies lend statistics to back up observations and support potential legislative fixes. The study cites the work of another UAF researcher, Courtney Carothers, several times in reference to the impacts of the Pacific halibut fishery particularly. Carothers and a group of other researchers produced the 2017 “Turning the Tide” report, highlighting a number of the issues in loss of fishery access in rural communities and what that means for the future of those communities and the Alaska fleet. Since the implementation of limited entry programs in the 1970s, the number of rural residents holding permits in their local state fisheries has declined by 30 percent, and halibut quota holdings by locals in rural communities has fallen 50 percent since the implementation of the individual fishing quota, or IFQ, program in 1992 according to the Turning the Tide report. Much of that is due to the cost of permits in a limited entry fishery or shares in an IFQ fishery such as halibut or Bering Sea crab. Among the recommendations produced in that report were facilitating nonmarket-based access to commercial fisheries, establishing youth or student access licenses or mentorships programs, implementing programs to protect rural access to fisheries, supporting infrastructure to maintain fisheries and establishing a statewide fisheries access taskforce. Though lawmakers have expressed interest in it, legislation addressing these issues has yet to make it into law. One bill introduced in 2017, House Bill 188, would have established regional fisheries trusts allowing communities to form trusts to purchase commercial fishing licenses communally and lease them to fishermen who would otherwise not be able to afford them. After receiving a number of hearings, the bill was held in the House Labor and Commerce Committee and has not been revived in the current session. Beaudreau said her group’s study did not highlight potential solutions but rather shed light on the problem — and, among other items, how salmon fisheries can serve as a baseline fishery for commercial fishermen across the state. “Basically, we kind of saw salmon as a safety net, and it just speaks to how important it is for Alaskans,” she said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Emerging mariculture industry seeks to streamline permitting

Alaska may be famous for its wild fish, but some are working to make room in the state’s waters for more shellfish, kelp and crabs on aquatic farms. Mariculture is a hot topic in fisheries right now. Essentially, mariculture can be defined as the cultivation of plants or animals in controlled saltwater environments, but in Alaska it doesn’t include finfish, as that’s illegal in the state. So mariculture farmers have stuck to primarily kelp and oysters so far, but they’re starting to get more adventurous. As of December 2018, 58 aquatic farms were operating in the state along with five hatcheries and seven nurseries, though only 41 of the farms documented production in 2017, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Oysters are still the most widely grown product, though kelp is gaining ground; after the first operations for kelp were permitted in 2016, four farms had produced 16,570 pounds of ribbon and sugar kelp by the following year. A major obstacle remaining, though, is the regulatory hurdle to get an aquatic farm permitted. A bill in the Legislature — House Bill 116 — would trim down some of that procedure with an eye toward getting more operations out the gate. The bill, sponsored by representatives Andi Story, D-Juneau, and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, D-Sitka, would fast-track permit renewals for farms in good standing for their first renewal cycle, which covers 10 years. Story clarified in a hearing before the House Fisheries Committee on April 23 that it would make no changes for salmon hatcheries, which operate in the state largely without saltwater net pens. There’s been a recent surge in license applications to the state for aquatic farms, increasing the wait time, Story said. “Because of the recent increase in the number of aquaculture farm leases … it now takes on average 18 months or more to approve an aquatic farm lease,” she said. To obtain a permit, the applicant first has to apply to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for the use of the tidelands, which requires a 30-day public review and comment period and may require a site survey by ADFG. After the public comments are compiled and evaluated, DNR and ADFG issue a final decision. If the permit is denied, the applicant can appeal; if it’s approved, the permit is good for 10 years. The DNR permit’s annual fees are $450 or $875 for the first acre and $125 for each additional acre, with a $2,500 minimum performance bond required and a commercial use requirement by the fifth year with $3,000 per acre or a $15,000 max per farm site. ADFG requires an annual operating report for each species cultured as well as permits to acquire and transport wildlife. On top of that, to harvest and sell food products, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation requires that the operator obtain a water qualify classification, conduct shellfish sampling for paralytic shellfish poison and obtain shellfish processing permits, according to documentation submitted to the Legislature. It can be expensive and time-consuming. Meta Mesdag, co-owner of Salty Lady Seafood Company in Juneau, told the committee members that it’s taken about $150,000 of investment so far for her family’s approximately 1-acre operation growing geoduck clams and oysters. “(Oysters) take about three years to grow, and the geoduck will take seven,” she said. “Unfortunately, we only have five years left on our lease so we won’t see any revenue from our geoducks before we have to go through the renewal process all over again.” The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation, which promotes the exploration and development of fisheries throughout the state, credited the work of the state Mariculture Task Force with the growth in interest. In a letter of support for HB 116, the foundation noted that the vetting process for renewing a permit slows down the process for new applicants. “HB 116 is important step toward efficiently developing a mariculture industry in Alaska,” wrote AFDF Executive Director Julie Decker in the letter. “HB 116 will allow for one renewal of an aquatic farm site through a simpler internal process which does not require public comment, if the lease is in good standing/compliance. However, the second renewal would still be required to go through the extended process similar to a new application.” The Mariculture Task Force, established by Gov. Bill Walker in 2016 after the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation obtained a federal grant in 2014 to fund its Alaska Mariculture Initiative, developed a strategy released in March 2018 aiming to make Alaska’s mariculture industry worth $100 million in the next 20 years. The industry produced about $1.5 million in sales annually in the state in 2017. In the future, the primarily revenue drivers would be oysters, seaweed and geoduck clams, with smaller markets in mussels, sea cucumbers and king crab, according to the group’s Mariculture Development Plan. The primary recommendations the group produced are securing seed supply through hatcheries, passing state legislation to help fund hatcheries through the mariculture revolving loan fund and allow shellfish enhancement and filling several research and coordination positions for mariculture, among other goals. Alaska is significantly behind the Pacific Northwest in mariculture development. Some farms in Washington operate thousands of acres and employ hundreds of people. Taylor Shellfish Farms, which has been operating in the Seattle area since the 1890s, employs about 500 people and holds leases on more than 10,000 acres of tidelands in Washington. Some commenters raised a concern about the size of farms in the future. DNR does not currently have a size cap, other than that a farm cannot take up more than a third of the bay or inlet where it is located. Though the DNR considers risks like navigation hazards when reviewing farm permits, the agency is starting to consider ways to address concerns about farm size, said Christy Colles, who manages the shore leasing program for the Division of Mining, Land and Water, during the House Fisheries Committee meeting. “These new farms at this magnitude are by and large new to the state,” she said. “We haven’t really had much of a chance to think about how we can address those.” “Large” is a relative term in Alaska compared to the enormous operations in the Lower 48, said Mark Scheer, who operates Premium Aquatics near Craig, farming kelp and Pacific oysters. Though he said his lease is for more than 100 acres, he doesn’t use all of it at once. “I think it’s important to recognize that this is a new transition for Alaska,” he said. “The relative scale of what we’re doing here is modest at best.” HB 116 was passed out of the House Fisheries Committee to the House Resources Committee, scheduled for its next hearing on May 3. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

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