Michael Armstrong

Dead murres pile up on Homer beaches

HOMER — Anyone who has walked Homer’s beaches the past few weeks has seen a horrid event. Every few yards along the tidal wrack line, the white chests of dead birds stand out among kelp and driftwood.  Some of the seabirds have been scavenged, a new food source that’s caused an influx of bald eagles not seen on the Homer Spit since the death in 2009 of Jean Keene, Homer’s Eagle Lady who used to feed eagles. Something is killing Alaska’s common murres. In the summer of 2015, the murres also suffered a complete colony collapse and failed to breed. Almost all the dead birds are murres, seabirds that in the summer swim in huge rafts near Gull Island or offshore. On a still summer evening, huge flocks can be seen flying just feet above the ocean surface. With big, duck-like feet, black backs and white breasts, they look like penguins. On land they’re helpless, but on sea they can swim and dive deep. Bird experts advise beach walkers to leave carcasses alone. Many of the murres appear emaciated and have starved to death, but scientists studying the die-off don’t yet know what’s causing the murres to starve. Not only are murres starving, they’re not breeding. Surveys last summer of breeding colonies in Kachemak Bay and on the Barren Islands last summer showed no murres set up nests. Murres usually have a breeding success rate of 50 to 60 percent. “We had complete reproductive failure, which is really rare for murres,” said Heather Renner, a bird biologist with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. Hundreds and even thousands of murres have washed up dead on Alaska beaches in Kodiak, Homer, Anchor Point, Kenai and Whittier. In Seward, Anchorage, Palmer, Wasilla and Talkeetna, people also have been finding live, stranded birds in yards or on rivers and lakes — way outside the normal winter range for murres. By January, murres usually have migrated out to sea. The Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage has taken in 220 murres since Jan. 1, said Katie Middlebrook, avian rehabilitation coordinator. At the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, 87 stranded murres have come in, said Laurie Morrow, education director and interim director of communications. Morrow said live murres have shown up as far inland as Mile 12 Seward Highway. On New Year’s Day, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Biologist counted 8,000 dead murres on a 1-mile stretch of beach in Whittier. “That number is totally off the charts,” Renner said. “This whole region is having through-the-roof numbers in the last couple of days.” Lani Raymond, a Homer birder who has volunteered with the Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Training program since 2009, did her monthly COASST survey of a ¾-mile stretch of beach along Mud Bay heading east from the access road to the beach from the old airport parking lot. She counted 118 dead murres and also saw hundreds of dead sea stars. “It’s really bad,” Raymond said. “It’s really depressing. The day we did the 118 murres and all those star fish, I was really upset.” One day a month, COASST volunteers walk local stretches of beaches to look for dead birds. They count, tag and photograph dead birds and report information to the national COASST program in Seattle. Raymond said there have been so many dead birds they’ve been counting and photographing every 10 birds. “Usually you go for a walk. You might find a bird, but often you don’t,” she said. “Right now it’s the pits, really the pits.” Renner said local COASST volunteers have reported similar numbers as Raymond’s survey, with some sections having from 400 to 800 birds per kilometer. People have seen birds in woods above the high tide line, floating with debris in the Homer Harbor and even on the road. COASST volunteers first noticed an increase in dead murres starting in July, when surveys showed about 2-3 dead birds per kilometer. Julia Parrish, a fisheries professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and executive director of COASST, called that amount “elevated.” In an interview in July, she said a big die off would be like one seen at Kayak Island near Prince William Sound, with 1,000 dead birds per kilometer. “That’s knee deep in birds,” she said then. “You’re there,” she said in a phone interview on Tuesday. Parrish said the recent numbers are 10 to 100 times the normal amounts. The average numbers for Alaska are 2-4 birds per kilometer — and continuing. While scientists don’t know what’s causing the murres to starve, they do know this: • A few birds of other species like auklets and guillemots have been found dead, but the vast majority are murres. • There is no evidence of toxins in murre carcasses studied. • None of the murres have avian influenza or cholera. If they did, other bird species also would be dying. • For scavengers like eagles, crows and ravens, the murres appear safe to eat, and there have been no reports of scavengers getting sick. • Murres also have been dying in above-average numbers in areas of the Washington and Oregon coast, but the rate of die off has dropped. • The North Pacific from California to Alaska has seen an above-average warm ocean, an effect called “the Blob.” • There also have been increases in harmful algal blooms, including in Kachemak Bay. • The age of dead murres found varies, with younger birds found as well as older murres. Murres can live up to 40 years. Big storms could have contributed to the die off, stressing the already emaciated birds. Those storms also could have pushed the murres further north or could have tossed birds already dead out at sea up onto catcher beaches like at Mud Bay.  The big question in the murre die off is “Why are the birds starving?”  “It’s more a matter of ruling things out rather than having a best guess,” Renner said. Parrish said she didn’t think it’s the harmful algal bloom that has been going on for 8 months. “Is it the prey base, the krill, the forage fish, things like sand lance, the herring, that have rearranged themselves?” she asked. “Winter living as you know is tough in Alaska. These are scrappy birds. They’re used to it. Something else is going on.” Normally after murres fledge in August or early September, the murres head out to sea, Renner said. “Something’s going on. It’s causing a redistribution of murres,” she said.  The best guesses so far are that murre starvation is food-source related and warm-water related, Renner said. “What the exact mechanism is, we’ll probably never know,” she said. One theory is that warming ocean temperatures have caused prey fish to swim deeper, making it harder for murres to fish. “That seems a bit of a stretch, because we know murres can dive pretty deep,” Renner said. However, fishermen reported increased numbers of bait fish in Kachemak Bay, with fish so plentiful that it drew more humpback whales to the bay. How the die off affects the total Alaska murre population also is unknown. Renner said murres number in the millions. Murres did breed in 2014, even though it also was a warm summer. Murres are indicators of environmental change, though. “They’re telling us something is going on in the marine ecosystem,” she said. “The harder part is figuring out exactly what this means.” For people walking the beaches and seeing so many dead birds, that can be troubling. “Death is part of the ecosystem,” Parrish said. For scavengers who rely on carcasses to get through the winter, that can be a good thing. “It’s a very emotional things to be watching right now,” Morrow of the SeaLife Center said. “Science might be learning something, but we might not be able to mitigate it before it’s run its course.” Michael Armstrong can be reached at [email protected] What to do if you find murres: If found dead: • Leave the carcasses on the beach. COASST (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Training) volunteers count dead birds monthly and monitor new strandings of dead birds. Birds with yarn, plastic tags or paint indicate birds already counted. • Don’t collect dead birds. Biologists have received enough samples to do studies. Dead birds serve as food for bald eagles, ravens, crows, sea gulls and other scavengers. Carcasses will decompose and return nutrients to the ecosystem. • Don’t let dogs eat or touch dead birds. While avian influenza or cholera has not been found, birds may carry other diseases that can harm pets. If found alive: • If murres are found near water, don’t touch them. Katie Middlebrook, rehabilitation coordinator for the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage, suggested gently herding live murres back to the sea if possible. Murres need water to take off. • If murres are found inland near Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna river valleys, call Bird TLC at 907-562-4852. • If found inland away from water near Seward, call the SeaLife Center at 907-224-6395. Both organizations also accept donations to help with rehabilitation efforts. Middlebrook said extra tanks have been set up to accommodate the increase in stranded murres. Murres will be assessed for survivability, and if not too weak, fed a salmon slurry. When healthier, they are washed in Dawn soap and when their feathers and coat have recovered, released along the Anchorage coast. At the SeaLife Center, if healthy, murres are given a meal of fish and returned to the sea, said SeaLife Center education director Laurie Morrow. • Because of the stress on murres that would need transportation to Seward, if live birds are found in Homer, Morrow said the best thing is to leave them in place.  

Buccaneer bankruptcy hits businesses

HOMER — In the Buccaneer Energy bankruptcy case, some local businesses have been hit with a double whammy. Not only does Buccaneer still owe them money, a Houston, Texas, law firm has now sent them dunning letters asking back money Buccaneer had paid. The city of Homer and Homer Electric Association also have received letters for what’s called a “demand for recovery of preference payments.” “I’m still owed close to $10,000 I’ll never see,” said Lloyd Moore, owner of Moore & Moore Services, and one of the businesses that got a letter from the law firm of Snow Spence Green. “They’re also demanding a lot of money back.” Buccaneer Energy, the Australian owned oil company that explored for and developed oil and gas in Lower Cook Inlet, at the West Eagle Site and in Kenai, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief on May 31, 2014. As part of the bankruptcy process, Snow Spence Green of Houston, acting as trustee for the Buccaneer Creditors’ Liquidating Trust, sent a letter in mid June to several businesses as well as the city of Homer and Homer Electric Association. The firm seeks return of payments made in the 90 days before Buccaneer filed for bankruptcy, what’s called the preference period. In a letter sent to the city of Homer and provided to the Homer News, the trustee seeks payments of $17,457.15. City Manager Katie Koester said those payments were for wharfage and other port and harbor fees for Buccaneer vessels. Koester notified the Homer City Council of the letter in her city manager’s report for the June 22 meeting. She told the council the city attorney would file a response. “Can we ask for our subsidies back?” council member David Lewis said at that meeting. “This seems ridiculous. If you collect money from someone and 90 days later they go bankrupt, they can get money back?” According to Buccaneer bankruptcy filings, about a dozen local businesses are listed as creditors, including Moore & Moore, HomeRun Oil, the Best Western Bidarka Inn, Alyeska Tire and Maritime Helicopters. It’s unclear from court filings which businesses received demands for recovery of preference payments. Several businesses declined comment on if they had received letters. Moore did not specify how much the letter demanded. HomeRun Oil owner Shelly Erickson also did not want to go on the record about how much she was asked to pay back. Citing customer confidentiality, HEA spokesperson Joe Gallagher also did not provide details. An Anchorage bankruptcy lawyer, David Bundy, said he had been contacted by several businesses regarding the letter, but could not identify them because of attorney-client privacy. “I think trustees often send these things out wholesale, cast a wide net, and see what happens,” Bundy said. “It’s a real surprise to contractors or suppliers who got money a year or a few years ago.” In the letter, attorney Ross Spence wrote, “It is understandably frustrating for a creditor who received payments for legitimate debts to be required to return the payments.” Spence explained in the letter that the demand is to recover preferential payments that might have been made to one creditor over another, with the objective to prevent favoritism. Once returned, the payments would be redistributed on a pro rata, or proportionate, basis. Creditors who received payments in the ordinary course of business do not have to return payments, Spence’s letter said. That means payments were ordinary in relation to past practices. A message left with Snow Spence Green seeking comment was not returned. All the businesses and public agencies contacted said they had sent or will send legal responses making the “ordinary business” defense. “I do know we received regular payments from Buccaneer,” Koester said. “Port and Harbor was very on top of regular billing.” Moore said the bills were for things like portable toilet, trash Dumpster and water hauling services. “I’m not an attorney, but I read the law,” he said. “The law shows it should be on our side.” “We believe those payments were made as part of the ordinary course of business,” Gallagher said. Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said he also had been contacted by local businesses regarding the demand for preference payments. Seaton said he contacted the Alaska Department of Revenue to see if the state still owed Buccaneer tax credits. If it did, Seaton said he asked to see if the money could be held to help businesses hit by the demand for recovery of preferential payments. Seaton also raised the question of whether oil companies working in Alaska should have to pay higher bonds to protect small businesses in the event a company goes bankrupt. He noted that because the state pays credits to Cook Inlet oil and gas companies, smaller companies use that credit to get financing they might not otherwise be able to get. “How are we going to protect the Alaska citizens where corporate credits are being use for financing?” Seaton asked. He also raised another concern: that banks that made risky loans would be paid ahead of small businesses. “The bonds should not be payable to the people who made risky loans. They should first be paying suppliers who did work for them,” Seaton said. He added that he did not know if that was the case with the Buccaneer bankruptcy. Council member Lewis questioned giving state credits at all to smaller companies. “Why should we deal with smaller companies and have them come here, have our welders work on rigs, when they go out there and have them declared bankrupt and you’re screwed,” Lewis said. “I would rather not see them come.” In order to spur oil and gas development in Cook Inlet at a time when natural gas supplies appeared to be declining, the state adopted legislation to encourage exploration and development with tax credits. Moore conceded that his company benefitted from that development. “The good news is, working with these oil companies over the years, it has allowed me to grow my company,” Moore said. Originally a water hauling service, Moore invested profits into portable restroom and trash hauling services. “It’s a risk, but it’s been a big reward for us over the years to do what we do,” Moore said. For now, it’s too early to know if the city of Homer, HEA and local businesses will be able to keep the money paid to them or have to give it back. Seaton also said he had not heard back from the state yet about his questions and concerns. “All you can do is hope and pray that what you’re reading is the law,” Moore said of the “ordinary business” defense. But if the companies do have to pay the money back, that could have a huge ripple effect throughout the lower Kenai Peninsula economy. The hit also to HEA and the city of Homer will go back to customer and taxpayers, Moore noted. “If HEA has to pay money back, that’s you and me paying it back. If the city of Homer has to pay it back, that’s the taxpayers of Homer paying it back.” Michael Armstrong can be reached at [email protected]

Homer photographer gets photo on new Alaskan beer label

Like a lot of Homer entrepreneurs, Scott Dickerson has not one, but several business ventures. A recent sale, though, combines three of his passions: photography, surfing and helping to run an adventure charter boat, the Milo. Last month, Alaskan Brewing Co. released its new Icy Bay India Pale Ale with a label using Dickerson’s photo of his brother Fred surfing near Yakutat on an expedition with the Milo. Another photo Dickerson took of Ty Gates surfing in Homer appears on Icy Bay IPA packaging for six-packs and half-racks. Dickerson, 31, sold the photos after Alaskan Brewing stumbled across his work in a web search. “It’s just the magic of the Internet,” said Andy Kline, a spokesperson for the Juneau brewing company. Kline said Alaskan Brewing had a beer label with a painting of a surfer, but wanted something more realistic. “We just found there were people in our Outside territories who didn’t think that was real. Surfing in Alaska, right. We wanted to portray how real it was,” Kline said. Looking for new images for the Icy Bay IPA, they typed in “Icy Bay” and “surfing” and came across Dickerson’s photo on his website. “And we just came across Scott’s photograph. It’s amazing and very cool,” Kline said. “The more we looked into (Dickerson’s) lifestyle, we thought, ‘This guy’s awesome.’” Since 2001, Dickerson has been photographing professionally, selling images to Alaska Magazine, Outside, the New York Times and National Geographic. Part of Homer’s diehard, rugged surfing community that chases waves whenever big sets roll in — even if it’s mid-winter — in 2008 he started selling surfing equipment such as wetsuits and stand-up paddle surfboards. With a 100-ton captain’s license, Dickerson also helps run the Milo with owner Mike McCune of Ocean Swell Ventures. The Milo is a former seining boat that’s tough, seaworthy and can handle rough seas. “We say we offer the authentic Alaska experience,” Dickerson said. It was on a trip on the Milo from Sitka to Homer in late 2010 that Dickerson took the photo of his brother. Fred Dickerson had been shooting video all day, which frustrated him. “It was heartache for him,” Dickerson said. “He couldn’t handle it. He went surfing.” Scott Dickerson took the photo of Fred surfing the face of a wave near Yakutat with Mount Saint Elias in the background. Alaskan Brewing cropped the photo so that the mountain is in the background and the surfer dominates the image. “You can imagine Fred is pretty happy with himself for being on a beer label,” Dickerson said. The Icy Bay IPA is an update of Alaskan Brewing Co.’s India Pale Ale line, first released in 2007. “As inspiration for the new flavor profile, the Brew Crew looked to the intense experience of Alaskans who travel the state’s coastlines in search of epic surf,” the company said in a press release. Along with using his photography, Alaskan Brewing also has contracted with Dickerson to help market the Icy Bay IPA using images of Alaska on social media. One of Alaskan Brewing’s slogans is “Live Life Alaskan.” Instead of using athletes to promote its beers, Alaskan Brewing features real-life adventurers like Dickerson and Juneau photographer Chris Miller. “They’re very cool people. They reflect the ethic we have about the environment,” Kline said. “They just couldn’t be (better spokesmen). And they like our beer.” “We decided to try it out and see how it goes,” Dickerson said. So when you’re a photographer and the campaign is about you, how does that work out? “It’s photos of my friends that I do stuff with,” Dickerson said. “They pay me and give me a beer budget. It’s pretty fun. That’s a quick way to make friends when you tell them you can bring all the beer.” Dickerson’s wife, Stephanie, helps run his web site and other aspects of the Dickerson business empire when she’s not being a new mom to their son, Riley, now six months old. Along with his photography and surfing ventures, Dickerson also is aerial director of photography for Daniel Zatz of Zatzworks. Dickerson operates a Cineflex brand camera system, a complicated, gyro-stabilized device used to shoot things like aerial photography from helicopters. “It’s an amazing camera system that’s difficult to operate,” Dickerson said. Dickerson has combined art and adventure to cobble together a living that can support his family. “To me they’re very much all lifestyle businesses,” he said of his endeavors. “We have an extravagant life on a very small budget.” Michael Armstrong can be reached at [email protected]

Homer gas line gets OK

Just hours after Gov. Sean Parnell signed a $2.9 billion statewide 2013 capital budget that included an $8.15 million grant to build an Anchor Point to Homer natural gas line, the Homer City Council passed a resolution starting a focused discussion of public financing for building a gas distribution system in Homer. After three attempts to fund a natural gas line from Anchor Point to Homer, and after two vetoes by Parnell of previous Alaska Legislature appropriations, Parnell on May 14 finally gave Homer some good news: the gas line is a go. “I’m very pleased,” said Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer. “I’m glad we were able to work with the governor and the Senate to put together a budget that had very few vetoes, and none in District 35.” The city of Homer also rejoiced at the good news. “The city’s very excited about the prospect of natural gas in Homer,” said Katie Koester, community and economic development coordinator. “Natural gas is one of the biggest economic development opportunities to come to Homer for a long time.” Homer City Manager Walt Wrede is on vacation and was not available for comment. “The real work is about to begin,” Koester said May 14 before the council meeting. “Now we need to look at building a distribution system and how that’s going to be financed, and include the public in that discussion.” The council resolution starts that discussion. Introduced by council member Beau Burgess, and passed unanimously, the resolution sets a June 4 date for a workshop to include representatives from Kachemak City, Enstar Natural Gas Company and the borough. Because council member Beth Wythe works for Homer Electric Association and could have a conflict of interest because she works for another public utility that previously expressed interest in building a natural gas line, Wythe was excused from the vote. When built, the gas line will continue from Chapman School in Anchor Point, follow the Old Sterling Highway to the Sterling Highway to West Hill Road, go up West Hill Road and through the center of town on Fairview Avenue. The resolution starts a discussion of how to build out from the main distribution line and if the city should finance part of that build out. Enstar spokesperson John Sims said permitting will start soon, with construction possibly starting late this year.
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