Fisheries

OysterFest celebrates future of Southeast shellfish industry

Photo/Courtesy/Governor’s office Gov. Sean Parnell signs House Bill 121 in Juneau at OysterFest on June 6. The bill creates several new revolving loan funds, including a $5 million pool for developing mariculture. JUNEAU — The economic development branch of Sealaska Corp. celebrated the first production of three Yakutat shellfish farms it helped launch, and the future of a regional aquaculture industry at the first annual Alaska Oyster Festival June 6 in Juneau. “We can have a $30 million industry instead of a $400,000 industry,” said Anthony Lindoff, mariculture manager for Haa Aani, a wholly owned Sealaska subsidiary. The smaller figure was last year’s production from the Yakutat farms, including two that are independently owned and one as a “training platform” for future farmers. Gov. Sean Parnell was among more than 100 guests who enjoyed “Pearl of Alaska” oysters. The occasion was also the venue for a signing ceremony for House Bill 121. Introduced at the governor’s request, the bill established independent revolving loan funds for mariculture operations, Community Quota Entities, halibut charter fishing businesses and general business microloans. The bill allocated $5 million for mariculture, $5 million for charter operators, $10 million for CQEs and $2.5 million for microloans. “Something important is happening. We are creating better access to capital for those folks in the mariculture industry who want to enter by creating a mariculture revolving loan fund,” Parnell said. Commerce Department Commissioner Susan Bell, also in attendance, said Alaska shellfish, among other seafood products, are promoted on cruise ships but, “We need to grow more shellfish for them really to be able to buy.” “We really think this will be he beginning of a new day and opportunity,” added Chris McNeil, Sealaska president and CEO. “Communities were becoming economically unviable.” McNeil emphasized that the cooperative development of oyster farming with Southeast villages through Haa Aani is intended to reverse a regional decline. “At the end of the day our culture and our heritage is rooted in our traditional rural communities and if we continue to have the outmigration that we have today and that we see today, then we risk losing our culture,” said Russell Dick, Haa Aani president and CEO. “That, to Sealaska and our team at Haa Aani, is unacceptable.” Dick said “considerable impediments to economic development” remain in the region. He cited insufficient access to capital and technical assistance among the gaps. McNeil said extent of mariculture expansion has not been determined, but significant plans for regional operations have been made. A new farm will begin operations in Angoon this year and Hydaburg could become a nursery with the installation of a “flupsy.” Akin to a salmon hatchery, the floating upweller system, which operates on a barge or dock, forces seawater through shellfish seeds that are protected from predators in floating containers. The units allow greater seed density and increase their growth rate over natural conditions. Kake, where Sealaska has processing and cold storage facilities, will serve as market logistics center for regional farm production, McNeil noted.

US braces for tsunami debris, but impacts still unclear

Gulf of Alaska Keeper/Ryan Pallister/AP In this June 6 photo providedby Ryan Pallister, Patrick Chandler removes tsunami debris on Montague Island near Seward. JUNEAU AP) — More than a year after a tsunami devastated Japan, killing thousands of people and washing millions of tons of debris into the Pacific Ocean, the U.S. government and West Coast states don’t have a cohesive plan for cleaning up the rubble that floats to American shores. There is also no firm handle yet on just what to expect. The Japanese government estimates that 1.5 million tons of debris is floating in the ocean from the catastrophe. Some experts in the United States think the bulk of that trash will never reach shore, while others fear a massive, slowly-unfolding environmental disaster. “I think this is far worse than any oil spill that we’ve ever faced on the West Coast or any other environmental disaster we’ve faced on the West Coast” in terms of the debris’ weight, type and geographic scope, said Chris Pallister, president of a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris from the Alaska coastline. David Kennedy, assistant administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service, told a U.S. Senate panel last month that in most cases debris removal decisions will fall to individual states. Funding hasn’t been determined. U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and other West Coast political leaders, have called that scenario unacceptable, saying tsunami debris poses a pending national emergency. “If this was a one-time event all at once, we’d declare it an emergency and we’d be on the ground like that,” he said, during the hearing he led. One astonishing example of how the unexpected can suddenly appear occurred June 6 in Oregon when a concrete and metal dock that measured 66 feet long, seven feet tall and 19 feet wide, washed ashore a mile north of Newport. A Japanese consulate official in Portland confirmed that the dock came from the northern Japanese city of Misawa, cut loose in the tsunami of March 11, 2011. “I think that the dock is a forerunner of all the heavier stuff that’s coming later, and amongst that heavier stuff are going to be a lot of drums full of chemicals that we won’t be able to identify,” Pallister said. His group, Gulf of Alaska Keeper, works in the same region devastated by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which dumped 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in 1989. Tsunami debris is tough to monitor. Winds and ocean currents regularly change, while rubbish can break up. Some trash, like fishing gear, kerosene and gas containers and building supplies, can be tied to the tsunami only anecdotally. But in other cases — a soccer ball and a derelict fishing boat in Alaska and a motorcycle in British Columbia, for example — items have been traced back to the disaster through their owners. NOAA projects the debris having spread over an area roughly three times the size of the contiguous United States, but can’t pinpoint when or how much might eventually reach the coasts of Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. An independent group of scientists and environmental activists are scheduled to sail aboard the “Sea Dragon” from Japan Saturday to an area north of the Hawaiian islands, with plans to zigzag through the debris, document what’s floating and try to determine what might reach the West Coast. “You have a unique experiment,” said Marcus Eriksen, a researcher at the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach, Calif., who is leading the expedition. “You have entire homes and all their contents ... anything you may find in a Japanese home could be floating in the ocean still intact.” Seattle-based oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, who has been tracking ocean trash for 20 years, predicts the main mass of tsunami debris will reach the U.S. coast from Northern California to southeast Alaska as early as October, with the beginning of fall storms. Cleanup plans should be finalized no later than September, Ebbesmeyer cautioned. There may also be sensitive issues to be decided, he said, including how to deal with any human remains or personal mementos. But just who will clean up the debris and who will pay for it hasn’t been fully determined. Begich wants to make at least $45 million available for local community groups to conduct clean-up efforts. Gulf of Alaska Keeper believes Congress should set aside $50 million a year for four years. As it stands now, NOAA has $618,000 allocated to clean up tsunami debris. The agency’s total marine debris program budget could drop by 26 percent to $3.4 million, under President Obama’s proposed budget. Marine trash isn’t a new problem. The ocean is littered with all kinds of things that can trap and kill wildlife, hurt human health and navigation and blight beaches. NOAA has previously given grants to local groups for cleanup work. The agency expects the tsunami debris to simply add to the ongoing problem of massive amounts of trash flowing into the ocean every day. Volunteers in California report their efforts being stretched thin just in dealing with day-to-day rubbish. Seasonal opportunity for cleanup could close as early as September at spots in Alaska, where some beaches are accessible only by boat or aircraft and removing trash can be difficult and expensive. Washington has monitored some incoming debris for radioactivity. Eben Schwartz, marine debris program manager for the California Coastal Commission, said more recognition needs to be given to the fact that it will be beach cleanup volunteers who respond to tsunami debris. “Given that, I would like to see more state and federal support for the volunteer programs that will be taking the lead,” he said. They’re going to need help, resources and funding, he said. NOAA’s marine debris program expects solid plans from the states within the next few months. The governors of Washington, Oregon and California, as well as the premier of British Columbia, have said they will work together to manage debris. Widespread or concentrated die-offs of marine animals aren’t expected, said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace, but there could be local impacts. NOAA officials say they don’t think there’s any radiation risk from the debris, despite the meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima. Merrick Burden, executive director of the Marine Conservation Alliance in Alaska and Washington, said he thinks states, local governments, volunteers and industries including fishing and tourism need to pull together to clean up debris, and not simply wait and hope for federal funds. “One of the things standing in the way is a unified, coordinated approach to this,” he said. Pallister worried that a lack of awareness may hamper the effort. “You just don’t have that visceral, gut-wrenching reaction to having oiled otters and drowned seabirds in that crude to get the public pumped up about it,” he said of the tsunami debris. “And even if you could get the public pumped up, again, you don’t have that culprit to go after — a bad guy. It’s kind of a tough one to deal with.”   McAvoy reported from Honolulu. Associated Press writers Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Wash., Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore., and Jason Dearen in San Francisco contributed to this report.

'Pingers' show promise to keep whales away from nets

Acoustical “pingers,” required in some Atlantic Coast fisheries to help porpoises stay out of driftnets, are getting strong reviews from salmon harvesters on both sides of the Gulf of Alaska along with almost desperate interest from others here trying to avoid costly whale encounters. Federal officials in Alaska have raised the possibility that use of the herring-sized transmitters might amount to “harassment” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The Juneau-based distributors who use and sell them, backed by a Kodiak researcher, expressed confidence in their utility and legality. A recent email from Garland Walker, an attorney in Juneau for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, stated, “Injury, intent to injure or doing something in negligent fashion that while not intended to injure a marine mammal, would in the view of a reasonably informed person would cause injury to a marine mammal, would be considered harassment.” Walker, on annual leave, could not be reached for comment. Matt Brown, deputy chief of NOAA enforcement in Juneau, said June 7 that federal managers are planning to discuss the question. “Some Protected Resources people had concerns,” Brown said of the NOAA division. “Somebody could try to stretch it to harassment but they would really have to stretch it and in the court system, I would bet, you would very easily be able to defeat it,” said Kathy Hansen. With her husband Ed, Hansen is a salmon driftnetter and owner of Kathy’s Net Loft and Gear Supply in Juneau, the exclusive Alaska distributor for Fumunda Marine “whale pincers.” Neither the Hansens nor NOAA released the full email but Kathy Hansen said Walker didn’t say using pingers is illegal but left a question. “He doesn’t write what people are actually looking for, which is that this is a legal item to use,” she said. Pingers are pointy-ended tuboids, just over 6 inches long, that contain a small transmitter and lithium battery. When seawater completes the connection between contacts built into the polymer units they emit a mammal-specific signal every five seconds. Pingers were first used more than a decade ago, attached along the top of shark nets along swimming beaches, to prevent dolphin entanglement. Fumunda, headquartered in Sippy Down, Queensland, developed their use, at a lower frequency, for humpback whale avoidance in response to a population growing at ten percent annually, according to James Ross Turner, managing director of Fumunda Pingers Proprietary Ltd. Unlike their large and small toothed cousins, humpbacks and other baleen whales hear sound much like humans and don’t use “sonar” to send out a signal that bounces off other creatures or things. Tanglings and interactions off Australian beaches dropped from 14 in 2008 to one in 2010, Turner said. Success Down Under allowed pingers to migrate to South African beaches where their use is on beach shark nets is also growing. Fumunda now operates in 26 countries and works with academic and government researchers in more than a dozen countries. Although their first whale-related research use in North America was in a 1992 project to warn humpbacks away from buoy lines in the Newfoundland cod fishery, they didn’t reach Alaska until 2009 when Turner sent several to Kate Wynne, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor researching marine mammals from Kodiak. “The reaction, if I can call it that to the deployment of the pingers was pretty well immediate,” Turner said. Alaska’s humpback whale population is growing at about 7 percent annually, and becoming an increasingly expensive problem for commercial harvesters. Kathy Hansen, who is also executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, had been in touch with Wynne on possible solutions. Wynne said a few Kodiak setnetters gave pingers a “test drive” in 2011 and reported great results. “They had whales come within, what sounded like about 25 yards, and casually move around the end of the net. That’s why everyone got so excited about them. “That’s why the word spread throughout the fleet, that these things seem to work very well.” The Hansens reported similar results in more than a month of use last summer. Their whale encounters “dropped immensely,” said Ed Hansen, who suggested that “pinger” is a poor name. When strung along a driftnet, they act more like a row of lighthouses warning a humpback that it is approaching a shoreline, he explained. “It got to the point where, at times, when we would have run away from fishing an area because there were so many whales around, we just quit worrying about it and just continued to set our net, is how comfortable it started to make us feel,” Kathy Hansen said. This year Wynne is measuring the “whale perspective” on pingers. She plans to attach temporary tags to whales to record the level of sound they receive from a pinger and track their movement. “We’re hoping to be able to see if they actually are responding to our approach with the pinger at different distance,” Wynne said. Pingers aren’t very loud. The 3 kilohertz whale pinger broadcasts at 135 decibels, and Wynne is concerned that their tone may be lost to whales amid general background noise, especially if it includes vessel engines. Wynne also said she’s heard that a Petersburg seine skipper is working out a way to launch a pinger upstream from his net so that it drifts toward the purse and, hopefully, keeps whales away. “I think it’s very doable,” Wynne said. She was less optimistic about the Northern Southeast Regional Aquaculture Association’s ongoing use of pingers positioned on buoys along the shoreline near salmon smolt release sights. Steve Reifenstuhl, NSRAA general manager, agreed but said he’s getting desperate. “We’ve had tremendous problems with whale predation so we are looking at different strategies,” he said. Over the last few years chum salmon returns to its Hidden Falls hatchery and a remote release site on nearby Takatz Bay have fallen dramatically. He thinks learned behavior by the Southeast panhandle’s growing whale population may be the reason. “To think that they can come right back to Hidden Falls is pretty dead certain. I think that they remember feeding strategies and can even teach others,” Reifenstuhl said. Results from the project weren’t yet available at that time, but the pessimistic outlook is a result of the subtly different use of pingers in this case. NSRAA is using pingers to keep whales away from a known food source rather than the foreign object that is a net. “That’s the huge difference, if there’s positive reinforcement. If there’s food on the other end, just alerting them could be worse,” Wynne said. All of the operations have huge incentives to find a way to keep whales away. Fumunda whale pingers cost $150 each, and have a range of about 100 yards. Salmon driftnets are 200 or 300 six-foot fathoms long, depending on the fishery. That requires an investment of up to $1,200, plus replaceable batteries. A new seine net can cost $138,000, according to Ed Hansen, while a new salmon driftnet can cost $5,800 and a whale can easily punch a $2,000 hole in a net that is salvageable. “They’re all looking for some type of humane, or whatever you want to call it, legal, deterrent because these nets are so expensive,” Ed Hansen said.

Kodiak diesel cleanup ongoing after Army craft grounding

KODIAK (AP) — When Petty Officer 1st Class Jeffry Crews was awoken by his phone at 11:30 p.m. on June 8, he knew he was in for a long day. That long day turned into a long weekend and now a long week, as cleanup continues on Kodiak’s largest fuel spill in more than a decade. Up to 15,000 gallons of No. 2 diesel leaked into Chiniak Bay after the U.S. Army landing craft Monterrey struck Kalsin Reef at or near Humpback Rock just before Friday turned into Saturday. “We consider this a significant spill,” said Steven Russell of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. “We have spills of this size (statewide) fairly frequently, usually in the winter months during vessel groundings. This one is a little bit unique because of the location. We’re right in downtown Kodiak.” The Monterrey has grounded on Puffin Island and remains visible from both downtown Kodiak and a scenic overlook frequented by tourists. Meanwhile, gloved workers are trying to soak up fuel on the beaches below. “Part of our job here is to respond to oil spills,” said Crews, a Coast Guard marine science technician. “Those calls can happen at any time.” The Coast Guard isn’t working alone. On Monday, slab-sided corrugated containers bearing the name of Alaska Chadux clustered on the St. Paul Harbor spit. Chadux is a private oil spill response group in Western Alaska, and the containers were among those it has stationed in Kodiak to respond to an Exxon Valdez-like disaster. While the spill from the Monterrey isn’t as severe as the one from that ill-fated tanker — No. 2 diesel evaporates much more quickly than crude oil — its scale is huge. From Puffin Island to the shore of Kodiak Island is six square miles of Chiniak Bay. “This is the largest pollution incident on my watch,” said Lt. Matthew Zinn, head of Marine Safety Detachment Kodiak, the Coast Guard’s unit in charge of spill response in Kodiak. Zinn has been on duty for two years in Kodiak and said he isn’t aware of a larger incident since the 1980s. That was corroborated by the Kodiak harbormaster’s office. Zinn said the Monterrey was ringed by 600 feet of oil containment booms by 4:30 a.m., about five hours after the wreck. That’s surprisingly fast, considering the booms’ heavy plastic snakes had to be transported from Coast Guard Base Kodiak in the early morning hours. “It was a little challenging, but we got it anchored,” Crews said. A second boom followed by noon Saturday and a third is in place now. Chadux, which sent a handful of workers from Anchorage on a specially chartered flight, moved into high gear by noon Saturday. With labor from Kodiak-based TC/MK Enterprises, oil-skimming operations were in full swing within the booms on Monday, and additional crews laid oil-absorbing pads in Gibson Cove and Dog Bay, where much of the diesel was blotted up. “It’s kind of a unique spill response, because everything worked out,” Crews said. “The weather drove everything into good collection points and away from sensitive areas like the Buskin (River).” The Buskin River contains a vital salmon stream as well as waterfowl nesting grounds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveyed Puffin Island on Monday but reported no oiled wildlife. No evidence of diesel was found at the Buskin, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Russell of ADEC said those reports are good news, but they don’t mean the cleanup is over. “We’re still finding some hot spots, some areas of pooled petroleum products in the area of Gibson Cove and St. Herman Harbor,” he said. “Those activities will continue until there is no more recoverable product.” Attention will next turn to the fate of the Monterrey, which had been on a mission to deliver construction supplies and heavy machinery to Bethel. Maj. Annmarie Daneker, spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Reserve, which operates the landing craft, said the ship will remain in place until examined by divers and engineers to ensure it remains seaworthy. After that, it will be floated to Lash Dock and unloaded. “Right now it’s still up in the air as to whether they’ll be able to support the (Bethel) mission,” Daneker said. The damage to the Monterrey’s human crew is less severe, she said. Three of the 17 people onboard the landing craft were injured, treated and released, she said. Because of damage to the Monterrey, the landing craft’s crew remains at Coast Guard Base Kodiak, rotating onboard the ship as needed. “They will stay with the vessel as long as they’re needed,” Daneker said. The biggest remaining question — what caused the accident — will not be answered any time soon, she said. The Army Reserve has begun what it calls a 15-6 investigation, named for the Army regulation that governs it. An impartial officer will be selected to collect information about the accident, then issue a report and recommendations. “It’s not a quick process,” Daneker said. “This is probably going to take months to not just finish the investigation but go up through channels, through the chain of command.” She declined to name the investigating officer or comment on the investigation, citing confidentiality. Coast Guard officials said the Army is the lead agency in the investigation and they will contribute at the Army’s request. “Obviously something went wrong,” Daneker said, “so we need to figure out where that happened.”

Workforce cut at Ketchikan Shipyard

KETCHIKAN (AP) — Alaska Ship and Drydock has had 23 fewer people working in the Ketchikan Shipyard since May 1 and the company says the main reason is a seasonal slowdown in routine vessel repair and maintenance work. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s fairly typical for the work slowdown in the summer,” said ASD President Adam Beck. “As you can imagine, all of the ferries are working, most of the commercial vessels are working, and that’s not when they want to get their maintenance done.” The workforce dropped from 128 to 105 as of Wednesday. Not all were layoffs. The Ketchikan Daily News reports some workers voluntarily took time off and are working with other companies. “They’re not necessarily laid off, but ... where they can find other work, they’ve done that,” said Doug Ward, director of shipyard development. “And I’m not suggesting that they’re doing it out of the kindness of their heart, but they understand that this is a slow time, and that it’s difficult to keep everybody going.” In past years, new construction and emergency repairs have made up for the usual summer slowdown at the shipyard, Ward said. There’s also been a decline in government vessel work. “This year, there just hasn’t been many government contracts with performance periods in the spring, that we normally have in the spring, early summer,” Ward said. Also absent are large new-vessel projects. The company has begun building a 136-foot, longliner-freezer fishing boat but the project cannot absorb a lot of labor. “We’re looking at another new build on a fish boat that could start up, and when the ship assembly hall opens here in July and August ... it will really allow us to build for the future on a new-build program,” Ward said. A solid new-build program would risks and cycles of the ship repair business, he said. “That’s the value of new build, because new build goes on seven days a week, every day, all year long,” Ward said. The company is a subsidiary of Portland, Ore.-based Vigor Industrial, which operates several shipyards in the Pacific Northwest. Vigor has recently redirected work to Ketchikan that likely would have gone elsewhere.

Sea otter study ongoing

Sea otters are expanding throughout Southeast Alaska and dining on crab, sea cucumbers, geoduck clams and more as they go. An ongoing study aims to track the otters, what they’re eating and where they are going — and researchers hope to get “grounds truth” from Southeast residents. For the past two years, Sea Grant marine advisory agents have spearheaded a project to learn more about the region’s sea otter diets and behaviors. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has provided aerial surveys and otter tagging to track their movements around Kupreonof Island, and Alaska Department of Fish and Game helps with logistics and data. “This is just for Southern Southeast Alaska,” said Sea Grant’s Sunny Rice in Petersburg. “It includes Kupreanof Island, Prince of Wales Island, Kuiu Island and inside in the Ketchikan, Petersburg, Wrangell areas. We’ve sort of drawn a line at Frederick Sound, although we will be interested in how they’ve moved up the north shore.” Aerial surveys have provided snapshots of otter activity but Rice wants to hear about otter sightings from longtime residents. “We want to learn when they first saw otters entering the areas they use on a regular basis, when they started seeing bigger groups if they did, and if they noticed what those otters were eating,” Rice said, adding that it’s most important to hear from people with a long term perspective. “People who frequent those areas continually year after year, so commercial fishermen will be great sources as well as recreational or subsistence users who to the same place time after time and have witnessed an influx of sea otters,” she said. The resident surveys will be combined with other research to make some otter predictions. “Hopefully, we can use that information and add it to what we know and come up with a good model on how the sea otter population has expanded, with the long term goal of being able to predict how it will continue to grow so people can make decisions based on more information,” Rice said. Sea otters were reintroduced to the southern regions in the late 1960s. Best estimates peg the population at about 19,000 animals in 2011. The animals are able to reproduce at any time of the year, and have a population doubling time of about five years. The otters are predators of almost every species that fishermen target. They have completely wiped out urchins and sea cucumbers in several areas, and are making inroads into some prime geoduck areas, according to Phil Doherty, director of the Southeast Alaska Regional Dive Fishery Association. Out of 15 Dungeness crab districts, six have large otter populations and Dungie pots have lost nearly 3 million pounds to otters in a decade, based on ADFG estimates. A report last year by the Juneau-based McDowell Group said otter predation has cost Southeast’s economy more than $28 million since 1995. Sunny Rice hopes to interview as many people as possible this summer and will travel to Prince of Wales Island and Ketchikan later this month. Ray reflects on ASMI After 10 years at the helm of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, executive director Ray Riutta is stepping down. “It’s time to bring in some new blood and new ideas,” he said. Prior to ASMI, Admiral Riutta spent 38 years in the U.S. Coast Guard. Now, retirement is looking pretty good. During his tenure, Riutta said he is most proud of ASMI’s role in helping to revitalize Alaska’s salmon industry. “We’ve participated in seeing the resurgence in value of the Alaska salmon fishery by orders of magnitude. I think of all the things that have happened through the 10 years I’ve been here, seeing that value come back to the fishermen is probably the thing I am most pleased with,” he said in a phone interview. Riutta said the power of the Alaska seafood brand has gotten stronger over the years. “We spent a lot of money on that – separating Alaska from the pack and we’ve carved out a pretty good niche for salmon and all Alaska seafood products,” he said. “The resulting value in the market demonstrates that. “The industry is putting a lot more time, money and effort in adding more value to products and there is far more respect for frozen products.” Riutta added that the biggest challenge will be holding onto that position in world markets. “We are the highest priced commodity on the shelf and we’ve got a special niche — fortunately ‘Alaska’ sells people and they are really excited about it, but holding that position and holding our value is going to be a big challenge,” he said. “And with the growth of all these certification programs and some of the restrictions that come with those, the ability to hold our market access and keep our name out there will be a challenge to us in coming years.” Riutta said what he has liked least about ASMI the job is all the necessary bureaucracy. His favorite part of the job is the people. “It has been a lot of fun and there’s a lot of really talented and sharp people and a lot of characters,” he said with a laugh. “This is really a fun industry to work in. I’ve just had a ball the last 10 years.” Riutta is quick to credit the state for its strong backing for ASMI, in both funding and support. “The administration and the legislature have joined the seafood industry as true partners in marketing our products,” he said. “The state is now putting up matching funds that come to almost 50 percent of our core budget up to $9 million, depending on what the industry brings to the table. That’s pretty remarkable considering it was zero when I first came to town.” In spite of tough competition in world markets, Riutta believes Alaska seafood will continue to have a bright future because “cream rises to the top.” “We have the best fish and the best industry in the world,” he said. “Certainly there will be bumps in the road but as long as we keep focused on producing terrific products and take good care of our fish, we’re going to be fine.”

Group forms to contest coastal management initiative

A new organization has formed to challenge the Coastal Management ballot measure, and make sure the Alaska Sea Party efforts get challenged before voters decide the issue in August. “Up until now this has been kind of a one-sided discussion,” said Willis Lyford, spokesman for the “Vote No on 2” committee, which organized last week. Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said the Alaska Sea Party welcomed the conversation. The Vote No on 2 group outlined its likely campaign strategy in its announcement last week, saying the measure is “confusing, poorly written and easily could hamstring development activities statewide.” Lyford said members of Vote No on 2 generally supported having a Coastal Management program, just not the overly expansive one proposed by the initiative campaign that began last year. “Our group is not opposed to all coastal zone management, we think there is a place for responsible and effective management of our coastal resources,” he said, calling the initiative “a real step backwards.” Kerttula said the initiative to restore the Coastal Management program allows Alaskans to safely and efficiently develop their coastal areas, which happened for years before the Legislature failed to renew Coastal Management last year. At the same time, it gives Alaskans a say in federal activities in the state. “That’s the beauty of coastal management, it cuts through red tape,” she said. “Without it you are going to have federal agencies making decisions for Alaskans.” It is not clear what the initiative-sponsored program will do, Lyford said. That’s because the regulations to implement it won’t be written until after it is created, if voters in fact adopt it. Under the initiative, the program is “undefined” and “open ended,” making it difficult to warn voters about what powers it could take on. “You never know what you don’t know,” Lyford said. Kerttula said if the Vote No on 2 group found it confusing, she’d be happy to help them understand it. The initiative recreates the program Alaska once had, which worked well, she said. “I’d be happy to sit down and explain it to them,” she said. She may get a chance to do that soon. Both the Alaska Sea Party and the Vote No on 2 committees have been invited to address the Juneau Chamber of Commerce’s Thursday luncheon. Kerttula said she’s likely to be representing the Sea Party there, facing off against one of the Vote No on 2 co-chairpeople, Kurt Fredriksson of Juneau. The two will likely need little information from each other on Coastal Management. Kerttula once represented Coastal Management as an assistant attorney general with the Alaska Department of Law, while Fredriksson is a former commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation who spent most of his career in coastal zone management. Other leaders in Vote No on 2 are fellow co-chairwoman Judy Brady of Anchorage, a former Department of Natural Resources commissioner, Lorna Shaw, director of external affairs for Pogo Sumitomo Gold Mine, and Treasurer Cheryl Frasca, director of the Office of Management and Budget for the Municipality of Anchorage. Lyford did not say how much the group planned to spend, but said they’d be soliciting contributions from the oil and gas, mining, hotel and tourism and service industries, all groups that could be affected by Coastal Management.

Commentary: Move on Bering Sea canyons a victory for subsistence

Recently the North Pacific Fishery Management Council passed a motion to go beyond simply reviewing the science and actually start developing new management options on the Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons of the Bering Sea shelf. These two canyons are the largest underwater canyons in the world. From the Tribal Community perspective, we believe this to be one of the biggest victories in a Council process that has historically watched out for the interests of the large industrialized commercial fishing interests of the Bering Sea and other areas of the planet. The primary concern of Greenpeace, Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, Southern Norton Sound Fish and Wildlife Advisory Committee, The Bering Sea Elders Group and many other Tribal Communities who provided very strong and much needed testimony to the Council supporting this request is subsistence. Certainly there are major concerns about benthic habitat destruction and the need to protect them, but without a healthy ecosystem our foods we depend upon and have for generations will begin to go away. There are two “old sayings” that come to mind here — “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” and, “If we disrespect the animals we depend upon for food, they will go away.” I think we are all familiar with the first. The second one comes from an elder in my village of St. George Island when I was a child. He said: “if we disrespect the animals, and we knowingly allow others to do the same, the animals know it and will move away from us.” Let’s look at the first saying mentioned above. In 1990, over 22 years ago, Katie John and others filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government regarding subsistence rights. Let’s not forget the courage and wisdom of these people and what they did to protect our subsistence rights and needs. The Bering Sea is our source of subsistence foods. Almost everything we need to sustain our lives and that of our children comes from the Bering Sea. And although we look at the Bering Sea on a map and consider its size, in reality it is not that big. Only about half of the Bering Sea is really usable for economic development and sites for the foods our food need to sustain themselves. Of that half, there are only a few places where our foods can go. Perhaps it has always been this way, but certainly it does look this way today. If one part of this extremely productive marine system is damaged, other parts of this system will begin to fail as well. The problem is, we simply do not know, and thus the need to try to protect some of it. From the Aleutian Islands, up northwest past the Pribilof Islands and further north to Russia there is the Bering Sea shelf. On that shelf are six large underwater canyons, Pribilof and Zhemchug being two of them. And these two canyons, from all understanding, are extremely productive providing nutrients, nursery grounds, corals and sponges for almost the entire Eastern Bering Sea. And they have been hit hard in the last fifty years with deepwater commercial fishing, the most damaging of all by the bottom and mid-water trawlers. For the sake of our foods and that of our Tribal Communities, these canyons need to be protected from further destruction. Unless this happens we may lose much of our much needed subsistence foods. The second saying above is equally critical to our survival as Tribal Communities. Let’s not forget from whence we came. As indigenous peoples we have a long history with our ancestors, our cultures and our ways of living. Generations of our ancestors, our elders and our people sacrificed everything to fight the good fight, to protect who we are, our cultures, languages and ways of life. Without them, their insight, wisdom and courage we may be a lost people. Drifting and wondering who we are. Sometimes it is easy to forget, especially when we begin to believe we have all we need. Without remembering what they have done for us and how important what they fought for, we begin to stumble and fall and eventually lose who we are. As then, subsistence is critical to our people, especially now when there is so much demand for the resources of the Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea and the Arctic Ocean. The world is getting desperate for these resources, and unless we protect what’s important to us, so will we.

Editorial: Council gets it right on bycatch, more work to do

“Glacial” is the word most often used to describe the North Pacific Fishery Management Council process, but that’s actually unfair to glaciers. Not even time-lapse photography would reveal much movement on reducing halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska until the council’s vote June 8 in Kodiak to cut it by 15 percent starting in 2014. The only previous cut in trawl halibut bycatch was a 27.4 metric ton reduction for the rockfish program passed in 2010 that represented about 1.4 percent of the 2,000 metric ton, or 4.4 million pound, trawl halibut bycatch allotment in place since 1986. Rather than compromise on the amount of the reduction, as many expected, the council compromised with the trawl fleet on time by phasing in the maximum cut under consideration over three years. We applaud the council action as an important first step, and encourage the members to continue pushing toward more meaningful measures to reduce bycatch even further. The trawl fleet made a series of self-defeating arguments against cutting halibut bycatch, taking the position the move was more allocation than conservation, pointing fingers at discards in the commercial halibut fishery, suggesting trawlers are balancing the ecosystem by removing arrowtooth flounder and juvenile halibut, and even attacking the International Pacific Halibut Commission. A majority of the council — namely, the Alaska delegation — didn’t buy any of that. However, we agree with the trawl fleet that some sort of organization of the Gulf fishery is necessary, and that a reduction in bycatch of much more than 15 percent is possible along with it. That said, the council acted properly to not trade a bycatch cut for a trawl catch share program that will take five years or more to craft and implement. Both the Bering Sea catcher-processor groundfish fleet and the Gulf rockfish program have demonstrated that significant bycatch savings are possible under a cooperative fishing program. Bycatch dropped 80 percent in the first year of the rockfish program in 2007 and the Bering Sea fleet has continued to cut its bycatch since 2008 despite an increasing biomass of halibut on their grounds. The council must use this time wisely to make real progress for a lasting management solution in the Gulf. Catch share programs of the type sought by the trawl fleet are inherently controversial based on legitimate philosophical differences about the degree to which a public resource becomes privatized, and at least in the case of the rockfish program the council has shown an ability to address some of those concerns. In the rockfish program redesigned over several years and passed in 2010, the council prevented consolidation through vessel use caps, cut mandated processor ties while also setting a minimum amount of companies that can take deliveries, and directed more of the harvest shoreside to Kodiak. The council also cut the bycatch allowance, incentivized more bycatch savings by limiting the amount that can be rolled over to subsequent seasons, and forced the fleet to work together by requiring membership in cooperatives to access harvest quota. The council also put a 10-year sunset date on the program to limit speculation and affirm public ownership of the resource. It remains to be seen whether the sunset date was the proper way to limit ballooning costs of entry that typically accompany rationalized programs where shares are bought and sold at 5-1 rates to dockside prices, but it was an action that showed at attempt by the council to address a real problem. The North Pacific council was once on a path toward Gulf rationalization early last decade. Then the Bering Sea crab rationalization took effect in 2005. Two-thirds of the fleet was tied up overnight, and 1,000 crew positions were gone from one season to the next. By allowing unlimited quota stacking and leasing, the program made millionaires out of a handful of initial shareholders and slashed crew pay by more than half from historical percentages in some cases. The fallout from the crab program, with ground zero centered in Kodiak, killed the Gulf rationalization efforts. If the council has trouble pursuing a rationalized management program in the Gulf because of public reservations, the failure to correct the crew situation in the crab program is a major reason why those hard feelings still exist. The current council didn’t construct the crab program back in 2003, but it hasn’t moved an inch to resolve this issue even after being confronted with compensation tables in 2010 showing the situation has deteriorated to the point at which crew who harvested 150,000 more pounds of lucrative Bristol Bay red king crab than others actually received less pay because of lease rates and quota stacking. A myriad of forms and regulations apply to federal fisheries, but this council hasn’t mustered the ability to require so much as a standardized settlement sheet for crew or the reporting of leasing data as a condition of receiving annual shares. This despite having the opportunity to do so in February when it adopted revisions to the economic data reporting system. Rather than require the kind of data that would have gotten more clearly at the issue of crew compensation, the council curtailed reporting requirements in an action that its own Scientific and Statistical Committee called a betrayal of the social contract implicit in the crab program. There is a direct correlation between the lack of an organized Gulf fishery today and the mistakes that were made — and continue to be made — in the Bering Sea crab fishery regarding the allocation of a public resource and how those benefits should be distributed. The council took a sensible action regarding halibut bycatch. Some would call it too little, too late. We consider it better late than never. When it comes to organizing the Gulf fishery, to borrow a title from Steppenwolf, it’s never too late to start all over again. But as the council embarks once again on this effort, it’s worth remembering why it has taken so long to return to this point — and that the underlying issue that set the council back remains unresolved.

Council approves 15% cut in halibut bycatch

KODIAK — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted June 8 to reduce the allowable halibut bycatch by trawlers and longliners by 15 percent, to be phased in over three years with a targeted implementation in 2014. After nearly two days of public comment from about 100 stakeholders at the Harbor Convention Center, the council passed the measure introduced by Dan Hull of Anchorage by a 10-1 vote. Outgoing member Dave Benson of Washington was the lone dissent. The 15 percent reduction was the maximum amount under consideration by the council and amounts to about 311 metric tons, or about 685,000 pounds, once fully implemented. In year one, a 7 percent cut will be implemented, followed by another 5 percent cut in year two and a 3 percent cut in year three. The phase-in was a compromise with the trawl and non-halibut longline fleets to allow them time to adjust to the cuts in the bycatch caps. Other than a 27.4 metric ton reduction in the rockfish catch share program approved in 2010 that took effect this year, the council had not reduced trawl halibut bycatch since the 2,000 metric ton cap (4.4 million pounds), was passed in 1986. Halibut bycatch has been sought for years, but the last five years of drastic cuts to commercial halibut harvests and restrictions on the Southeast charter sector have brought the issue front and center and created an enormous amount of pressure on the council to take a decisive and meaningful action. “This motion shows the council is willing to step up,” said member Duncan Fields of Kodiak, adding the action was “consistent with the conservation requirements” of the Magnuson Stevens Act national standards to minimize bycatch and consider community impacts of management actions. The motion included other accommodations to the various trawl sectors, including greater flexibility in managing the halibut cap by rolling over unused bycatch between seasons, and aggregating the available amount for use in both the deep water and shallow water trawl fisheries. Several members of the council said they were only reluctantly supporting the measure based on the difficulty of managing a hard cap in an open access fishery. Under the catch share style program long sought by the trawl fleet, allocation of fishing privileges and bycatch offered a better path toward more meaningful bycatch reductions, they said. Roy Hyder of Oregon, and Bill Tweit and John Henderschedt of Washington were the council members who said they didn’t like the final action but were compelled to vote for it because they did not want to go on record as opposing bycatch reductions. Benson, who was attending his last council meeting after serving nine years, or three terms, echoed the complaints of his fellow Pacific Northwest members in casting the lone “no” vote. The Alaska delegation fought off several attempts to modify Hull’s motion during deliberations. Henderschedt introduced a motion that would have been a 12 percent cut over two years, with the goal to begin working toward a comprehensive catch share system for the trawl fleet. That failed 2-9, with Hyder joining Henderschedt on the vote. Then Tweit introduced an amendment that would have phased in the cuts over four years, with 7 percent in year one, no further cut in year two, 5 percent in year three and 3 percent in year four. That amendment earned the support of National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger, who said would help the trawl fleet because the council hadn’t given it the “tools” to reduce bycatch through a catch share program. Chairman Eric Olson quickly spoke up against that idea, as did Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. In reference to Balsiger’s comment that the trawl fleet could start working now on the 7 percent reduction, Campbell said, “this is something they should have been thinking about for the last two years as we’ve been considering this package. What’s already on the table represents a lot of time and there’s no reason to stretch that out.” Tweit’s amendment failed 4-7. The one amendment that did pass was to only cut the longline catcher processor fleet by 7 percent rather than the full 15 percent, based on halibut savings the fleet has achieved through its voluntary co-operative and other reduction in the recent Pacific cod sector splits between longline and trawl sectors. In speaking in support of his motion to address the trawl industry arguments that this debate over bycatch is about allocation and not conservation, Hull pointed to a footnote the analysis that stated a bycatch limit is not an allocation. “Instead,” the document stated regarding bycatch limits, “it reflects the maximum removal amount of the designated species that society is prepared to tolerate, before it takes punitive action to curtail further (prohibited species catch) losses … Because PSC must be avoided, to the extent practicable, it cannot be regarded as an asset of fixed quantity, but instead as an upper-bound threshold, the farther below which the total PSC mortality level, the better, all else equal.” Based on the massive volume of public comment and written submissions seeking a bycatch cut, Hull noted, society’s willingness to tolerate halibut bycatch in an environment of declining abundance of catchable fish has clearly reached its limit.   Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Council approves 15% cut in halibut bycatch

KODIAK — The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted Friday to reduce the allowable halibut bycatch by trawlers and longliners by 15 percent, to be phased in over three years with a targeted implementation in 2014. After nearly two days of public comment from about 100 stakeholders at the Harbor Convention Center, the council passed the measure introduced by Dan Hull of Anchorage by a 10-1 vote. Outgoing member Dave Benson of Washington was the lone dissent. The 15 percent reduction was the maximum amount under consideration by the council and amounts to about 311 metric tons, or about 685,000 pounds, once fully implemented. In year one, a 7 percent cut will be implemented, followed by another 5 percent cut in year two and a 3 percent cut in year three. The phase-in was a compromise with the non-halibut trawl and longline fleets to allow them time to adjust to the cuts in the bycatch caps. Other than a 27.4 metric ton reduction in the rockfish catch share program approved in 2010 that took effect this year, the council had not reduced trawl halibut bycatch since the 2,000 metric ton cap (4.4 million pounds), was passed in 1986. Halibut bycatch reductions have been sought for years, but the last five years of drastic cuts to commercial halibut harvests and restrictions on the Southeast charter sector have brought the issue front and center and created an enormous amount of pressure on the council to take a decisive and meaningful action. “This motion shows the council is willing to step up,” said member Duncan Fields of Kodiak, adding the action was “consistent with the conservation requirements” of the Magnuson Stevens Act national standards to minimize bycatch and consider community impacts of management actions. The motion included other accommodations to the various trawl sectors, including greater flexibility in managing the halibut cap by rolling over unused bycatch between seasons, and aggregating the available amount for use in both the deep water and shallow water trawl fisheries. Several members of the council said they were only reluctantly supporting the measure based on the difficulty of managing a hard cap in an open access fishery. Under the catch share style program long sought by the trawl fleet, allocation of fishing privileges and bycatch offered a better path toward more meaningful bycatch reductions. Roy Hyder of Oregon, and Bill Tweit and John Henderschedt of Washington were the council members who said they didn’t like the final action but were compelled to vote for it because they did not want to go on record as opposing bycatch reductions. Benson, who was attending his last council meeting after serving nine years, or three terms, echoed the complaints of his fellow Pacific Northwest members in casting the lone “no” vote. The Alaska delegation fought off several attempts to modify Hull’s motion during deliberations. Henderschedt introduced a motion that would have been a 12 percent cut over two years, with the goal to begin working toward a comprehensive catch share system for the trawl fleet. That failed 2-9, with Hyder joining Henderschedt on the vote. Then Tweit introduced an amendment that would have phased in the cuts over four years, with 7 percent in year one, no further cut in year two, 5 percent in year three and 3 percent in year four. That amendment earned the support of National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger, who said would help the trawl fleet because the council hadn’t given it the “tools” to reduce bycatch through a catch share program. Chairman Eric Olson quickly spoke up against that idea, as did Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell. In reference to Balsiger’s comment that the trawl fleet could start working now on the 7 percent reduction, Campbell said, “this is something they should have been thinking about for the last two years as we’ve been considering this package. What’s already on the table represents a lot of time and there’s no reason to stretch that out.” Tweit’s amendment failed 4-7. The one amendment that did pass was to only cut the longline catcher processor fleet by 7 percent rather than the full 15 percent, based on halibut savings the fleet has achieved through its voluntary co-operative and other reduction in the recent Pacific cod sector splits between longline and trawl sectors. In speaking in support of his motion to address the trawl industry arguments that this debate over bycatch is about allocation and not conservation, Hull pointed to the analysis that stated a bycatch limit is not an allocation. “Instead,” the document stated regarding bycatch limits, “it reflects the maximum removal amount of the designated species that society is prepared to tolerate, before it takes punitive action to curtail further (prohibited species catch) losses. Because PSC must be avoided, to the extent practicable, it cannot be regarded as an asset of fixed quantity, but instead as an upper-bound threshold, the farther below which the total PSC mortality level, the better, all else equal.” Based on the massive volume of public comment and written submissions seeking a bycatch cut, Hull noted, society’s willingness to tolerate halibut bycatch in an environment of declining abundance of catchable fish has clearly reached its limit.   Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected]

Murkowski, Young urge more time for comment

JUNEAU (AP) — Members of Alaska's congressional delegation are joining the state's attorney general in asking that the public be given more time to comment on a study looking at the impacts of mining in the Bristol Bay region. Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young on Thursday sent a letter to the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking that the public comment period be extended to Nov. 20. They say they're concerned that the current 60-day period is inadequate. Public comment is scheduled to end July 23, though EPA says it is considering requests to extend it.  

Officials worry about creatures on tsunami dock

When the tsunami hit the northern coast of Japan last year, the waves ripped four dock floats the size of freight train boxcars from their pilings in the fishing port of Misawa and turned them over to the whims of wind and currents. One floated up on a nearby island. Two have not been seen again. But one made an incredible journey across 5,000 miles of ocean that ended this week on a popular Oregon beach. Along for the ride were hundreds of millions of individual organisms, including a tiny species of crab, a species of algae, and a little starfish all native to Japan that have scientists concerned if they get a chance to spread out on the West Coast. "This is a very clear threat," said John Chapman, a research scientist at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., where the dock washed up early Tuesday. "...It's incredibly difficult to predict what will happen next." State officials organized a group of volunteers Thursday to scrape the dock clean of marine organisms, bag them and dispose of them inland, said Chris Havel, spokesman for the state Department of Parks and Recreation, which is overseeing the fate of the dock. Biologists have identified one species as a marine algae, known as wakame, that is native to Japan and has established in Southern California, but has not yet been seen in Oregon, he said. While scientists expect much of the floating debris to follow the currents to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an accumulation of millions of tons of small bits of plastic floating in the northern Pacific, tsunami debris that can catch the wind is making its way to North America. In recent weeks, a soccer ball washed up in Alaska, and a Harley Davidson motorcycle in a shipping container was found in British Columbia, Canada. How the dock float — 165 tons of concrete and steel measuring 66 feet long, 19 feet wide and 7 feet high — turned up on Agate Beach, a mile north of Newport, was probably determined within sight of land in Japan, said Jan Hafner, a computer programmer in the University of Hawaii's International Pacific Research Center, which is tracking the 1.5 million tons of tsunami debris likely floating across the Pacific. That's where the winds, currents and tides are most variable, due to changes in the coastline and the features of the land, even for two objects a few yards apart, he said. Once the dock float got into the ocean, it was pushed steadily by the prevailing westerly winds, and the North Pacific current. "If you have leaves falling from a tree ... one leaf will be moving in a slightly different direction from another one," Hafner said. "Over time, the differences get bigger and bigger and bigger. "Something similar is happening on the ocean." After it came ashore, the Japanese consulate was able to track down the origin of the dock float from a plaque bolted to it commemorating its installation in June 2008. Deputy Consul Hirofumi Murabayashi said Wednesday from Portland, Ore., that it was one of four owned by Aomori Prefecture that broke loose from the port of Misawa on the northern tip of the main island during the tsunami. Akihisa Sato, an engineer with Zeniya Kaiyo Service, the dock's Tokyo-based manufacturer, said the docks were used for loading fish onto trucks. One of them turned up several weeks later on an island south of Misawa, but the other two remain missing. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., called on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to redouble its efforts to track the debris, saying something as big as the dock could pose a danger to ships at sea. NOAA's tsunami marine debris coordinator, Ruth Yender, said if the Pacific were shrunk to the size of a football field, something like the dock would be the size of a human hair, making it very difficult to monitor, even from satellites. The dock tested negative for radiation, which was to be expected if the dock broke loose before the nuclear power plant accident triggered by the waves, said Havel. Chapman said the dock float was covered with masses of algae, kelp, barnacles, mussels and other organisms. One square-foot area weighed nine pounds. "This is a whole, intact, very diverse community that floated across from Japan to here," he said. "That doesn't happen with a log or a thrown-out tire. I've never seen anything like this." Of particular concern was a small crab that has run wild on the East Coast, but not shown up yet on the West Coast, and a species of algae that has hit Southern California, but not Oregon. The starfish, measuring about three inches across, also appears to be new to U.S. shores. "It's almost certainly true that most of the things on this have not been introduced to this coast yet," Chapman said. "We're going to see more of these things coming." Tom Cleveland, a housekeeping supervisor at nearby beachfront condominiums, said people curious to see it have been jamming up traffic at a beach parking lot. "Everybody and their brother has been here looking at it and checking it out," Cleveland said. "Obviously, we knew things would be coming our way, but I didn't expect anything this size."  

EPA names review panel for Bristol Bay watershed study

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has appointed an independent scientific review panel for a draft watershed assessment of the Bristol Bay region in Southwest Alaska, where a joint-venture of Anglo American and Northern Dynasty Minerals are planning the large copper and gold Pebble mine, a senior EPA official said June 4. Notice of the panel, with its members identified, was published June 5 in the Federal Register. Dennis MacLerran, Administrator of EPA’s Region 10, spoke at a public hearing the EPA held in Anchorage on June 4, the first of seven Alaska hearings the agency will hold on the assessment. If developed, the Pebble project, west of Iliamna Lake southwest of Anchorage, would be a combination underground and surface mine and would be one of the largest copper/gold mines in the world. MacLerran said the agency chose to do the watershed assessment last year after Native tribal groups in the region petitioned the agency to initiate a 404 (c) process under the Clean Water Act to block the mine development. Section 404(c) allows EPA to veto developments that impair the environment regardless of other federal agency decisions. “We chose not to proceed with the 404 (c) process and to do the watershed assessment instead,” MacLarren said. The EPA is sensitive to its trust responsibilities to Native Americans, he said. The assessment is not regulatory in nature, but is intended to “inform” the agency on potential impacts of large scale mining in the region, which hosts the world’s largest wild salmon fishery on which Native people depend, he said. EPA did no scientific fieldwork on the assessment other than a literature review and interviews in the region with 54 tribal elders to gather traditional knowledge on the salmon fisheries, agency officials at the hearing said. The State of Alaska has meanwhile objected to the watershed assessment, arguing it is premature and unprecedented because the two companies planning development of the Pebble have not yet developed a mine plan and filed applications for permits. “We’re looking closely at the data, methodolgies and assumptions used, whether the assessment is based on appropriate modeling for that region and whether it contains any unfounded bias for or against any particular development,” Ruth Hamilton Heese, state senior assistant attorney general, said in a statement June 5. “We believe the assessment is premature and that any consideration of impacts should be made within the context of an actual proposal and Clean Water Act Section 404 application,” she said. Several hundred people attended EPA’s first hearing in Anchorage, about evenly split between opponents of the mine, which include Alaska Native people from areas near the mine where salmon could be affected, and others who are more supportive, including Native residents of villages near the mine which could benefit from jobs. Two state legislators, state Sen. Cathy Gissel and Rep. Charisse Millet, both of Anchorage, criticized the EPA assessment as done in haste and without a scientific base. “You spent five years on the last regional watershed assessment in Chesapeake Bay. You spent a year on this, which covers an area the size of Virginia,” Millet said. “As a legislator, I’m concerned about the precedent you’re setting. You’re scaring away every potential investor in a new Alaska mine.” Gissel objected to EPA appearing to pre-judge the project, which is on state-owned lands. “Alaska is a sovereign state with our own competent permitting program,” she said. Others at the hearing welcomed EPA’s action. Bella Hammond, widow of former Alaska Gov. Jay Hammond, who is from the Bristol Bay region, said she grew up in the area of the proposed mine and opposes it. “I’m very familiar with the area and I’m concerned about it, and about what people could lose,” she said, if fisheries are affected by downstream pollution from the mine. Hammond’s remarks were echoed by other mine opponents from the region who stressed the importance of protecting the major salmon fishery. Not all from the region opposed the mine, however. Abe Williams, a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman, said, “We all love our salmon but our communities are seeing drastic reductions in population and school closures,” and the economic stimulus the mine would bring is needed badly. Williams urged EPA “not to extinguish” the economic future for communities in the region through an action stimulated by “fear and emotion,” of some people. Lisa Reimer, representing Iliamna, the village nearest the Pebble project, said she and her community oppose EPA’s watershed assessment because of the uncertainty it creates on the use of Native-owned lands near the mine. The Pebble Partnership, the joint-venture company, thinks the agency is premature in its assessment. In a statement issued earlier, Pebble CEO John Shively said, “We believe that the EPA has rushed its assessment process, and that this is especially problematic in light of the large size of the study area. “We have taken several years and expended considerable resources to study the ecosystem in a small area around the Pebble deposit, while the EPA has, in only one year and with limited resources, completed a draft assessment in relation to an area of approximately 20,000 square miles. We believe that this explains why the EPA’s work has not yet approached the level of rigor and completeness required for a scientific assessment.” The peer review panel named by the EPA follows: David Atkins, Watershed Environmental LLC, (mining and hydrology); Steve Buckley, WHPacific/NANA Alaska (mining and seismology); Courtney Carothers, indigenous Alaska cultures; Dennis Dauble, Washington State University (fisheries biology and wildlife ecology); Gordon Reeves, USDA Pacific Northwest, (fisheries and aquatic biology); Charles Slaughter, University of Idaho (hydrology); John Stednick, Colorado State University (hydrology and biogeochemistry); Roy Stein, Ohio State University (fisheries and aquatic biology); William Stubblefield, Oregon State University (aquatic biology and ecotoxicology); Dirk van Zyl, University of British Columbia (mining and biogeochemistry); Phyllis Weber Scannel (aquatic biology and ecotoxicology); Paul Whitney, wildlife ecology and ecotoxicology.

Lodge owner withdraws IPHC application after charges filed

The president of a Southeast sport fishing guide’s organization and one of 10 nominees for two seats on International Pacific Halibut Commission has withdrawn from consideration after five criminal charges of falsely claiming state residency in fishing license applications were filed against him on May 25. Thomas C. Ohaus, president and founder of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, indicated through a spokesman that he would plead not guilty to the charges at his District Court arraignment, in Sitka June 26. Ohaus is the majority owner of the Angling Unlimited sport fishing lodge there. His partner, Charles A. McNamee, was charged May 22 with five identical counts. Court documents give Ohaus’ address as 39 East Ave., South Dartmouth, Mass., and McNamee’s as 21750 County Rd 18, Nevis, Minn. One of five charter fishing skippers employed by Angling Unlimited, David J. Gross, was charged on March 20 with a single count of lying on a sport fishing license application in an alleged Sept. 10, 2011, incident. He pleaded not guilty at an April 17 arraignment and his case is continuing. “I take these charges seriously and am in the process of retaining legal counsel. I believe that I have been a resident of the state of Alaska and have been legally eligible for an Alaska resident fishing license,” Ohaus said in a prepared statement released May 30 by SEAGO. Ohaus did not respond to phone messages seeking an interview but designated SEAGO Executive Director Heath Hilyard as his spokesman. Hilyard said Ohaus formally withdrew his IPHC application on June 4. Ohaus’ statement notes that he has continually operated a charter fishing business in Sitka since 1993 and “has maintained a home in Sitka,” been continually registered to vote in Alaska since 1995 and possesses a valid Alaska driver’s license. An affidavit filed in Sitka court by the investigating wildlife trooper indicates Ohaus received a Permanent Fund dividend payment in 1999, but neither applied for nor received any other dividends since. State voter registration records indicate Ohaus voted by absentee ballot in local and general elections from 2004 to 2010, except in the August 2008 primary election “where he apparently voted in person.” Trooper Tim Hall’s affidavit also indicates that Ohaus and wife Linda Kristofik own an oceanfront home in Dartmouth, Mass., and that in 2004 he applied, with a notarized signature, for a homestead tax exemption. The affidavit explains that in Massachusetts a homestead exemption is, “defined as and limited to a primary residence.” It also notes that, beside providing the tax break, an exemption “can be used to protect the home from civil actions.” Hilyard said Ohaus never used the exemption. “It’s a contingency benefit he’s never taken advantage of,” Hilyard said June 1. Beside their Sitka and New England residences, the investigation also disclosed that Ohaus and Kristofik bought a home in Seattle in August 2011. The affidavit also indicates that two of the couple’s three children attended Friends Academy, in Dartmouth, participating in track meets and other events and achieving honor roll status during the past school year. The couple’s eldest child graduated from Dartmouth High School in 2008. Hall also said Dartmouth schools impose “stringent” residency standards, requiring parents to show a Massachusetts driver’s license or “three forms of proof of residency.” “The proof of residency requires proof of ownership of tenancy of a home in the school district, a current utility bill, and one of the following: vehicle registration, passport, W-2 form, vehicle excise tax bill, letters from an approved government agency, payroll stub, bank or credit card statement, it continued. Hall also noted that in his April 30 phone call to Ohaus, at a number with a Massachusetts area code, Ohaus indicated that he had retained Anchorage attorney Brent Cole, “after hearing about investigations” of McNamee and Gross. The two IPHC seats are reserved for an Alaskan and a nonresident. In his March 16 application letter Ohaus applied for the Alaska resident seat but recently changed it to seek the nonresident post on the advice of Jim Balsiger, Alaska region administrator for the National Marine Fisher Service and overseer of the current IPHC application process. Hilyard said Ohaus also sought direction on the residency standard he should follow from the offices of both of Alaska’s U.S. senators, Patrick Moran, in the NMFS Office of International Affairs in Maryland and from Charlie Swanton, director of the Alaska Sport Fish Division, but got no clear direction from any of those quarters. “While our office was contacted by SEAGO’s Heath Hilyard several times during the IPHC nomination process, we did not offer any advice as to what constitutes residency or on Mr. Ohaus’ residency status. We appreciate being informed about the various candidates qualifications and supporters, but are not in the position of offering legal advice,” said Julie Hasquet in a June 4 response to this reporter’s questions. According to Hilyard, after Balsiger consulted with federal attorneys he told Ohaus it would be “more appropriate” to apply as a nonresident and to submit a letter asking that his application be changed. Hilyard said he “wasn’t privy” to the reason Balsiger gave for requesting the residency change. “You have to ask Tom or Jim why. They had that conversation without my knowledge,” he added. Trooper Hall’s affidavit quotes Ohaus in the letter to Balsiger saying, “Upon reviewing a number of legal definitions, in light of personal/family obligations, I am unable to commit indefinite presence in the state of Alaska for the next several years. As such, I have concluded that my personal circumstances do not meet the threshold for Alaska residency.” The date of the letter was not indicated. Hilyard said SEAGO gave no thought to any licensing ramification from changing the IPHC application to a seat specifically designated for a nonresident. Balsiger declined to be interviewed or to confirm or deny any of Hilyard’s comments. NMFS press officer Julie Speegle first said in a June 1 phone interview that Balsiger did not advise Ohaus on residency requirements. In an email later that afternoon responding to the specific question of whether Balsiger advised Ohaus on changing his residency status she wrote, “Not to my knowledge. There is no formal interview process for the IPHC commissioner seats, but it is appropriate and probable that Dr. Balsiger has spoken to each of the 10 nominees about various issues related to their nomination.” In a June 4 response to a request for further clarification on Balsiger’s interaction with Ohaus she wrote, “NMFS declines to respond in light of the pending charges levied by the State of Alaska against Mr. Ohaus.” She also said Balsiger will continue as the first gatekeeper in the IPHC selection process. That includes Balsiger’s recommendations to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Department of Commerce, consultation with the State Department and formal appointment, expected sometime next year, by the president. “The Alaska Region, under the Administrator’s direction, will complete the nomination package and send it forward to NOAA. It is anticipated that NOAA will seek the guidance of the Administrator relative to nominee qualifications,” Speegle wrote in an email response. Balsiger is also one of the three current IPHC US commissioners, occupying the seat specified for an official of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The IPHC also includes three Canadian commissioners.

Agenda dominated by halibut in Kodiak; Trident launches eco-box

Nobody wants to waste fish – least of all those who make their living from the sea. Fish harvesters want and need to be able to catch as much as they can to sustain their families and livelihoods. And as upstanding citizens, they obey the law when they discard “prohibited species” taken while they’re fishing for their “target catch.” When fishing seasons open, it’s impossible to not catch a mix of fish when they blanket the sea bottom, and fish of all kinds and sizes will go after a baited hook. So certain amounts of “prohibs” are allowed to be taken in a fishery, and there are strict limits on how much. When it comes to setting the rules, the buck stops with fishery managers. Rules about halibut bycatch will be the 5 million pound question when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council convenes June 6 to June 11 in Kodiak. The NPFMC sets the catch and bycatch limits for all federal-water fisheries from three to 200 miles offshore in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska, which produce 80 percent of the state’s seafood landings. Since the mid-1980s, managers have allowed 2,300 metric tons, or about 5 million pounds, of halibut bycatch each year in Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries. Meanwhile, commercial fishermen have had their halibut catches reduced 63 percent in recent years due to dwindling numbers of legal sized halibut, and sport charters are being limited to one or two fish per day. “I think the basic fact is that for so long there hasn’t been any adjustment for bycatch. Yet for both commercial and sport charter fisheries, there have been huge adjustments based on shifts of halibut biomass. That on its face is not quite equitable,” said Denby Lloyd, Kodiak fishery advisor and a former NPFMC member. There’s plenty of finger pointing to go around. Most of the halibut bycatch (2,000 mt) is taken in trawl fisheries, with 300 mt for the hook and line cod fleet. A big unknown is the amount of fish discarded by the halibut fleet, which unlike the others, is not required to have onboard observers and/or vessel monitoring coverage. Analysts estimate that due to 32-inch size restrictions for retention, for every 10 halibut the commercial fishermen catch, they must throw six smaller ones away. (A restructured observer program set to be in place next year will include coverage of the longline halibut fleet as well as vessels less than 60 feet.) Fishery managers have clearly gotten the message. Halibut bycatch was the first order of business on the NPFMC agenda when it convened June 6, and 20 hours were allotted on the topic. At the get go, the group is poised to reduce the bycatch level by up to 15 percent. “It’s a small cut at this juncture, but it’s a first step to continually reducing halibut bycatch,” said Theresa Peterson of Kodiak, a member of the Council Advisory Panel. At the same time, Council staff have compiled a discussion paper on comprehensive approaches to bycatch control beyond setting caps. “There are a lot of options, but it’s in the early stages and not even in the initial review of an analysis,” said Lloyd, referring to the glacial pace of Council processes. “The really important part comes later on. And people should make sure that the Council doesn’t impose a 10 or 15 percent reduction and then go on to other business. It’s got to be step one of a comprehensive approach.” Options in the Council document include voluntary bycatch cooperatives (without share allocations) modeled after the Bering Sea pollock fishery, where members share real time information on avoidance measures, and have “rolling hot spot” closures in areas where “prohibs” are appearing. “That’s been very successful and the trawl fleet has done it for themselves,” said Lloyd. “They established a structure where the co-op limits bycatch and applies individual boats with their own penalties. That was pretty darn creative,” Other possibilities listed are fixed area closures, individual bycatch quotas and electronic monitoring, both of which are used in Canada, with great results. The Gulf trawl sector advocates for a catch share program as the best way to slow down their groundfish fisheries and reduce bycatch, but that has met with some resistance. “Gulf trawlers have needed catch shares as a tool for years, yet many of the folks who are howling the loudest about halibut bycatch reductions are the same ones who don’t want rationalization for the trawlers,” said an industry stakeholder. At a recent workshop convened by the NPFMC and the International Pacific Halibut Commission, 19 presentations were given on halibut bycatch estimation, halibut growth and migration and effects on harvest strategy. All concluded that halibut bycatch is reduced with individual vessel responsibility.  Trident launches Eco-Box Trident Seafoods introduced 100 percent recyclable fish boxes to the world with its shipments of some of the first fresh Copper River reds. Trident is the first to use the no-wax, wetlock fiber boxes made by engineers at International Paper. The “AquaSafe” boxes meet criteria for airline shipment and are fully recyclable. They can also be wet-iced, containerized and shipped by barge or truck. “Most importantly, the boxes maintain the integrity of the product,” said John van Amerongen, Trident’s chief sustainability officer. A panel that reads “DON’T BOOT OUR NEW BOX!” on the bright red and blue fish boxes encourages customers to recycle them along with other cardboard. “It’s another pearl in the sustainability string,” van Amerongen said. “People are really paying attention to packaging and to us it is synonymous with our commitment to sustainability. We are proud to provide healthy products and innovative packaging to seafood lovers based on those foundations.”

EDITORIAL: Council, trawlers must be accountable for bycatch

Two out of three ain’t bad, unless you’re talking about trawl halibut bycatch. As this issue of the Journal went to press, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was kicking off 20 hours of staff reports, public comment, and ultimately, final deliberations in Kodiak about the decades-old issue of reducing the allowable bycatch of halibut by trawlers and cod longliners in the Gulf of Alaska. Inside the thousands of pages of documents prepared over the years dealing with halibut bycatch is one bit of information that council members should keep at the top of their minds as they make a decision. According to data collected by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, 62.5 percent of trawl halibut bycatch by weight are fish larger than 26 inches. With an annual bycatch limit of about 4.4 million pounds that has barely been adjusted since 1985, that amounts to 2.75 million pounds per year of fish larger than 26 inches taken by trawlers. Why does this matter? It matters because the amount of halibut estimated to be larger than 26 inches is the basis of the harvest quotas set annually by the IPHC. Halibut must be larger than 32 inches, not 26, to be retained, but at current $6 per pound prices it’s a safe estimate that trawlers take legal-sized halibut worth upward of $10 million each year. Trawl fleet representatives have aggressively pushed the information from the same analysis that shows three out of four fish in their bycatch are less than 26 inches, but never do they mention the fact that roughly two out of every three pounds are not. They’ve also pointed fingers at wastage in the commercial halibut fishery where some sub-legal fish die after being discarded. Some comparisons are apples to oranges. This argument is more like apples to hamburgers. When a halibut is caught by a trawler, it’s a death sentence more than 80 percent of the time for fish big or small. The discard mortality rate for sublegal halibut by longliners is estimated to be 16 percent. This leads nicely to another argument the trawlers are making — that this is really about allocation and not conservation because the halibut they aren’t allowed to take will be harvested by the commercial and recreational users instead. Bycatch is not an allocation issue. Allocation fights are between directed users — commercial, sport and subsistence. For trawlers and cod longliners, halibut is a prohibited species catch. By definition, they shouldn’t be taking any of it. Fisheries management allows for takes of certain amount of bycatch, but the North Pacific council cannot allow for preserving the bycatch status quo for a few boats to take precedence over their primary responsibility to manage the Gulf of Alaska sustainably for all users. Some members of the council have attempted to cop out of bycatch cuts by arguing the North Pacific doesn’t have a halibut management plan. Indeed that is true, but it does have a groundfish plan that includes halibut bycatch limits and requirements for closures if a sector exceeds its limit. That begs a simple question: If halibut bycatch has no impact, why have a limit or require closures at all? In fact, it’s already an established part of council management that halibut bycatch has impacts and they must be controlled. Now is not the time for the council to shrink from its job to live up to the “Alaskan model” it so often lauds itself for, especially at a time when the IPHC is doing everything it can to conserve the halibut resource that provides a livelihood for thousands of Alaskans as well as our friends in Canada and the Lower 48.

Seized vessel headed for scrap heap

JUNEAU (AP) — A vessel seized for illegal fishing last year is headed for scrap. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's law enforcement division is seeking a contractor to tow the Bangun Perkasa from Dutch Harbor and dismantle it. Responses to the solicitation are due by June 14. Last September, the Coast Guard seized the vessel about 2,600 miles southwest of Kodiak after receiving a report that it was fishing illegally with a drift net. Authorities reported finding more than 30 tons of squid and 54 shark carcasses aboard the rat-infested ship. A federal judge earlier this year issued a forfeiture decree, turning the ship over to the federal government. A surveyor's report found the ship in poor condition, with outdated or nearly obsolete equipment. The ship's value was estimated at $250,000.

EDITORIAL: Council, trawlers must be accountable for bycatch

Two out of three ain’t bad, unless you’re talking about trawl halibut bycatch. As this issue of the Journal went to press, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council was kicking off 20 hours of staff reports, public comment, and ultimately, final deliberations in Kodiak about the decades-old issue of reducing the allowable bycatch of halibut by trawlers and cod longliners in the Gulf of Alaska. Inside the thousands of pages of documents prepared over the years dealing with halibut bycatch is one bit of information that council members should keep at the top of their minds as they make a decision. According to data collected by the International Pacific Halibut Commission, 62.5 percent of trawl halibut bycatch by weight are fish larger than 26 inches. With an annual bycatch limit of about 4.4 million pounds that has barely been adjusted since 1985, that amounts to 2.75 million pounds per year of fish larger than 26 inches taken by trawlers. Why does this matter? It matters because the amount of halibut estimated to be larger than 26 inches is the basis of the harvest quotas set annually by the IPHC. Halibut must be larger than 32 inches, not 26, to be retained, but at current $6 per pound prices it’s a safe estimate that trawlers take legal-sized halibut worth upward of $10 million each year. Trawl fleet representatives have aggressively pushed the information from the same analysis that shows three out of four fish in their bycatch are less than 26 inches, but never do they mention the fact that roughly two out of every three pounds are not. They’ve also pointed fingers at wastage in the commercial halibut fishery where some sub-legal fish die after being discarded. Some comparisons are apples to oranges. This argument is more like apples to hamburgers. When a halibut is caught by a trawler, it’s a death sentence more than 80 percent of the time for fish big or small. The discard mortality rate for sublegal halibut by longliners is estimated to be 16 percent. This leads nicely to another argument the trawlers are making — that this is really about allocation and not conservation because the halibut they aren’t allowed to take will be harvested by the commercial and recreational users instead. Bycatch is not an allocation issue. Allocation fights are between directed users — commercial, sport and subsistence. For trawlers and cod longliners, halibut is a prohibited species catch. By definition, they shouldn’t be taking any of it. Fisheries management allows for takes of certain amount of bycatch, but the North Pacific council cannot allow for preserving the bycatch status quo for a few boats to take precedence over their primary responsibility to manage the Gulf of Alaska sustainably for all users. Some members of the council have attempted to cop out of bycatch cuts by arguing the North Pacific doesn’t have a halibut management plan. Indeed that is true, but it does have a groundfish plan that includes halibut bycatch limits and requirements for closures if a sector exceeds its limit. That begs a simple question: If halibut bycatch has no impact, why have a limit or require closures at all? In fact, it’s already an established part of council management that halibut bycatch has impacts and they must be controlled. Now is not the time for the council to shrink from its job to live up to the “Alaskan model” it so often lauds itself for, especially at a time when the IPHC is doing everything it can to conserve the halibut resource that provides a livelihood for thousands of Alaskans as well as our friends in Canada and the Lower 48.  

Hearings scheduled for coastal zone initiative

JUNEAU (AP) — Ten hearings are scheduled on a ballot initiative that would re-establish a coastal management program in Alaska. The initiative is the first to fall under a state law, passed in 2010, that requires at least eight hearings up to 30 days before the election in which an initiative is to be decided. The law requires pro and con positions be given at the hearings. Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, in a news release, says state officials are working to make sure that testimony can be taking by phone during some of the hearings. Hearings begin July 2 in Soldotna and end July 26 in Juneau. Other communities hosting hearings are Barrow, Anchorage, Wasilla, Kotzebue, Fairbanks, Kodiak, Bethel and Ketchikan. The initiative will appear on the Aug. 28 primary ballot.

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