Fisheries

Processors affirm plans to drop eco-label, MSC fires back

A public statement by seafood processors handling the vast majority of Alaska’s salmon harvest supporting the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s responsible fishery management certification has been met with a new attack by the eco-labeling organization struggling to keep the fishery as one of its marquee species. In an “open letter to the editor” released May 18, the heads of 27 seafood companies that handle upwards of 80 percent of the annual Alaska salmon harvest said they will stick with ASMI’s responsible fishery management, or RFM, certification of the salmon fishery after their participation in the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label program expires this October. The letter was a response to the MSC’s announcement in April that the Seattle-based Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association would become the latest client for its Alaska salmon fishery certification. “The announcement by PSVOA and the speculative statements that followed have created some confusion in the marketplace. We would like to clear up any misunderstanding,” the letter declares. “We have no intention of supporting MSC certification for salmon beyond the 2012 production. While we recognize that PSVOA has the right to become the client for MSC salmon, it should not be construed that we have changed our minds about this decision.” Five of the 27 companies, Trident, Icicle, Ocean Beauty, Peter Pan Seafoods and Kwik’Pak Fisheries, occupy the processor seats on the ASMI board. These and three others, Alaska General Seafoods, E & E Foods and North Pacific Seafoods, usually buy 75 percent or more of Alaska’s annual salmon harvest. The MSC has pressed seafood retailers, with some success in Germany and the U.K., to demand its blue eco-label on all their products. Alaska salmon processors say that gives the eco-labeler control of market access and obscures product origin, the premier hallmark of Alaska salmon. In response, Kerry Coughlin, the MSC’s regional director for the Americas, issued a statement downplaying the processors’ letter and attacking ASMI. “ASMI has been clear for some time that they are lobbying against the MSC option for Alaska fisheries. In the course of promoting their own industry scheme, ASMI continues to say inaccurate and misleading things about the MSC program,” Coughlin said in what was described as an exclusive interview with Intrafish, a seafood news website owned by Norwegian farmed salmon producers. Requests over several weeks for an interview with Coughlin or another MSC spokesperson in her Seattle office have been rejected, as was a request for clarification of what she asserted were ASMI’s inaccurate and misleading comments. “She was referring to the corrections that we put out in late January,” wrote Mike DeCesare, MSC’s Americas’ communications director in a May 25 email. MSC issued two public statements in January, both in response to the announcement by the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation in Kodiak that it would drop its relationship with the MSC this fall after barely two years. AFDF became the client for the MSC’s Alaska salmon certification after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game dropped that role in 2010. A Jan. 17 MSC news release contained no mention of ASMI. It quoted Coughlin declaring, “While there are other sources of MSC-certified salmon, Alaska was an early and important leader in the MSC program. We hope that this fishery will re-enter assessment, maintain the market advantage of MSC certification, and continue to showcase their sustainability.” That was followed by a lengthy Jan. 20 statement in which MSC declared, “We are compelled to respectfully respond to certain ASMI statements with correct and factual information.” The ASMI statements referred to by MSC were its explanation of its new RFM certification program at a variety of public events. ASMI’s program is based on the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s Code of Responsible Fishery Management. MSC’s certification system is based on the same code, as interpreted by its board of directors. The MSC rejected ASMI’s program as equivalent to its eco-label and said MSC is concerned “about schemes that are not scientifically credible, rigorous, independent and third-party, because of their potential to undermine real environmental change.” Although the MSC was founded, and largely funded, by Unilever, at the time the world’s largest seafood importer, MSC’s Jan. 20 statement said, “With no reference to any specific fishery intended, an industry-led standard cannot achieve the level of independence, scientific rigor and credibility that ensures that fisheries are genuinely sustainable.” The Jan. 20 statement also said ASMI’s system handled by Global Trust is not a legitimate third-party certification. Global Trust, an internationally recognized auditing firm, is among several that have been approved by MSC for use by its eco-label clients. Under the MSC method, the client, until recently at least, paid the auditor’s expenses for site visits and other review costs. The MSC is paying at least 75 percent of PSVOA’s certification costs and will make up the gap between its remaining costs and fees the group will charge processors that continue to use the blue eco-label.

New city logo and branding coming to Petersburg

PETERSBURG (AP) — What's in a name? The Petersburg Economic Development Council (PEDC) hopes the name Petersburg will translate into increased tourism and economic growth thanks to new city branding. The PEDC, members of the Chamber of Commerce, and several city employees, gathered last week to see the latest artwork and slogans for a new city branding effort that is designed to entice visitors, businesses and new residents. The desire to create a Petersburg logo and slogan began about a decade ago, said PEDC coordinator Liz Cabrera. According to Cabrera, the project failed twice as a ballot measure in the past few years. But then the PEDC last year proposed to take on the project, and the city approved a budget of $75,000 on the project. PEDC has spent $58,000 on a contract with brand specialists North Star Destination Strategies. The balance will be used for some initial implementation of the new logo and slogan, Cabrera said. The logo features half-a-dozen different types of fishing boats which can be found in the Petersburg harbors. There is a color palate with blue, green and red. The colors reflect those found around town, such as red rooftops, blue storefronts or green plants and trees. There is also new slogan: "Little Norway. Big Adventure." The slogan can be changed to fit a host of marketing needs. There's also a statement that describes Petersburg as a destination. Nashville, Tenn. based North Star has worked with more than 140 destinations and municipalities in 35 states to bring residents, businesses and tourists to their communities. "North Star has a pretty specific process that it goes through with each community," Cabrera. "They probably interviewed close to 50 people in town," she added. North Star visited Petersburg about a year ago to conduct one-on-one interviews and to take photographs of the scenery, Cabrera said. The company conducted two online surveys, and had phone interviews with regional and state, tourism and economic development officials. North Star looked at not only the types of people who live and work in Petersburg, but also the types of people interested in visiting the city. The company made recommendations from the cheap and easy, to the long-term and expensive. "A quick and easy would be changing how people answer the telephone. The city (employees) could change their greeting to 'City of Petersburg what's your preference Little Norway or Big Adventure.' Also, changing the outgoing voicemail message works too. It's subtle, but it conveys a message," she said. In 2014 the city will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Norwegian Constitution Day. "The big idea would be to make Mayfest a really big deal, and to commission an artist to carve a totem pole that celebrates the anniversary. It would feature the Norwegian and Tlingit heritage, plus tell the story of Petersburg," Cabrera said. "So that's a big idea. It's two-years out." One of the first glimpses of artwork inspired by the new logo is depicted in a cloisonné pin that will be available for sale at the Clausen Memorial Museum in June. Petersburg businesses will be able to incorporate the new logo, slogan and other branding into their own online presence. North Star also recommended a host of merchandise with the new logo, from coffee mugs to XtraTuf rubber boots. Cabrera and the brand steering committee will be working out the details of how the new logo and slogan can be used.  

Lonesome Larry's legacy lives on in sockeye runs

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Sockeye entered the Columbia River this week, beginning a 900-mile migration that very nearly ended 20 years ago. Only four Snake River sockeye made their way through eight dams and past nets and predators in 1992, a year after the fish that makes its home in Idaho’s Sawtooth Valley was listed as endangered. Only one male completed the final climb up the Snake and Salmon rivers to a weir on Redfish Lake Creek Aug. 4. Allyson Coonts, the 7-year-old daughter of Sawtooth Hatchery technician Phil Coonts, named the sockeye Lonesome Larry. When then-Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus put the stuffed fish on his office wall, Lonesome Larry became the symbol of the entire Snake and Columbia salmon restoration program. “What took it national was an Andrus interview with New York Times reporter Tim Egan,” said Andy Brunelle, who was Andrus’ natural resources policy staffer. In the early 1990s, it looked grim for all of the salmon and steelhead species left after 150 years of overfishing, dam-building, habitat destruction and even poisoning. The Snake River sockeye effort appeared especially quixotic. Today, threats such as warming waters and ocean acidification still threaten the future of the Columbia’s salmon. But improved ocean conditions, court-ordered upgrading of migration conditions through the dams and other changes have dramatically increased the returns of all salmon. No turnaround is more amazing than that of Idaho’s Snake River sockeye. Since 2008, more than 650 sockeye have returned annually to the Sawtooth Valley, peaking in 2010 with 1,355, the most since the 1950s, before four dams were built in Washington. This year biologists predict 1,000 could return, and productivity of the natural fish that spawn in Redfish has increased to a point that they are replacing themselves, said Mike Peterson, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game research biologist. This reversal could not have happened without the work of a coalition of federal, state and tribal teams throughout the Northwest. But it also needed the broad bipartisan support that came in part because of the story of Lonesome Larry. He, along with 15 other sockeye that returned the year before and in the next two years, held the valuable genetic code of the southern-most sockeye population, which is able to travel more than 800 miles and climb to 6,500 feet above sea level. Federal, state and tribal biologists had decided to collect the remaining Redfish Lake sockeye and begin a last-ditch captive breeding program to preserve the stock and prevent extinction. Sockeye returns had dropped to double and single digits in the 1980s. Idaho Fish and Game had purposely poisoned sockeye and its cousin the kokanee out of Alturas, Pettit and Yellow Belly lakes in the Sawtooths in the 1960s to replace them with trout. Yellow Belly was poisoned again in 1990 to allow a trophy cutthroat fishery. Attempts in the 1970s to replant sockeye in the lakes failed miserably. When Keith Johnson arrived at Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game in 1988 from Alaska, hatchery programs were viewed largely as raising fish for anglers to catch. He was swimming against the current of thinking at the time. “There was a different philosophy about hatcheries then,” said Johnson, a fish pathologist and researcher. Idaho Rivers United, a salmon advocacy group, was pushing biologists to leave the fish alone. Bumper stickers simplified it to “wild sex for wild fish.” Today, Idaho Rivers is kicking off a season-long campaign to celebrate the story of Lonesome Larry and the success of the captive breeding program. “This is one of the epic nature stories of our time,” said Greg Stahl, an Idaho Rivers spokesman. “At the same time natural returns of sockeye are still only in the hundreds instead of the thousands we need.” Allyson Coonts was one of a generation of Idahoans who grew up with salmon as part of their life. After the last dam was built in 1975, salmon numbers tumbled in Idaho, fishing seasons closed, and the ocean-going fish were almost forgotten by all but the state’s Indian tribes. But after the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe petitioned the federal government to list Snake River sockeye under the Endangered Species Act, the fish returned to the consciousness of Idahoans. As a first-grader, Coonts wrote about two sockeye coming back from the ocean to spawn at home. Now 28 and a medical school student in Portland, Coonts remembers going to sockeye vigils at Redfish Lake and writing a letter to President Bill Clinton asking him to do something about the dams. “He wrote me a nice letter back,” she said. She remembers releasing some of the first adult sockeye raised in the captive breeding program into Redfish Lake with Andrus and actress Jamie Lee Curtis. “She told me I reminded her of her daughter,” Coonts said. She was picked to release the fish, her father said, because she named Larry. Today she doesn’t remember that. But both her father and Johnson remember it as if it were yesterday. Lonesome Larry’s contribution to sockeye recovery lives on in more than just his story. Had he been a female, biologists might have simply released her into Redfish because they had little sperm available. But since he was a male, they were able to inject a hormone pellet into him after the first milking process so that he produced sperm for nearly a month. They then split the supply and sent some to the University of Idaho and Washington State University in straws that were frozen with liquid nitrogen and cryogenically stored. “We always maintained the philosophy of spreading the risk,” Johnson said. That allowed biologists to use Larry’s sperm on thousands of eggs in 1996 and 1997, spreading his genes throughout a population that is becoming more genetically diverse with every generation. Today about 6 percent of the Redfish sockeye population has Lonesome Larry genes. In addition, the teams of scientists and technicians who worked on the project made sure they had disease-free water sources, used iodine liberally during the spawning process of milking and mixing the sperm and eggs to prevent passing disease to the progeny, and raised small groups of sockeye instead of entire raceways full. That required several state and federal hatcheries and also an expansion of the Eagle Hatchery, which is the center of the program today. But when it was up for funding in 2006, an independent science group recommended to the Northwest Power Planning Council that it turn down the request because of the low productivity of the population, which it attributed to the lack of genetic diversity. Jim Risch, now a U.S. senator, had just been appointed governor and he had the power to sway the council. “I said don’t pull the plug,” Risch said. “Sometimes you have to temper (the science).” Later that spring, as Boise River floodwaters threatened to inundate the hatchery and kill thousands of sockeye, Risch rebuilt a structure to hold back the water over the objections of federal regulators. “I told them if you want to arrest anyone you know where you can find me,” Risch said. The scientific consensus has shifted, in part because many more sockeye have been brought into the genetic mix. A residual population of sockeye, distinct from the kokanee, was discovered not only in Redfish but also possibly in Alturas. And as the numbers have risen, mortality through the rivers and in the Pacific has dropped. The increased number of smolts that leave the Sawtooth Basin, 150,000 to 200,000 from hatcheries and the lakes, reduces the percentage that are killed by predators and turbines. “It comes down to safety in numbers,” said Peterson, Fish and Game’s research biologist.

Officials try new methods to curb pike

Local biologists and fishery officials will experiment this summer on a new way to control invasive northern pike populations using technologies described as a water cannon and an electric fence. In mid-June, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association officials will test electric fence technologies developed to control fish movement with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which is in the last year of a three-year "water cannon" technology study. Fish and Game's work is in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey. The water cannon device is lowered into the water and shoots out a high-pressure wave. It has been effective in herding northern pike into an area or even killing them, said Pat Shields, Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist. "It would be like taking a big squirt gun and shooting a blast of water under the water and that's what this device does," Shields said. Officials are hoping the two technologies might combine and form a new, effective method for controlling or eradicating populations of northern pike on the Kenai Peninsula and other areas across Alaska, Shields said. This June's testing will be at Derks Lake, an isolated body of water located near Mackey Lake, with a northern pike population, Shields said. Currently, numerous projects are being conducted to remove invasive northern pike from Southcentral waters including gillnetting, draining lakes or using the fish-killing chemical rotenone, according to Fish and Game's website. Pike are aggressive and fish-eating predators. According to Fish and Game, trout, salmon and other fish have not had time to adapt defenses against the pike outside its native range, which includes Northwestern Alaska. Pike live in highly vegetated, shallow areas where they can ambush prey. There are fewer deep water refuges in Southcentral lakes for other fish to hide from pike. According to Fish and Game, some rivers, streams and lakes that once supported silver and king salmon and rainbow trout now only have small pike populations. Fish and Game listed 13 lakes and rivers with either known or reported and not confirmed populations of northern pike on the Kenai Peninsula. "So what we are going to do this year is ... net off an area in the same lake we have been working on, put some pike in there, then put the fence in the middle of the net and then force the pike to come into contact with the electrical barrier and see what they do," Shields said. "Will they go past the electrical fence, is their behavior predictable, is it something that we can observe and see if they do everything under their power to avoid it?" Amy Shaw, biologist for CIAA, said the electric fence technology might have a number of applications other than the June project. "The technology is not new, but using it in this manner around here for herding northern pike and seeing if you can use it in conjunction with other methods of control definitely hasn't been tried around here," Shaw said. Shaw said she was excited by the prospect of getting a better handle on northern pike populations through newer technologies. Advances made on the Kenai Peninsula would ultimately benefit other areas struggling with pike such as the Susitna River drainage and the Anchorage Bowl. The possibilities are numerous, she said. "Anything you can dream of, basically," she said. "It could be used to corral fish in a certain area, potentially you could set up gillnets across one side of it and herd them into the gillnets if you are trying to do mass removal from a spawning bed or you could potentially keep them out of certain areas for some periods of time."  

Gulf fishermen reel from seafood troubles

LAFITTE, La. (AP) — Gloom infects the hard-working shrimp and crab docks of this gritty fishing town as the second full year of fishing since BP's catastrophic oil spill kicks into high gear. Usually folks are upbeat and busy in May, when shrimpers get back to work in Louisiana's rich waters. This spring, though, catches are down, docks are idle and anxiety is growing that the ill effects of the massive BP oil spill may be far from over. An Associated Press examination of catch data from last year's commercial harvest along the Gulf — the first full year of fishing since the 2010 spill — reveals merit in the fishermen's complaints. According to the analysis of figures obtained through public records requests, seafood crops hit rock bottom in the Barataria estuary, the same place where some of the thickest waves of oil washed in when a BP well exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Detailed data from "trip tickets" fishermen fill out when they unload at docks reveal steep drops in Barataria, though it's far from bleak everywhere along the Gulf Coast. Fishermen are making money that is pretty equal to before the spill, according to the 2011 data not officially released yet by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Part of the reason is that though the fishermen aren't hauling in as much, prices are up so people are paying more for seafood from the Gulf than other sources. In Barataria, the number of shrimpers in the water has remained steady, yet the fall season was off by about 7 million pounds from an average of 18.1 million pounds between 2006 and 2009. It wasn't a pretty picture for blue crabs either in Barataria: the crab catch was off by 2.7 million pounds from an average of 9.5 million pounds between 2006 and 2009, the data showed. Fresh water from a historically high Mississippi River could have been the culprit for some of the drop off in productivity, marine experts said. Another factor may be that some areas in the estuary were closed due to oil contamination. One such place is Bay Jimmy, where oil is still gooey and thick on the shores. Fishermen blame the spill. In Lafitte, they said the new shrimp season was off to a slow start. "I'm afraid that oil spill has ruined us," said Ken Lee, a shrimp dock owner. "We're hardly unloading any brown shrimp at all." For now though, a range of government officials, scientists and seafood experts say it's much too early to make any definite link between the oil spill and one-year declines in catches. Seafood harvests, while generally predictable, are subject to fluctuations even in the best of times. But Lee shook his head as he looked over a sheet tallying recent shrimp loads in the past few days. It was slim pickings. Moments before, an 18-wheeler pulled away from his dock with just seven vats of frozen fresh shrimp. The truck has room for more than 40, he said. "That's pitiful!" he said. "We usually load a truck full." While catches were off, though, prices were high. The Louisiana data shows fishermen actually made as much or more in 2011 than they had in previous years. The total values of the blue crab and oyster harvests were higher than the six-year average. Taken as a whole, the volume of seafood harvested last year in Louisiana for shrimp, crabs and oysters showed only modest drops from averages for 2003-2009, according to the AP analysis. Catches for 2010, the year of the spill, were excluded because much of the Gulf was shut down. Meanwhile, in Texas, the oyster and crab hauls were down slightly from 2003-2009 averages, the AP analysis showed. Drought could have been a cause there, a Texas official said. The state did not have figures on its shrimp catch. Florida's data showed no major swings in harvests of oysters, crabs and shrimp. Mississippi's shrimp haul was down about 13 percent from 2003-2009 averages and its small-scale crab harvest was down 52 percent. From the 2003-2009 average, Alabama's brown shrimp catch was off 12 percent, blue crabs were off 27 percent and oysters down by about 50 percent, the state's data showed. Fishermen say economic conditions were tough before the BP spill due to imports, high fuel prices and hurricanes. But now they say they've reached a low point since the blown-out well spewed more than 200 million gallons of oil. In Bon Secour, Ala., Mike Skinner, a third-generation shrimper whose entire family works in the business, said last fall was the worst season he had ever seen. "Hopefully it was a fluke thing. We'll find out this year," he said as he piloted his trawler across Mobile Bay. In Alabama, seafood sales are down about 10 percent to $146 million in the two years since the BP gusher, according to an Auburn University study obtained by the AP. The downturn represented nearly $16 million in lost sales and has left few fishing boats in industry hubs like the Bon Secour River. To ease the hardships, BP has given $48.5 million to Gulf states so they can market their seafood industries on websites, TV commercials, billboards and print ads that say the catch is healthy. BP spokesman Craig Savage said the Gulf seafood industry was strong. "The fact is, the data show that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe and abundant, according to numerous government reports," he said. Truly identifying any effect of the spill — if any — on marine stocks won't be possible from landings data for several years, said Chuck Wilson, executive director of the Louisiana Sea Grant College Program, a university-based group of agents and researchers. Still, there's reason to be wary, said Olivia Watkins, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "We are seeing a number of anomalies in the Gulf of Mexico," Watkins said. "We should not attempt to draw premature conclusions." The long-term prognosis for the Gulf's health remains uncertain. Recent studies have found higher numbers of sick fish close to where BP's well blew out and genome studies of bait fish in Barataria have identified abnormalities. Meanwhile, vast areas of the cold and dark Gulf seafloor are oiled, scientists say. And many fishermen are convinced something's amiss. "I think the oil can kill the shrimp eggs. That's why there was no shrimp to catch last year," said Tuna Pham, a 40 -year-old Vietnamese-American shrimper docked in Lafitte. He said the catch this year was bad again. "We was there to work, but couldn't," said Lawrence Salvato, 49, as he stopped for lunch on a dock where he moors a shrimp skiff he runs his wife, Lisa. "Usually people are excited and they can't wait to get out there. This year, there's no real incentive." He said he made about $10,000 in seafood sales last year compared to $75,000 in 2009. He said his family made do with a $40,000 interim payment they got from BP. Fishermen who haven't settled legally yet with BP over damages continue to survive on periodic payments from a $20 billion trust fund set up by BP. "We're afraid," Salvato said. "A lot of people are getting out of fishing. They're afraid."  

First Copper River Kings arrive in Anchorage

From left, Copper River Seafood's Bill Green, Bridge Restaurant partners Patrick Hoogerhyde and Al Levinsohn present one of the season's first Copper River King Salmon May 18 in Anchorage. The 30-pound king, along with a seven-pound sockeye were flown from the fishing grounds of Cordova. Bill Green, at left, presents one of the season's first Copper River King Salmon to the Bridge Restaurant partners Patrick Hoogerhyde, center and Al Levinsohn May 18 in Anchorage. The 30-pound king, along with a seven-pound sockeye were flown from the fishing grounds of Cordova. Chef Al Levinsohn gets a sniff of one of the the season's first Copper River King Salmon May 18 at Bridge Restaurant in Anchorage. The 30-pound king, along with a seven-pound sockeye were flown from the fishing grounds of Cordova, where they were caught the night before.  "When you can't smell anything, you know it's fresh," Levinsohn said.

EPA: Mining could affect quality of water, fish

JUNEAU (AP) — Failure of a large-scale mine planned near the headwaters of one of the world's premier salmon fisheries in Alaska could wipe out or degrade rivers and streams in the region for decades, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a draft watershed assessment released Friday. The report responded to concerns that have been raised about a large copper-and-gold prospect near the headwaters of Bristol Bay. It is a draft, with a final report that could affect permitting decisions due after public comment and peer review. The Pebble Partnership, the group behind the Pebble Mine project, has called the deposit one of the largest of its kind in the world, with the potential of producing 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold and 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum over decades. It has been the subject of a heated public relations battle for years. Supporters say it would bring much-needed jobs to economically depressed rural Alaska, but opponents fear it could fundamentally change the landscape and disrupt, if not destroy, a way of life. The report said that if water from the mine is not managed, contaminants would flow into streams. Even without any failures, the agency said there would still be an impact on fish, including eliminated or blocked streams, removal of wetlands and a reduction in the amount and quality of fish habitat due to the water used for mine operations. It offered no verdict on whether the Pebble Mine project should move forward. The report is not an in-depth assessment of any specific mine but rather as a look at the impacts of the kind of mining needed to successfully develop the deposit. It is based on a hypothetical mine scenario that the agency says draws in part on plans and studies put forth by the Pebble Partnership. Therefore, it acknowledges, it may not mirror the location and size of things like a mine pit or tailings storage facility. The review also could not quantify such things as the consequences of habitat degradation or loss on fish populations due to lack to quantitative information on salmon, char and trout populations. The assessment put the annual probability of failure for a tailings dam — the kind that could destroy more than 18 miles of salmon stream and degrade the habitat or more streams and rivers for decades — in the range of 1-in-10,000 to 1-in-1 million. The failures evaluated are those that EPA said have occurred at other large-scale mining projects and could occur during operations or after the mine is closed. Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty had fought EPA over the study, calling the agency's actions are premature and an overreach. Geraghty raised concerns that the assessment could lead to the agency vetoing mining activity. In a March 9 letter to EPA regional administrator Dennis McLerran, he said that if EPA were to invoke a section of the Clean Water Act that allows it to restrict or bar use of certain waters for dredge or fill materials, that could have the potential to "extinguish" the state's mineral rights and leases held by others.  

ASMI board approves $21.3 million budget for 2013

The board of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute approved a $21.3 million budget on May 15 for the fiscal year starting July 1. It also indicated plans to release, by May 18, a definitive statement reconfirming the decision of producers accounting for most of the state’s annual salmon harvest that they have no intentions to continue as clients of the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label after the current certification expires this October. The statement is intended to squelch rumors — circulating mainly in Germany and other European markets — that the April announcement that the Seattle-based Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association would take over as the MSC’s client for its sustainability certification of the Alaska salmon fishery would renew processors’ use of the label. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” said Ray Riutta, ASMI executive director, after the board meeting. Eight processors, handling upwards of 75 percent of the annual Alaska salmon harvest, have declared their support for ASMI’s responsible fisheries management, or RFM, certification program, grounded in the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s code of conduct for responsible fisheries. Five of those companies, Trident, Icicle, Ocean Beauty and Peter Pan Seafoods and Kwik’Pak Fisheries, occupy the five processor seats on the ASMI board. The remaining three outfits, Alaska General Seafoods, E & E Foods and North Pacific Seafoods, plus many of the 34 other licensed Alaskan processors, are being marshaled to endorse the ASMI certification. Pending the statement by the larger group the ASMI board issued a “place-holder” statement on May 14 declaring that the RFM certification “is needed for competition in the marketplace to avoid a monopolistic lock by a single entity on what is and what is not a sustainably managed fishery. “ The monopoly reference was to the MSC because some German buyers have said they will only buy wild salmon products bearing its eco-label and because of its tactics. “Trade and (non-government organizations) are concerned of being attached by MSC,” said Mike Carroll, the US business manager for Global Trust, in a slide presentation at the ASMI board meeting. Based in Ireland, Global Trust manages ASMI’s RFM program and is one of several auditing companies available to MSC clients. ASMI board member Brian Wallace, a seine boat skipper from Juneau and member of the PSVOA, was headed to the group’s May 17 board meeting to, “get them to drop their role in the (MSC) clientship.” “What I intend to do at PSVOA is make sure that the board has all of the germane and pertinent information that I have about the rationale and reasonings for the RFM and why the State of Alaska is onside with a large majority of the salmon industry because of these facts,” he said. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game was the MSC’s client for its first certification of the state’s salmon fishery in 2000. It decided in 2008 to drop that role largely because of what was seen as attempts to interfere with its salmon management and, with the Parnell Administration, has become a vocal supporter of the ASMI initiative. Gov. Sean Parnell and ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell have visited European buyers and delivered speeches at the International Boston Seafood Show and European Seafood Exposition, in March and April respectively, in support of the RFM certification. “I’m very, very proud of our state and the governor and the commissioner for their commitment to this industry,” said Joe Bundrant, ASMI board chairman and head of Trident Seafoods on May 15. “We just said we need your help and they have jumped in, both feet, and given 110 percent support making sure this message is communicated clearly and to make sure Alaska maintains control of its fishery management.” Riutta spent two weeks meeting European buyers before the expo there and the ASMI budget includes plans for a new three-year, $3 million promotional campaign that will include an indirect defense of the RFM certification. “It’s not a sustainability promotion, but as sustainability is going to be front and center it’s part of it,” Riutta said. “But we’re focusing on two specific markets. One of them is consumers in the U.S. and then the other is in Europe, primarily focused in the U.K. and Germany.” The promotion will include all Alaskan seafood products with two-thirds of spending in the U.S. market, with digital and print media. “Digital would be the anchor and that’s based upon the target audience,” said Steve Schiedermeyer, head of Schiedermeyer & Associates, ASMI’s contract advertising firm. ASMI’s total budget for fiscal year 2013 is $21.5 million, up from $19.8 million in the current year thanks to strong seafood prices. Total funding includes $10.56 million from producers of Alaskan seafood products, $7.8 million in state general funds, $4.5 million from the federal Market Access Program for international promotions, and $2 million from materials sales and other sources. Legislative appropriation of the monies included directions to hold $3.4 million in reserve. The domestic budget includes $2 million each for food service and retail promotions and $1 million for consumer advertising and public relations. International marketing, including industry matching funds and the federal dollars gets a total $7.7 million, down from $8 million in the current fiscal year because of cut in federal funding. Among the 21 countries where ASMI operates Japan tops the budget with $1.5 million, or 19.5 percent of the total. European spending totals $3.2 million, 43.3 percent, split among northern, southern, western and central regional efforts. Marketing in China will get $925,000, 12 percent with $500,000 for Brazil, where ASMI opened its first South American office last year. While not formally announced, news that Riutta is resigning after 10 years as ASMI’s executive director was also disclosed at the meeting. A retired U.S. Coast Guard admiral, Riutta will remain at his post through the end of this year. Advertising for a new director will begin immediately with himself, Bundrant and vice chairman Kevin Adams serving as a search committee, Riutta said. The full board will interview and chose from the finalists with the hope that a formal announcement of his replacement can be made at ASMI’s consumer advisory panel meeting in Kodiak in August.

NOAA Report: Amid problems, US fish stocks rebound

BOSTON (AP) — A record number of fish populations have been rebuilt in U.S waters, even as problems continue to threaten the future of the high-profile New England fishing industry, according to a federal report released May 14. Six species that were once considered overfished have rebuilt to optimal population levels in waters from the Bering Sea to the Atlantic Coast, according to the annual report to Congress by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s fisheries arm. The report also said just 45 of 219 fish populations (21 percent) were considered overfished in 2011. Still, 13 of those stocks are in New England. That’s the most, by far, of any geographic region. Emily Menashes, acting director of NOAA’s sustainable fisheries office said, overall, the report shows, “We are turning the corner on ending overfishing.” But New England is defying the positive trends and it’s unclear how that can change, said NOAA’s Galen Tromble. “It’s a challenging situation and there aren’t any easy solutions,” he said. The report looks at fish populations on both coasts and off Alaska and Hawaii, using the most recent data, generally two to three years old, Menashes said. The six fish species now considered rebuilt include Bering Sea snow crab, Atlantic coast summer flounder, Gulf of Maine haddock, northern California coast Chinook salmon, Washington coast coho salmon and Pacific coast widow rockfish. In the last 11 years, 27 U.S. marine fish populations have been rebuilt, according to the report. Tromble said that reflects years of effort by fishery managers and sacrifice by fishermen to follow rebuilding plans started 10 or 15 years ago. “We’re starting to see the results of those,” Tromble said. Regulators on Monday also touted a dropping percentage of species where “overfishing” is occurring — from 16 percent in 2010 to 14 percent in 2011. That simply means fishermen are fishing too hard on fewer species now. It differs from the falling percentage of species considered “overfished,” which is down from 23 percent to 21 percent. The drop in that category means there are fewer fish populations in such poor shape that managers must devise a plan to protect them. Still, there’s not much good news in that category in New England. Its 13 overfished stocks in 2011 compare to six in the next highest region, the Pacific. The North Pacific (off Alaska) counts just 2 overfished stocks, and the Mid-Atlantic just one. Just this month, New England fishermen absorbed a 22 percent cut in the catch of cod in the Gulf of Maine and an 80 percent cut in the yellowtail flounder catch on Georges Bank. The lower catch limits present a huge problem for already stretched New England fishermen, because they prevent them from going after the more abundant fish the cod and flounder swim among. Fishermen have predicted catastrophe for the industry by next year unless something changes. Tromble said New England is unique because the fish off its coast have been under pressure for so long, both from the industry’s early beginnings and the foreign fleets who heavily fished its waters until the U.S. government kicked them out in the mid-1970s. Also, he said, fish reproduction on important stocks has recently lagged in New England, compared to other regions, and it’s unclear why. To many fishermen, the problem is flawed fishery science. Their doubts have recently been fueled by radical shifts in the population estimates. The cut in Gulf of Maine cod, for instance, came just four years after scientists said the species was robust. “It’s a dynamic environment out there and the data that we have from the fishery reflects that,” Tromble said. “So sometimes we get results that aren’t what we expect. We’ve just had an unusual amount of that in New England recently.”

Voting begins for 'Ultimate Fishing Town' title; IPHC in the classroom

Several Alaska towns are vying for the title of “Ultimate Fishing Town,” which comes with a $25,000 check for local fishing projects. The annual competition is sponsored by the World Fishing Network, “a 24/7 television network dedicated to all segments of fishing,” according to its website. WFN, which focuses on sport fishing, originally launched in 2005 and is now seen in more than 20 million North American households via cable, satellite and the internet. As of May 11, nine Alaska towns were among the hundreds of hopefuls on the leaderboard — but they have a lot of catching up to do. In the lead for the best fishing destination was Waddington, N.Y., (on the St. Lawrence River) with 18,645 votes. Ranking No. 6 with 2,307 votes was Dillingham, touted as “The hub for Bristol Bay, nicknamed America’s fish basket, and home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon run.” “How could the wildest fishery in the world be losing to the east coast!?” Dillingham artist and activist Apayo Moore told the Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman. “We deserve to be the ultimate fishing town because our life is fish, and we attract people from all over the globe to our world-renowned fishery.” Coming in at No. 8 with 1,228 votes was Petersburg — “Alaska’s Little Norway, king salmon and 300 pound halibut…home to the largest salmon ever caught at 126 pounds!” Other Alaska towns on the list include Igiugig with 41 votes — “Gateway to an angling paradise on the Kvichak River, which runs through town and feeds Bristol Bay”; Seward — “Alaska starts here,” 38 votes; and Cordova “Home of Copper River salmon” —10 votes. Soldotna — “Known for the world famous Kenai River, home to the world record king salmon,” 7 votes; Kodiak — “Anywhere and everywhere, from 400 pound halibut to king crab and king salmon,” 3 votes; Anchor Point — “The most western location of the North American highway system,” 2 votes, as did Valdez — “Absolutely the best salmon fishing there is!” Sitka — where “Everyone in town dresses like a fisherman and the biggest tourism sector is sport fishing. On a bad day you catch fish” — had one vote. WFN will hold the official $25,000 check presentation in the winning fishing town. Second place winner gets $5,000 and $2,500 for third place. Halibut in schools Teachers can now put math and science skills to the test using Pacific halibut as the subject. The new school series is a first try for the International Pacific Halibut Commission, which oversees stocks for the west coast, British Columbia and Alaska. Throughout four lessons students play roles that range from ocean organisms to fishery managers, said Heather Gilroy, program manager at the IPHC. “Students are asked to think of the entire ocean ecosystem and be an organism, an industry person, a biologist and a manager,” she told KDLG. The free halibut program, complete with colorful Power Points, integrates math, economics, technology, geography and civics. Lesson plans are geared to fifth through eighth graders, but can be adapted for high school. More plastic Tiny pieces of plastic floating beneath the ocean’s surface are most worrisome because fish are believed to suffer liver damage from eating the particles. While working in the Pacific Ocean, oceanographer Giora Proskurowski from the University of Washington noticed that while the water was covered with tiny pieces of plastic, most disappeared the moment the wind picked up. He discovered that the wind was pushing lightweight particles below the surface — meaning that decades of research conducted by skimming the surface have been producing the wrong results. Proskurowski believes the amount of plastic in the water has been underestimated by two and a half times, and by as much as 27 times in high winds. Fish watch NOAA Fisheries will unveiled its annual Status of U.S. Fisheries report on May 14, reporting that six stocks were declared rebuilt in 2011, including Bering Sea snow crab. Commercial and recreational fishing generates $183 billion per year to the U.S. economy and supports more than 1.5 million full and part-time jobs. Fully rebuilt fisheries are expected to add an estimated $31 billion to the economy and an additional 500,000 jobs, an advance notice said.

Transparency tops among recommended changes to IPHC

A consulting firm recommended sweeping changes centered on improving transparency and increasing stakeholder participation after completing a performance review of the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Concur Inc. submitted its review April 30, and conducted a webinar May 7 presenting its findings with 12 recommendations to bring one of the world’s oldest and most well-respected fisheries management bodies in line with the best practices of today. The IPHC was established by a treaty between the U.S. and Canada in 1923 and manages the Pacific halibut stock through survey assessments, modeling and harvest strategy — and it has largely been successful at achieving sustainability, Concur found. However, the IPHC process has been exposed as outdated and incompatible with a burgeoning stakeholder base under the current circumstances.\ The status of halibut management today is characterized by dramatically smaller average size-at-age, questions about the biological model after retrospective analysis has revealed significant overharvest since 2004, and increasingly severe cuts in quota to compensate. Trust among stakeholders and with the IPHC is at an ebb, with Canadians questioning the IPHC’s methods for apportioning and near-annually extracting additional quota for British Columbia based on the decades-long failure by U.S. managers to address trawl halibut bycatch in the Gulf of Alaska. U.S. stakeholders are increasingly separated into hardened camps divided among commercial and recreational halibut fishermen and trawlers, all of whose livelihoods are on the line and who battle through the regulatory process accordingly. Over the past several months, Concur conducted interviews with 43 stakeholders and groups about the IPHC process, reviewed documents and attended the IPHC interim and annual meetings last November and January, respectively. Concur also sat in on the closed door executive sessions when the six IPHC commissioners — three from the U.S., three from Canada — make their decisions on harvest strategy, stakeholder recommendations and catch quotas. Conducting the bulk of deliberations in public was among the top recommendations by Concur, along with publishing a set of practices and protocols for IPHC meetings, and advisory bodies the Conference Board, Processor Advisory Group and the Research Advisory Board. Those were the top two recommendations from Concur. Here are the rest: No. 3: Revisit stakeholder engagement structure. Concur recommends transitioning to a unified stakeholder advisory group that would merge the Conference Board (mostly commercial fishermen and a small minority of recreational interests) and Processor Advisory Group into a single body. No. 4: Develop strategic approach to research. Concur recommends the IPHC develop a five-year research plan linked to commission objectives; as well as formalize the Research Advisory Board and protocols. No. 5: Strengthen stock assessment model. Concur recommends regular peer review of the IPHC stock assessment model, outputs and apportionment, as well as a process for considering changes to the model. No. 6: Expand commission composition. Concur recommends adding three alternate commissioners for interests not currently represented on the IPHC, and to create a regular rotation to increase user group representation. No. 7: Develop long-term strategic plan with objectives and performance measures tracked at annual meetings. No. 8: Strengthen delineation between scientific analysis and policy options. Most notably, Concur recommends the analysts provide a range of options and forecast associated risks and benefits of each. Currently, staff makes catch limit recommendations at the interim meeting each November that are generally adopted at the annual meeting. No. 9: Greater leadership needed at the commissioner level. No. 10: Elevate importance of Tribes and First Nations. Concur recommends that any revamping of the IPHC structure include Tribal and First Nation participation at all levels. No. 11: Strengthen interim and annual meeting process. Concur found that the IPHC current process is “well intentioned but falling short” of facilitating best interactions among commissioners, staff and stakeholders. Concur recommended adding a third meeting annually to foster better meeting preparation, earlier release of materials and more opportunity for public comment. No. 12: Improve communications. Outreach is considered strong, but has important gaps, Concur found, that reduce public confidence. It’s a time of transition for the IPHC, as two U.S. seats are up for new members and public comment is being taken on 10 nominees until May 25. It is up to the White House when new appointments will be announced, and the degree of implementation for Concur’s recommendations will be determined by when new commissioners are seated. National Marine Fisheries Service Alaska Region Administrator Jim Balsiger, the designated government representative and the only U.S. commissioner not up for re-nomination, has said he’d like to have new members seated by the IPHC retreat in September. From there, an implementation schedule would be hashed out at the annual meeting next January in Victoria, British Columbia. Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jens[email protected]

Safety, seafood industry driving airport improvements

Small towns from the tip of the Alaska Peninsula to the far-flung Aleutian Islands are some of the trickiest areas to get to and by aircraft is often the only means to do so. Improving access, safety and economic benefits are driving renovations moving forward in several such places this year. Akutan represents the biggest example. The tiny city has no paved airport. Passengers currently get in or out by way of the amphibious aircraft the Grumman Goose. Construction is under way for a 4,500-foot paved runway, which Project Manager Sean Holland said will open up the tiny town to more advantages. Holland said the $56 million is easily the biggest transportation infrastructure project Akutan has had. It’s expected to be completed by Sept. 1. The contractor is Kiewit Infrastructure West Co. of Anchorage. The Grumman Goose’s disadvantage comes in its size. The craft only carries seven passengers plus freight. It is also more than 65 years old, which Holland said is cause for a replacement. The new paved airport will be serviced by a Navajo aircraft operated by PenAir, which also operates the Grumman Goose. This is a slightly bigger plane with nine-passenger capacity. Holland said the real advantage, however, is long-term possibilities for flights to Anchorage instead of Unalaska. The new airport could be used to service PenAir’s bigger Saab 340 aircraft to Anchorage. Holland said this aircraft will be much more reliable and efficient. RMA Consulting is handling the project. Senior Program Manager Ray Mann said this airport has been a long time in the making and that a big advantage is in the economic benefits, especially with future Anchorage connections. Akutan is home to the largest seafood processing plant in the North America, owned by Trident Seafoods, and large influxes of fishermen, processing workers and other crews will be able to rotate more frequently and transport product more efficiently. “We believe this will be a significant pickup for economic activity for the next five to 10 years,” he said. “It’s reasonable transportation and economic development coming together.” Plans are also moving forward with a master airport plan in Cold Bay to address several renovations needs, including runway length, pavement issues, safety zones, visibility zones and airport land. Cost estimates for the short-term plan are around $37 million. This project is still in early development, as the public comment period has just ended. Administrators are pushing for the renovations as a way to boost economic activity beyond airport revenues. Ernie Weiss, the natural resources director of Aleutians East Borough, said there has been a big push for an apron to the new Aleutians East Borough terminal building. A major part of this effort is to develop a direct route from Cold Bay to Chinese markets. He said the ability to fly direct would enable more live crab and seafood transports with less dead loss. Flights currently go through Anchorage, which means an extra 1,400 miles in the air plus downtime at the airport. “We don’t want to be in direct competition in Anchorage but make a brand new market,” Weiss said. Crab harvesters and other fisheries have supported this effort. The Legislature just passed $2 million for the Cold Bay airport apron and taxiway construction in the capital budget. The budget still awaits the governor’s signature. Weiss said there is enough infrastructure present to get started as soon as funding and regulatory issues come through. “In general, we’d like to get moving on this project right away,” he said. Weiss said there will be a thorough presentation of the effort at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute forum in June. Unalaska, home to the nation’s perennial leader in seafood landings, is gearing up for its own airport renovations. Bids will go out this year for runway renovations, airfield lighting, safety area work, taxiway and apron resurfacing, drainage improvements and relocating a segment of Ballyhoo Road. Engineering estimates put the project between $30 million and $40 million. Most of the substantial work is expected to be done by October 2013.

Tsunami debris hitting Alaska coasts, next year could be even worse

Soccer balls…motorcycles…reminders of the massive tsunami in Japan a year ago are now appearing along Alaska’s coastlines. “It’s safe to say that tsunami debris is here,” said Merrick Burden, director of the Juneau-based Marine Conservation Alliance Foundation. Since January the MCA has been tracking where and the kinds of debris that is coming ashore, and whether it is radioactive (none so far), at Kodiak, Yakutat, Sitka and Craig where the wreckage was first likely to hit. “What we’re finding are wind driven objects like buoys, Styrofoam, and large containers, some of which contain materials that are potentially toxic,” Burden said. “We’re finding drums full of things that we don’t know what they are yet. So we’re looking at a potential large scale environmental problem, and what we’re dealing with now is just the start of it.” Debris has been found in every area they’ve looked, Burden said, and mysterious sludge is washing up on some beaches, apparently from opened containers. Just days ago, an enormous amount of floating debris was spotted off the southern reaches of Prince William Sound, making national headlines. But the worst is yet to come. “Next year is when we expect the larger debris that is driven by currents rather than wind,” he said. “That should be comprised of entirely different types of materials, and it might even follow a different trajectory through the water and end up in different locations. “Part of the problem is that we don’t know what we’re dealing with, and it looks bad. It’s obviously tragic, and it looks like it’s a pretty major environmental hazard as well.” Some references are being made to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, saying the impacts of tsunami debris could be worse and more widespread. “We are dealing with something that will be scattered across the majority of the Alaska coastline as it sweeps across Southeast, through the Gulf, out to the Aleutians and spits up into the Bering Sea. And it looks like some of these containers and canisters contain toxic materials that may be hazardous to human health. There is sludge washing up on some of these beaches, and we can’t know what it’s comprised of, but it’s near a container that was recently opened.” Alaskan mariners, fishermen, pilots and beachcombers can play an important role in tracking the oncoming tsunami debris. “Let us know about the debris you’re finding – where it is, what it is comprised of, take a photo, and send to us,” Burden said. “We are also sharing the information with NOAA and we’re all just trying to get a better understanding of what’s out there and what’s coming.” Marine trades move Alaska With 82 percent of Alaska’s communities unreachable by roads, water is the way to go. Businesses that serve the marine industry, including ports and harbors, are a lifeline for coastal communities. State economic specialists want to highlight the importance of the marine trade sector across Alaska, and the jobs it provides, which are often overlooked. “Research shows that about 80 percent of new jobs are created by existing businesses in a community, rather than businesses attracted to a community. Our goal is to try and retain and expand existing businesses, and doing so is a surer economic development bet than recruiting new ones from other places,” said specialist Kevin O’Sullivan at the Division of Economic Development. To identify the challenges facing businesses, as well as future opportunities, DED needs to get input from Alaskans via an online Business Retention and Expansion questionnaire on how local marine businesses are faring. “Ship building and repair businesses, seafood processors, all modes of transportation, marine vendors, such as welders or automotive folks, marine construction, anyone dealing with logistics or fuel, ports and harbors and the infrastructure associated with that, and the marine professional services we forget about – engineers, banks, insurance companies, accountants,” O’Sullivan said. A survey targeting fishermen will follow in the fall, he added, along with follow ups over the years to track any trends. “It is valuable to look at results over time because the information will show not only how well businesses are doing, but where the businesses are shifting and relocating to, and why that might be occurring, and the reasons for that might be important,” he said. “We hope through efforts like this it will become clear how vital and valuable this overlooked and very much under promoted economic sector is to the state’s economy and to the people who work in these places.” Comments wanted on observer program The public has until June 18 to comment on the proposed rule for the restructured observer program set to start up January 2013. The new program will change how observers are placed on fishing boats, paid for, and for the first time, they will be aboard the halibut longline fleet and on vessels less than 60 feet. People affected by the new rules can really help shape the new program, said Martin Loefflad, director of the Fisheries Monitoring and Analysis Division of the North Pacific Fishery Observer Program at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “It is really helpful when people read the rule very carefully and think of how it is going to impact them, rather than saying ‘I like it or don’t like it’,” Loefflad said. “Give us some concrete suggestions on how we can improve the language to make it work better. That really helps us because the final rule will be adjusted based on public comments. It’s the people who are out there who will be impacted that can help us create it to work at the start.” NOAA Fisheries also is seeking a contractor to oversee observer training and deployment to shore side debriefings. Here comes Copper River! Southeast trollers have been providing Alaska king salmon all year, and small fisheries opened May 1 on the Stikine and Taku Rivers in Southeast, but it’s the Copper River salmon opener that officially signals the start of Alaska’s salmon season. The famous fishery opens May 17 and the River is expected to produce another robust run of reds and kings. “Last year was a big surprise with over two million reds and we expect another good year. Kings are on par with last year, with a somewhat higher forecast. Over 20,000 were caught caught last season,” said Beth Poole, director of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association. “Cordova is filling up with fishermen who’ve come to get their boats ready,” Poole said of the fleet of 540 salmon permit holders. “We had so much snow and winter is still lingering, but we’re looking forward to the first opener and a great season.”

Eco-label confusion returns for Alaska salmon

The announcement by the Seattle-based Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association that it will become the well-subsidized client for Marine Stewardship Council sustainability certification of the Alaska salmon fishery revived confusion over the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s alternate program, but appears to be having little effect on buying plans among major Alaskan salmon buyers in Germany and the United Kingdom. The matter will be a major point of discussion at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute board meeting at the Anchorage Hilton May 15. “None of them said to me, and I asked them specifically, ‘will you stop buying Alaska product if it doesn’t have the MSC logo on it?’ and the answer was, ‘no, we will not stop buying,’” said Ray Riutta, ASMI executive director. He was referring to the German and UK salmon buyers he visited on a two-week trip before the European Seafood Exposition opened April 24. Germany is the MSC’s market stronghold but buys only about 2 percent of Alaska’s annual salmon production. Riutta noted that some customers there said they will choose MSC-labeled Alaskan salmon over the same product without the blue and white eco-label when both are available. Still others, there and in the UK, agreed with his view that the entire debate has become a tail-wagging-the-dog waste of time and money. “Some said it doesn’t make a bit of difference to us. ‘We’re not using that logo. We’re not using any logo anyhow.’ Our brand stands for something,” Riutta said in a May 3 interview. In response to the proliferation of eco-labels and the confusion they’ve caused among consumers, major retailers have been moving away from eco-labels in favor of well-publicized corporate social responsibility policies backed by solid documentation proving the origin and sustainable management of the seafoods they offer. ASMI’s nearly completed third-party certification project was a response to those concerns but also the fear that MSC’s eco-label dominance is giving it control of some seafood markets. “If it becomes required that you have only MSC certification to go to market then you’re basically giving these guys a monopoly to the marketplace,” Riutta said. After a year of trade show presentations and one-on-one meetings with buyers, and despite continued media attacks from MSC supporters, ASMI’s third party certification has been gaining market acceptance. How much the latest development harmed that progress remains to be seen. “I think people were pretty well, maybe not totally happy, but at least understood where we were going until the PSVOA made the announcement that they were going to become the client. That threw a lot of confusion into the market place,” Riutta said. Approaching its five-year anniversary, the salmon sustainability controversy began when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced in 2008 that it would no longer be the client for the MSC certification. In 1999 the MSC came to ADFG asking it to become one of its first international clients and, in effect, lend the state’s internationally recognized management credibility to the new eco-labeler. As the MSC emerged as the world’s leading eco-label it has also become a gatekeeper for entry to markets like Germany’s. “We’re very concerned about loss of brand recognition in the market place, brand substitution,” Riutta said. As ADFG backed away from what it saw as MSC meddling in its fishery management, ASMI was asked to become the client. After lengthy negotiations and MSC’s refusal to respond to its alternate financing proposal, the ASMI board voted in December 2010 against that move. At the same time it began developing its own third party certification program based on the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization’s code of conduct for responsible fisheries. With the goal of providing Alaska seafood producers with the sustainable management documentation their buyers are demanding, ASMI contracted with the Irish auditing firm Global Trust, also an MSC certifier. To date Global Trust has certified the sustainability of the Alaska salmon, halibut, black cod, pollock and crab fisheries. Pacific cod and other groundfish are still in that process. Last year the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation took over as the MSC’s client. As the less expensive Global Trust certification gained market acceptance it announced that it would end its relationship with the MSC this October. That allows the current season’s catch can still be sold with MSC label, but its future in Alaska remains uncertain. “Clearly the level of industry support for MSC certification has changed substantially since 2010,” AFDF said in its January announcement that it is dropping the MSC. Last month, after the MSC apparently agreed to cover 75 percent of certification costs up front and the rest as well if eco-label licensing fees are insufficient, the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association announced that it would become the latest client. Rob Kehoe, PSVOA executive director, said he wasn’t sure whether his group would have become client without the subsidy. He also said his members chum and pink salmon would lose markets if they didn’t stick with the MSC and credited the group with they higher price his boats are getting for their Alaska salmon. “We do know certain markets, they won’t by anything if it’s not MSC and buyers are paying a premium for MSC,” Kehoe said. “Germany is a big one.” Part of the reason ASMI launched the Global Trust certification program is the fear that the “Alaska” brand, distinguishing the state’s relatively small volume of salmon against the huge farmed product output could be lost. Although Kehoe said 95 percent of his fleet’s catch comes from Alaska, that’s not a concern. “A salmon is a salmon is a salmon. As long as buyers were paying more for MSC, what we were more concerned with is prices as opposed to branding. Price paid to fishermen, that’s our focus,” Kehoe said. PSVOA was also concerned that, “the processors were unilaterally making their own decisions,” Kehoe said, but only one, with close ties to the group, is backing their move. Silver Bay Seafoods had agreed to withdraw from MSC clientship but is returning to the fold. Based in Sitka, Silver Bay’s managing partner is Rob Zuanich and general counsel and lobbyist for PSVOA. Riutta said all the major processors, who are responsible for almost 90 percent of Alaska salmon production per season, are sticking with ASMI’s program. ADFG dropped MSC in large part from what it viewed as interference with its management. How will the PSVOA respond if its MSC auditor calls for changes in Alaska salmon management? “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. That’s not our expectation right now,” Kehoe said. “If this had any likelihood of driving a wedge between us and ADF&G we wouldn’t have any part of it.” The MSC declined to respond to multiple requests for interviews for this report.

Unalaska agrees to upgrade sewage treatment plant

A settlement with federal authorities will require the city of Unalaska to spend at least $18 million on its sewage treatment plant. The U.S. Department of Justice says in an announcement the settlement was for action taken on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency. A lawsuit last year contended that the city continually violated its pollution permit with discharges in South Unalaska Bay. The Justice Department says monitoring reports indicated Unalaska's treatment plant had more than 5,500 violations of permit limits between October 2004 and September 2011. Some were discharges of fecal coliform bacteria more than double what was permitted. Unalaska and Dutch Harbor are about 800 miles southwest of Anchorage in the Aleutian Islands. The port is the home base for large-scale commercial fishing in the Bering Sea.

New Coast Guard ship has rust, holes in hull

WASHINGTON (AP) — When a boat springs a leak, it's often the Coast Guard to the rescue. But who rescues the Coast Guard when one its new ships does the same thing? Capt. Charles Cashin, who commands the Coast Guard's newest national security cutter, the Stratton, said he called in engineers last month when his crew discovered a trio of "pinholes" and a fourth hole "slightly smaller than a golf ball" in the ship's hull. Cashin said the four holes, discovered in mid-April while the ship was working off the coast of Los Angeles, have been patched for now but the Stratton soon will head to a dry dock for permanent repairs. "The intent is to get out of the water," Cashin said. "We are literally just waiting for a contract." The holes and other spots of rust on the hull are unusual, given the ship's age. The Coast Guard took delivery in September and Cashin and his crew put it in operation in October. The ship is based in Alameda, Calif. The Stratton is third new, 418-foot ships acquired as part of the Coast Guard's efforts to modernize its aging fleet. Cmdr. Chris O'Neil, a Coast Guard spokesman in Washington, said engineers aren't yet sure what why the ship is already having problems with rust and holes but they have concluded it is not a design problem in ship that cost the Coast Guard about $500 million. Similar problems have not been found in the fleet's two other ships of the same class. Permanent repairs are likely to take four to six weeks, O'Neil said. He added that the Coast Guard is in contact with the ship's builder, Huntington Ingalls. The ship was constructed by Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Miss. Beci Brenton, a company spokeswoman, declined to comment, pending further study and testing by the Coast Guard's engineers. While he waits for repairs, Cashin said the Stratton is seaworthy. "I am very confident in the safety of the ship and the crew," Cashin said.  

State ferry strikes Ocean Beauty's Petersburg dock

The Ocean Beauty Seafoods dock in Petersburg, Alaska show heavy damage on May 7 after the Alaska Marine Highway vessel Matanuska hit the dock while negotiating a turn in Wrangell Narrows prior to docking at the ferry terminal. (AP Photo/Petersburg Pilot, Suzanne Ashe) One of Alaska's largest state ferries hit a seafood processing plant's dock head-on Monday, causing significant damage, officials said. The 408-foot Matanuska ferry hit the dock belonging to Ocean Beauty, said Jeremy Woodrow, a spokesman for the Alaska Department of Transportation. The Petersburg Pilot reported the face of the Ocean Beauty cement dock was heavily damaged, dock pilings were broken and a crane was damaged. Even the second floor of the idled processing plant was damaged, with walls and outer walkways partially demolished. The Matanuska shows possible dents and scrapes to the bow of the ship. "It wasn't a glancing blow. It pretty much was a head-on hit," Glorianne Wollen, the harbormaster in Petersburg, told The Pilot. "It's one of those things. I don't know how or why the Matanuska T-boned the dock," plant manager Cheryl Romeo told The Associated Press from Ocean Beauty's headquarters in Seattle. The Matanuska missed Ocean Beauty's ammonia plant, but she said the company is trying to get a skiff in the water to deal with a hydraulic leak on a crane, which was left hanging over the dock after the collision. There were no immediate reports of injuries, both Woodrow and Romeo said. There were 60 passengers on board at the time of the accident. Romeo planned to be in Petersburg on Tuesday. Mike Forbush, the southeast regional manager for Ocean Beauty, also will soon be on-site with insurance adjustors. "We're assessing the damage, and we're contacting contractors right now," he said. "It's not going to hinder us from operating this summer." There was no damage estimate, but Forbush said, "it's definitely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars," to fix. Romeo said the plant is idled with few employees before the processing season. The plant employed 240 people last year. The Matanuska ferry sustains bow damage after ramming into the Ocean Beauty Seafoods dock while negotiating a turn prior to docking at the Petersburg ferry terminal on a southbound run in Petersburg, Alaska on May 7. (AP Photo/Petersburg Pilot, Suzanne Ashe) The accident happened as the Matanuska was maneuvering a 180-degree turn in a narrow passage as the crew was trying to dock in Petersburg, Woodrow said. There were unanticipated currents of 3-4 knots. The Coast Guard inspected the Matanuska, and cleared it to continue its sailing to Wrangell, Ketchikan and Prince Rupert, British Columbia. It was running about two hours behind schedule, but Woodrow said they would try to make up time on the water. The captain of the vessel, who hasn't been named, continued the voyage, Woodrow said. An internal investigation of the accident was immediately opened. The marine highway system "is withholding releasing any names while the incident is under investigation," he said. "We need to interview all the parties involved, review the ship as well, make sure that there's a thorough investigation before there's any fingers pointed, and whether the cause of the problem is human or mechanical," he said. The accident occurred about 1:30 p.m., 90 minutes before high tide, as the ferry was making its scheduled run from Juneau to Petersburg, 125 miles to the southeast. According to the Alaska Marine Highway System's web page, the Matanuska has been in service since 1963. Five years later, it was renovated and lengthened. It can carry 500 passengers, has 108 berths and can hold 88 vehicles.

Shell wants judge to uphold permits

JUNEAU (AP) — Subsidiaries of Royal Dutch Shell PLC are making "improper use of the judicial system" by suing to head off challenges to permits that put them closer to exploratory drilling off Alaska's northern shores, an attorney for a conservation group said May 4. In a lawsuit dated May 2, Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. and Shell Offshore Inc. asked a federal judge to rule that the National Marine Fisheries Service properly issued harassment authorizations for whales and seals. A spokesman for Shell Alaska, Curtis Smith, said the permits provide authorization to work near the animals as long as the impact is minimal. But Michael LeVine, an attorney for the conservation group Oceana, likened Shell's lawsuit to a traffic cop putting a ticket on someone's car while it's still in the driveway. "They're trying to resolve a dispute that they think might come up some day," LeVine said in an interview. "The court system doesn't allow them to do that." This isn't the first time Shell has taken such a step. Earlier this year, the company sued the same conservation and environmental groups as it did this time, LeVine said. The earlier lawsuit sought to have federal agency approval of Shell's oil spill response plans upheld. The groups are seeking the case's dismissal. In the more recent lawsuit, attorneys for Shell said the seasonal nature of Shell's exploration work, scheduled to begin this summer, along with what they call the extensive and time-consuming permitting process, leaves the authorizations vulnerable to legal maneuvers that could restrict Shell's ability to use them. "Given their public statements and actions and their longstanding pattern and practice of filing challenges to Shell's regulatory authorizations, defendants cannot reasonably contend that they will not challenge" the authorizations from the National Marine Fisheries Service, Shell's attorneys said. Smith said Shell is "very confident" the processes the agencies followed to approve the permits and plans were solid. While he acknowledged Shell's approach, in suing first, is "not conventional," he said the idea is to have any issues the groups have with the approvals confronted in court sooner rather than later. He said history shows that opposition groups will use the courts "in an attempt to stall our program at every turn." "We have no intention of sitting back and waiting for that to happen," Smith said.

Former Alaska official pleads guilty in hunt case

ANCHORAGE (AP) — Alaska State Troopers say a former state wildlife official has pleaded guilty in a big game hunting case. Troopers say Corey Rossi pleaded guilty Friday to a consolidated count for falsifying a bear sealing certification and one count of unlawful acts by a big game guide. Rossi's plea was part of a plea deal. The case, involving a 2008 bear hunt, led to Rossi's resignation in January as head of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation. According to troopers, the plea agreement calls for the revocation of hunting privileges for one year and a one-year suspension of Rossi's big game license. The deal also calls for a $5,000 fine and informal probation for three years. Rossi's attorney, Bill Satterberg, says his client has accepted responsibility from the beginning.  

Panel: Reduced salmon fishing may not help orcas

SEATTLE (AP) — Reducing fishermen's catch of Chinook salmon may not increase the availability of prey for endangered Puget Sound orcas, a panel of U.S. and Canadian scientists have found. Their draft report released last week finds that while killer whales feed on Chinook salmon and their deaths are more likely to occur during years of low Chinook runs, the limited fish runs may not be causing the orca's decline, the Kitsap Sun reported. Another environmental factor could be affecting both the low runs and killer whale deaths NOAA's Fisheries Service and Canada's Fisheries and Oceans convened the group of seven scientists to figure out whether the orca population would do better if salmon fishing were reduced or eliminated. The study has important implications for the recovery plans for the killer whales that frequent the inland waters of Puget Sound and British Columbia, as well as salmon fisheries. The federal agency is taking comments on the draft report until June 15. A final report is expected in September. Chinook salmon stocks are currently harvested at a roughly 20 percent rate, so there's limited room to increase the salmon abundance by reducing fishing pressure, the draft report found. Reduced fishing also won't necessarily mean more Chinook salmon for the orcas, since other predators such as sea lions and harbor seals eat the fish and some of the fish would come nowhere near the orcas, the draft report found. The issue is complicated by many assumptions, said Ray Hillborn, University of Washington professor of fishery and aquatic resources who chaired the panel. At best, a reduction in fishing might slightly increase the orca population's rate of growth, he told the Kitsap Sun. Over the past four decades, the southern resident population has been growing an average of 1 percent per year, far short of the 2.3 percent listed as a recovery goal for the orcas. Based on the most recent analysis, Hillborn said, the rate might be bumped up to 1.5 percent, or it might not be improved at all. "The decision makers will have to make decisions considering the effects of the uncertainty," Hillborn said. "Some will say we should take the cautious approach and close all fisheries, and others will say the differences are too small to worry about." Food is one factor hindering the orcas' recovery. Other factors include toxic chemicals and human disturbances, such as noise and boats. "A lot of people originally concluded that orcas are in bad shape because Puget Sound Chinook are in bad shape," said Pat Pattillo, with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We have discovered that maybe the orcas are not doing so badly (with an annual growth rate of 1 percent) and that they are not even eating Puget Sound Chinook." Experts must consider the effects of fishing on killer whales, but the vast majority of Chinook eaten by the orcas in summer are those bound for the Fraser River in Canada, where the overall Chinook runs are quite healthy, he said. He added that his agency's strategy has been to recover Chinook stocks wherever possible — both in Puget Sound and along the West Coast, where the killer whales go in winter. That strategy should also help the whales, he said. "I'm not sure that there is any evidence showing that additional protections for Chinook stocks ... would improve the situation for the southern residents," he added. Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island said it is clear that Chinook have declined from historical populations, so nobody can say the shortage of salmon has not affected the whales. "But the general feeling I'm getting from these fishery guys is that they are working as hard as they can," he told the newspaper. Balcomb agrees with the panel's preliminary recommendations to better determine where the orcas go in winter and what they are eating during those lean times.

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