Invasive elodea leads to Alexander Lake shutdown

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

GUEST COMMENTARY: Narrative of fear doesn’t need facts to win

Alaskans know that the future of our state depends on our ability to responsibly extract natural resources. Perhaps more certainly than citizens of any other state, we understand how our economy and livelihood depends on whether we are allowed to utilize our own land as we please, without interference from the Lower 48. That’s why recent attempts from some politicians in Washington to limit the rights of Alaskans are so counterproductive. Just last week, Former Vice President Joe Biden rolled out an energy plan that included a ban on offshore drilling in the Arctic. Senators and representatives from states like Rhode Island and Maine – Republicans included – have rolled out legislation to do the same. Recent history suggests that every major development in Alaska will be “controversial” going forward. The proposal to expand Alaska’s economy by permitting responsible development in ANWR is just one example. Yet there is nothing wrong with that word; it simply means there are strong opinions on both sides. But “controversy” isn’t a reason to stop progress. Here’s why: Every major development will be met by a narrative of fear perpetrated by its opponents, often environmental activist groups. Stoking fear is the easy way to try and halt development. It doesn’t rely on winning the facts or making the best case – it’s all about denigrating opponents and being the loudest voice in the room. The funny thing that typically accompanies these fear-inducing declarations? They’re nearly always ended with a plea for campaign donations. Environmental activists do this because it works. Fear-mongering produces a fortune for the groups who use them. In Alaska, we’ve seen these narratives since before I was born. In 1968, with the plan to build the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System underway, eco-groups wrongly predicted the end of caribou herds and the destruction of the pipeline due to earthquake activity, and the demise of Alaska Native cultures. Check your watch – it has been 51 years, and none of those have happened. You may look at those predictions now and see them as absurd, but many believed them in the moment. After all, those statements preyed on many peoples’ fears. Eco-groups are using the same tactics today, but with even larger platforms on social media, e-mail blasts and online-organized activist rallies. They use these tactics to stifle development, often by trying to halt the already-long permitting process that accompanies major projects. There are rules for approving resource projects. Lots of requirements. Lots of time for the public to weigh in. The rules tell you the terms and how to prepare. For mines, there is a book printed by the Environmental Protection Agency, titled EPA and Hardrock Mining: A Source Book for Industry in the Northwest and Alaska. This book outlines the requirements for pursuing approval for mining projects, and knowing the information in the book is critical to the prospect of having any mining opportunities in our state. It simply costs too much money and time to enter a project without a clear understanding of the requirements. For those willing to undertake the process, years and several million dollars (at a minimum) of scientific and technical work will be required. Impact studies must be done, branches of the federal government must approve, and the public has plentiful opportunities to comment. All this must be done while fending off the alarmists hard at work on their narrative of fear. As Alaska’s future resource opportunities develop, here’s hoping that the activist groups who speak factually-inaccurate, emotionally-charged fear in hopes of dimming Alaska’s bright future are seen for what they are. If fear is given credence over fact, Alaska will lose out on significant opportunities. Rick Whitbeck is the Alaska State Director for Power the Future, a nonprofit advocacy group focused on energy and resource development.

B2B meetings give Alaska producers international exposure

Canadian food brokers and marketers recently gave a handful of Alaska startups a taste of what it would take to go international with their products in a first of its kind trade mission. Lyndsey Smith, a marketing coordinator with the state Division of Agriculture who helped organize the business-to-business meetings, said the goal of state officials is simply to help retail-ready Alaska food products gain exposure in a new market. “We are helping build relationships for local Alaska and Made in Alaska businesses to be able to strengthen a secondary market,” Smith said. The initial round of speed-dating style introductions took place the mornings of June 13-14 at the Grand View Inn in Wasilla. Brokers and marketers from across Canada discussed products, market opportunities and challenges with representatives from five Alaska brands in a series of half-hour, one-on-one meetings. The seven-member Canadian contingent then spent the afternoons touring retailers and farms in Anchorage and the Mat-Su area. Pola Schacter Ley of Vancouver said she came to the meetings with the hope of finding natural food products made from as many local ingredients as possible — and she found what she was looking for. “We’re really focused on plant-based; we’re really focused on vegan, clean ingredients and simple and traditional,” said Schacter Ley. She is not opposed to working with meat or protein-based products; however, they require adhering to a much more complex set of regulations when being sent across the border, she noted. A chef by trade, Schacter Ley said she enjoys working with food producers to find ways to tweak or add value to their products or develop new recipes with them. “I’m open to innovative ideas, always,” she said. Schacter Ley and her husband work with a variety of retailers from large “banner” stores to independent grocers, convenience chains and food service providers. The size of the producer company doesn’t matter as much as its backing, she said. Companies need to be on a positive trajectory and have substantial support to enter a new market. “If the company is small and they can’t supply, let’s say a large banner store, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to work with them. We circle around them with independents,” Schacter Ley said, adding that niche products are often a better in smaller retailers willing to try new products. Selling into large chains also comes with listing fees and other costs smaller stores don’t require, she noted. The meetings were set up through Alaska’s membership in the Western United States Agriculture Trade Association, which helped link the Canadian buyers and marketers with the nine Alaska companies looking to grow. “We are excited to offer these meetings to encourage innovative strategies to expand opportunities for Alaska’s agricultural businesses,” Agriculture Division Director David Schade said. “Leveraging our partnership with WUSATA to help agribusinesses find new markets, including international markets, is one of the many important services we provide to private-sector businesses.” Similar meetings are in the works for August to highlight the state’s booming peony and cut-flower industry. Schacter Ley recommended that the Alaska startups trying to enter a new market such as Canada find additional ways to get their products in front of more sellers, such as committing to trade shows and using social media campaigns. “Nowadays you can’t just work with a store. It takes a lot more,” she said. The trade mission didn’t come with a big set of expectations, either. Schacter Ley said she was happy providing advice and perspective from another market for the Alaska companies and making a single connection during the meetings would make the whole trip a success. She and other brokers from New Brunswick and Alberta said they believe Alaska-sourced products have a similar draw in Canada as they do elsewhere, despite the fact that the country and state share many features. “Vancouver loves Alaska,” Schacter Ley said. “It’s got that raw, rugged beauty and I think B.C. has a bit of that same vibe.” Angele Miller, with Edmonton, Alberta-based Abundant By Design Inc., said she believes many Canadian consumers are comfortable with the slightly higher price point that often comes with Alaska-sourced foods because Alaska is seen as “mysterious” and “pure and clean.” “I think people will pay more for Alaska products than if it came from (the Lower 48),” Miller said. Both Miller and Schacter Ley were impressed by Heather’s Choice, an Anchorage-based dehydrated food startup — think backpacking meals with Alaska ingredients. Sales representative Zach Menzel said all of the eight Heather’s Choice breakfast and general meal options are hypoallergenic; they’re free of gluten, dairy, soy and corn. The meals are based on Prince William Sound sockeye, grass-fed bison from Delta Junction and other Alaska-grown foods. The dehydrated meals have a shorter shelf life than traditional freeze-dried camp foods, “but higher quality ingredients — things a five-year-old could pronounce,” Menzel described. “There’s no preservatives, no artificial ingredients, no flavoring agents, nothing like that. Everything is just whole food dehydrated in our kitchen in Anchorage.” Heather’s Choice products are in about 20 Western states and several Alaska outdoor retailers, despite the company being just five years old, according to Menzel. “We’re just trying to aggressively grow this thing,” he said. ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

MSA reauthorization still stalled with 2018 House bill expired

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

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