Elizabeth Earl

Growing pains: License delays, enforcement issues irritating marijuana businesses

KENAI — Two years after the state’s first cannabis entrepreneurs received their licenses, business owners are still wrestling with hangups in the regulatory system. Long waits for licenses, complex enforcement questions and expensive requirements are common in Alaska’s cannabis business, frustrating some entrepreneurs. For some, it boils down to what they consider unreasonable obstacles to commerce, and wasn’t what they pictured when Proposition 2 passed in 2014 to legalize recreational cannabis. As of Aug. 15, about 80 would-be licensees were waiting on review through the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. Though state statutes says they should be granted in about 90 days, most of them will likely be waiting for three to five months to even be reviewed, according to a director’s report from AMCO Director Erika McConnell to the Marijuana Control Board for its upcoming Oct. 16 meeting. For Dollynda Phelps of Nikiski, who co-owns limited cultivation business Peace Frog Botanicals, that time is money. She’s been waiting on a standard cultivation license for six months now, and every one of those months, she has been paying rent on a facility for the standard cultivation business, which she’s required to prove she has as part of a complete application. “I put in my application in March and I’m still waiting, and the whole time I’m paying rent and insurance on a building I’m not using,” she said. “There are hundreds of us now, waiting.” The license wait is unacceptable, she said. After the first round of licenses were approved in June 2016, the wait time has steadily increased, occasionally topping a year. Some of that comes down to manpower. Both McConnell and her predecessor, former AMCO director Cynthia Franklin, have cited heavy workloads on a limited staff contributing to wait times. AMCO agrees that the wait is too long. In her director’s report, McConnell wrote that license examiners are spending “an inordinate amount of time” going back and forth with licensees to hammer out pieces of applications that are missing or incomplete. “This can mean that an examiner and an applicant go back and forth on their application documents multiple times,” she wrote. “Sometimes an applicant is resistant to the advice from the examiner, although the examiner is only trying to help the applicant be successful, as the examiners pay attention to what the board comments on in applications.” Staffing has been an issue since the very beginning for the marijuana licensing office, which was born out of the office and staff that previously only managed alcohol licenses and enforcement. A separate board was created, but the director and the staff remained the same with promises of future staff additions. Those staff members haven’t yet materialized, leaving the existing staff with double the work they had before, said Cary Carrigan, the executive director of the industry group the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association. Securing more staff for the office has been one of the association’s goals for a while, he said. Though the industry is raking in money and the program is supposed to cover the office and board’s expenses, the approximately $12.8 million in tax revenue collected from cultivators by the state goes to the general fund and has to be appropriated by the Legislature to the individual departments, so it doesn’t go specifically to AMCO for administering the marijuana program. So frustration mounts on both sides, with unreasonable workloads for the staff and compounding expenses for businesses still waiting on licenses, he said. “It’s my opinion and the opinion of the AMIA board that the (licensing wait time) is an undue burden,” he said. “But what’s the fix?” Licensing isn’t the only thing keeping AMCO busy, though. With the proliferation of businesses and activity, the enforcement side — which covers both alcohol and marijuana licensees — has been busy, too. At an industry meeting among Kenai Peninsula cannabis business owners and employees, many commented that current regulations are unclear, and enforcement agents award notices of violation for items the owners or employees may not have known were against the rules. Obtaining too many violations can result in penalty actions from the board or issues with renewing licenses in the future. The majority of inspections don’t result in a notice of violation, according to a report from AMCO Enforcement Supervisor James Hoelscher to the Marijuana Control Board for the Oct. 16 meeting. The number of them is declining as more business owners learn the rules and the board process, but the amount is still concerning, Carrigan said — if the federal government looks at those numbers and considers them a sign of an unruly cannabis industry, it could jeopardize the state’s control, he said. Cannabis has only been legal for recreational use in the state for a little less than four years, so public opinions are still changing, industry participants are still learning to trust regulators and enforcement officers after being illegal operators for decades, and regulators are still feeling out the best practices for monitoring the industry, Carrigan said. “(The industry members) just need to be sure we’re being heard with one voice,” he said. “A dozen people yelling form the rafters is just a cacophony … We’re trying to move incrementally forward.” The Kenai Peninsula operators have a small laundry list of other issues as well, including increased retention time for security footage, enforcement opposing the exchange of seeds — which cultivators want to use to expand their grow operations and diversify their strains — and plan to request a review of the board’s recently passed requirement for testing on all cannabis trim. The change increases costs for operators by requiring an additional testing fee. Most trim is reprocessed into another product that will also be tested for quality and safety, so the operators feel it’s unnecessary. Phelps said the burden will affect limited cultivation operations significantly, as they don’t have the economy of scale to absorb the cost. And when they can’t swallow the cost, they go under or pass the cost to consumers, which pushes prices up and may encourage them to go back toward the black market for cannabis, where it is not tested or tracked. The Marijuana Control Board will meet Oct. 16-17 in Kenai at 145 Main Street Loop. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Stakeholders seek solutions for imminent threats from erosion

HOMER — For most communities with waterfront, erosion is not a future problem. It’s a daily issue for planners, businesses and residents with approaches differing by community. In Homer, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has used riprap barriers on the seaward side of the Homer Spit near town to prevent the road from washing out. However, the riprap doesn’t go all the way down, and recent high tides and strong winds have eaten away at the coast beneath a number of buildings, threatening to tip them into the water. The riprap is an engineered solution to a natural problem, or what coastal management experts call “grey infrastructure.” To save expense, look toward sustainability and preserve communities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting training on the effectiveness of green infrastructure. It can also be called natural infrastructure, based on what a community is comfortable with, said Lauren Long with NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management. “Natural, nature-based solutions … it doesn’t really matter which term to use, just use the terms that resonate most with your stakeholders,” she told a group of residents, nonprofit workers and municipal, state and federal agency workers at a workshop in Homer on Sept. 11. The office recently hosted a round of workshops on using green infrastructure to reduce coastal erosion in Alaska, with stops in Homer, Soldotna and Anchorage. Beyond the basic instruction, the course brought together local planners and experts to talk about ongoing projects. As a broad definition, green infrastructure includes structures based on natural systems like wetlands and forestry to provide services such as flood control and heat abatement. They can include a wide variety of project sizes, from landscape level to individual sites, and don’t necessarily entirely exclude grey infrastructure, Long said. “Both approaches are about bringing the natural and built environments together,” she said. “…Green infrastructure isn’t going to be the end-all-be-all. It’s going to be a combination of green and grey.” Many parts of Alaska are less built up along the coasts than on the East Coast, where millions of people live in areas potentially subject to ocean storm surge submersion. Attention to coastal infrastructure mounted in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the entire eastern seaboard in 2012, leaving behind $70 billion in damage and leading to the deaths of an estimated 233 people. However, a study published in August 2017 on the damaged communities and their infrastructure later showed that areas with intact coastal wetlands were spared about $625 million in damage because the marshes helped with flood control. John Rozum with the NOAA Office of Coastal Management, who conducted the workshop in Homer with Long, cited the flood mitigation wetlands as example of an ecosystem service. They’re specific to certain areas, and what may work in Massachusetts may not work in Anchorage. “You have to be able to look at these practices … (and say) if this area was undeveloped, what would happen?” Rozum said. He pointed to cities that have installed areas of permeable pavement, which allows water to seep through and be absorbed by the ground beneath rather than concentrate into runoff and cause flooding issues, or the addition of trees on buildings or streets to help offset city heat island effects. Alaska’s communities already have more natural areas along their coasts than many areas of the country, he said, and preserving some of those structures — like dunes and coastal wetlands — will help buffer communities from damage and erosion. Some communities in the state have tackled green infrastructure practices already, impacting erosion in areas inland as well as on the coasts. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game guides landowners who want to restore riverbanks toward practices using rootwad, spruce saplings and other natural vegetation as opposed to seawalls or riprap, in part to protect fish habitat. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation awards grants for projects designed to clean up bodies of water, and some of the funded projects have included green infrastructure projects, said Jeanne Swartz, a water quality specialist with DEC in Anchorage, at the workshop in Homer. With largely clean waterways, much of the water pollution in Alaska is called non-point-source, such as road runoff. At the same time, some areas may erode whether land owners and managers try to mitigate it or not. On the Arctic coast and in Western Alaska, some Alaska Native villages are looking at relocating entire communities because their coasts and rivers have eroded enough to leave buildings tumbling into the water. On the Kenai Peninsula, retreating bluffs in Homer and Kenai have left cities with the puzzle of how to react, with residents and millions of dollars of property value getting closer and closer to the cliff edge every year. Rozum said in response to a question that bluffs are a type of landscape that’s hard to use green infrastructure to help. “That’s the hard part of living on the shore — (bluffs) were designed to erode,” he said. The Matanuska River is another creeping landscape that has left some neighbors with few options other than to simply move. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has obtained federal funding to buy out some Matanuska River property owners who opt in to the program, with the recognition that the geography of the braided river system makes it likely to move. The borough began asking property owners about a buyout and applying for federal funds in 2014, officially receiving notice of the funds in March 2018. About 75 percent of it will come from the federal government and 25 percent from the state. The borough started with 15 properties, but one house became ineligible when it fell into the river in 2017, said Mat-Su Borough Floodplain Administrator Taunnie Boothby. The funds are scheduled to expire in September 2019, giving the borough about a year to reach agreements. “This is a 100 percent voluntary project,” she said. “There is no condemnation (for properties) or eminent domain.” The borough is not actively approaching landowners about the future danger to properties along the Matanuska River, but Boothby said she discusses possibilities with landowners on a case-by-case basis and is watching the success of several river bank revetment projects elsewhere in the borough. There aren’t any such projects on the Matanuska River at present, but landowners could undertake demonstration projects in the future and Fish and Game is actively recruiting for riverbank revetment grantees in the Mat-Su Valley, she said. Some people ask why the borough isn’t looking at solving the erosion problem on the river, but that’s beyond the borough’s power in both expense and authority, she said. The borough does have two flood service areas in which residents tax themselves for flood service and protection. “The challenge with that is what they’re taxing themselves is not sufficient for maintenance of the dikes,” Boothby said. “We have a whole Matanuska River management plan that outlines what activities are acceptable and reasonable … but (fixing the river erosion problem) is not necessarily something the borough wants to tackle.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

As costs rise, Walker signs bill to increase fishing loan limits

Alaska fishermen now have a little more leeway to borrow money from the state to pay for new permits, boats, licenses and other equipment. House Bill 56, primarily sponsored by Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, rewrites sections of the state’s Commercial Fisheries Revolving Loan Program to change the cap on allowable amounts of certain types of loans. Fishermen who want to buy individual fishing quotas, or IFQ, limited entry permits or gear can now borrow up to $400,000, an increase from $300,000. Gov. Bill Walker signed the bill into law Aug. 31. Ortiz — who represents a district with a high proportion of commercial fishing and seafood processing jobs — said in a release from the Alaska House Majority Coalition that the bill helps resident fishermen get over the cost hurdle to enter commercial fisheries. “By clearing away bureaucratic and economic hurdles, this bill moves us one step closer towards the goal of helping Alaskans reap the benefits of our sustainable commercial fisheries,” Ortiz said. The House passed the bill in 2017, but it sat in the Senate Finance Committee for the remainder of the contentious and lengthy session before the Senate passed it in May 2018. Ortiz credited Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, with pushing the bill through the Senate this year, despite most of the Legislature’s attention being focused on fiscal issues. The Commercial Fisheries Revolving Loan Fund is coordinated through the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development and is only available to people who have lived in Alaska for at least two years. Fishermen can take out low-interest loans for up to 15-year terms to finance fishing-related expenses like vessel upgrades, gear purchases or permit purchases. The $300,000 amount was set in 1982, Ortiz wrote in a sponsor’s statement to the Legislature. Adjusting for inflation in the 36 years since, that would be about $746,000 today. Alaska fishermen have been facing steeper and steeper thresholds to entry in commercial fisheries over the years. Because of concerns about stock sustainability and overharvesting, Alaska established the limited entry system in 1972 for state-regulated fisheries. The value of permits goes up and down depending on the value of the fishery, but can cost as much as $190,800 for a set gillnet permit in Prince William Sound or as little as $3,300 for a set gillnet permit for salmon in the Upper Yukon River, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. That’s not counting boats, gear and fuel. In 1992, federal regulators implemented a quota system for halibut that created IFQ for a similar reason — to preserve the stocks and slow down the fishery while still allowing harvest opportunity. The season now lasts from March until November compared to the “race for fish” in the past when the total harvest could be taken in just days. However, the market-based value of those quota shares has increased so much that small, rural Alaskan fishermen have been pushed out by the cost of purchasing quota, causing significant disruption in those rural fishing communities even two decades later. IFQs have been implemented in a variety of fisheries in Alaska including Bering Sea crab and pollock to achieve the goal of sustainability through limited entry. While that may work for some fisheries, it has shown negative consequences for smaller ones, according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August. Courtney Carothers, a University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor who co-authored the study, said in a news release from the university that the study was meant to question whether a broadly applied fishery management tool like the IFQ system, also known as ITQ (individual transferable quotas) works for all fisheries. “Social scientists have been frustrated by the assumption that ITQs are a simple solution for fisheries management across the world,” Carothers said. “We were excited to come together and evaluate some examples of where ITQs work, why sometimes they don’t work, and who is being impacted when an ITQ isn’t the right option for a fishery.” She cited the halibut fishery in Alaska as an example, where some quota shares can cost up to $70 per pound. The paper suggests developing an “institutional diagnostics toolkit” to help fisheries regulators and officials gauge the impact of a measure before implementing it, based on the context of the fishery. “Toolkits like this could be used in many governance settings to challenge users’ understandings of a policy’s impacts and help them develop solutions better tailored to their particular context. They would not replace the more comprehensive approaches found in the literature but would rather be an intermediate step away from the problem of panaceas,” the paper states. The Legislature was considering another bill, HB 188, to address the same entry-cost problem. HB 188, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, D-Sitka, would allow up to three regions in Alaska to establish commercial fisheries trusts which would hold permits and temporarily transfer those permits to fishermen, essentially providing a middle step between being a deckhand and laying out a small fortune to buy an entry permit. Introduced in 2017, the bill was last heard in February 2018 and referred to the House Labor and Commerce Committee. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Biologists, fishermen puzzle over late Kenai sockeye run

First they were underweight, with underwhelming numbers. Then they weren’t there at all. Then they were coming in late, showing up as Upper Cook Inlet fishermen were packing up their gear for the season. The unpredictable and significantly smaller Kenai River sockeye run frustrated a lot of fishermen this year. As of the last day of sonar counts on Aug. 28, about 1.03 million sockeye had entered the river. More than half of them arrived after Aug. 1, leading to a stop-and-start fishery that included significant time and area cuts for commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet and a complete sockeye salmon sport angling closure on the Kenai River from Aug. 4–23. That resulted in a total catch of 813,932 sockeye, less than half of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s preseason forecast commercial harvest of 1.9 million sockeye. Even the late fish arrival wasn’t much of a boon to the area’s commercial fishermen. Per the management plans, the East Side setnet fishermen are largely out of the water by Aug. 15, and the drift gillnet fleet is moved mostly to the west side of Cook Inlet to focus on silver salmon. On Aug. 23, in response to late incoming fish passing the Kenai River sonar, The Alaska Department of Fish and Game opened Drift Area 1 — a broad fishing area between the Anchor Point Light and Kalgin Island in the middle of the inlet — to drifting. Despite the opening and the numbers of sockeye passing the sonar in the river, fishermen only picked up 209 sockeye in that opening. By comparison, they picked up 1,105 silvers, which have reportedly been running well in Cook Inlet this year, despite the poor numbers of sockeye, king and pink salmon. The managers were expecting the sockeye catch to be better, said Brian Marston, the area management biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Soldotna. “We were hoping to get at some of those late fish,” he said. “We couldn’t open it up in Area 2 (closer to the mouth of the Kenai) … we just missed them.” The silver run has been a little better than usual this year, providing a small extra buffer for fishermen. Most Kenai River sportfishermen have been switching from sockeye to silvers as well, with guides grateful that the silver run has been strong enough to support angler effort with a weak or closed sockeye fishery. Biologists have been puzzling over what happened with the Gulf of Alaska sockeye this year. Weak king salmon runs weren’t uniform across the gulf, and since 2008, Alaskans have been adjusting to a reality with fewer king salmon in it. But sockeye are normally plentiful, and this year presented some firsts. Chignik’s commercial fishermen, for example, never opened, earning a disaster declaration from Gov. Bill Walker before the summer was even over. The poor runs of sockeye have happened in some rivers before, but the complete closure is a first for Chignik, said Bill Templin, the chief fisheries scientist for Fish and Game’s division of commercial fisheries. Other fisheries have been seeing a late burst, like the Kenai, and the commercial fishermen have been able to take some advantage, such as the Copper River and in Kodiak. Those fisheries have been seeing a sharp underperformance in pink salmon fisheries, too, though, as they did in 2016 when a federal disaster was declared and for which $56 million was appropriated by Congress for impacted stakeholders. So far, indications seem to point to ocean conditions unfavorable for survival. Research through the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative for the last five years has provided good tracking and life history data on ocean survival for king salmon, but the department hasn’t been doing the same kind of research for sockeye salmon, Templin said. But even then, there are some mysterious snags — while one sockeye stock may have come back poorly this year, a neighboring stream would do just fine. Next door to the Kenai River, the Kasilof River’s sockeye run handily made its escapement goal this year with harvest and increased bag limits. “Generally the freshwater conditions are pretty good, pretty consistent,” he said. “Ocean conditions seem to be driving a lot of it.” In the case of the Kasilof, that may be because the main cohort for that river is largely four-year-old fish as opposed to five-year-old fish being the norm on the Kenai, Marston said. The department staff will do more analysis after the season about the run, but so far it looks like the fish caught were for the most part smaller than usual. The Kasilof River escapement goal for sockeye was exceeded in part because of concerns for the Kenai run that restricted the commercial fleet. More fish escaped into the Kasilof, so even though the run itself wasn’t that large, more fish made it into the river, Marston said. Some fishermen have still been out harvesting silvers, but in a fishery that depends almost entirely on sockeye for the majority of its value, this season was a hard one for Upper Cook Inlet fishermen. “It’s hard to make (that sockeye catch) up,” Marston said.

Tariffs throw wrench into seafood supply chain

KENAI — Many seafood processors, fishermen and support businesses have been watching with increasing dismay as the trade war between U.S. and China heats up and impacts billions of dollars in trade. In March, President Donald Trump’s administration announced its intention to levy tariffs against China in connection with “unfair” trade practices, including theft of intellectual property. When the first round of tariffs on Chinese products were announced, the seafood industry hoped to escape the list of impacted items. That hope faded when a host of seafood products were included on the list of proposed retaliatory tariffs from the Chinese government. Then Office of the U.S. Trade Representative proposed another set of tariffs, including seafood products, at 10 percent in July. Then that number was upped to 25 percent in August. In a hearing hosted by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative Aug. 20–24, Bob DeHaan of the National Fisheries Institute said the tariffs will effectively punish American fishermen for Chinese intellectual property theft, which has nothing to do with them. Of the $2.7 billion in proposed tariffs on seafood, more than $95 million came from Alaskan fishermen. “In many cases such as the iconic Bristol Bay salmon run that just concluded this year, the fishermen are family-owned enterprises who sell their catch to seafood companies for processing, distribution and sale around the world,” he said. “How punishing these harvesters and these businesses for in effect buying American will convince China to respect its obligations regarding intellectual property rights and technology transfers is difficult to fathom.” Taking advantage of a growing consumer market and the country’s geographic position between Alaska and Europe, many seafood companies have been working to establish trade relations of their own with China. A number of seafood companies, including Copper River Seafoods, went along on a recent trade mission headed by Gov. Bill Walker to build relationships with Chinese businesses and government. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has been working to expand its international markets for the last 20 years, with a branch office in Shanghai, said Hannah Lindoff, the director of ASMI’s international marketing program. The marketing agency, which promotes Alaska’s wild seafood as a brand worldwide, has been following the tariff developments and providing regular updates with concerns about the far-reaching impacts of tariffs on the international supply chain. A major part of that is because much of Alaska’s seafood that is shipped to China is eventually re-shipped elsewhere — in that case, the only thing that happens in China is reprocessing. “Europe is still a major market for us,” she said. “It makes a lot of sense to go through where processors are already established.” A lot of processing still happens in Alaska. However, the reprocessing side in China and other international markets makes sense because of the better access to markets with frozen fillets — demand for fillets has replaced the demand for canned salmon over the years, Lindoff said. ASMI and other organizations have been working on building the domestic consumption market is China, as opposed to just re-exporting seafood from there, Lindoff said. In America, price is still king, and in Europe, people are more used to eating salmon and paying more for it, but in China the consumers are still getting used to eating salmon. Wild Alaska seafood is only a drop in the bucket of the international salmon supply — roughly 2 percent — and so ASMI markets it as a luxury, healthy alternative to farmed salmon, which commands a higher price. The tariffs on the U.S. side with product coming back from China after reprocessing would hit American consumers, pushing up prices. However, it would also lead to interruptions in the supply chain, which could also push up costs as companies reshuffle. DeHaan explained in his testimony that the tariffs could destabilize the year-round supply chain and cost jobs in the middle and tail ends of the supply chain. “Forced to abandon China sourcing, these companies in many instances will have no choice but to drop that product line or select a third country substitute, which itself will require significant cost and expense and time,” he said. “The existing supply chains in seafood as in any other sector can take many years to build, refine and perfect. Modifying them is neither simple nor inexpensive.” Sen. Dan Sullivan testified to the committee against the seafood tariffs as well, asking the administration to remove the seafood items. “The vast, vast, vast, vast majority of this product is American,” he said. “It is an American product. And yet we’re going to penalize this with almost a billion dollars of value of tariffs on our own products by our own people. I don’t think that’s what the president or his team has intended.” Lindoff said ASMI intends to continue its international operations for now, assessing the situation as it evolves. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

After year in DC, Oliver reflects on fisheries progress

SOLDOTNA — Chris Oliver has had a busy year since he made the leap from Anchorage to Washington, D.C. to take the lead job at the National Marine Fisheries Service. As soon as he arrived, there was an annual priorities document to review, he said at a recent roundtable discussion event hosted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association in Soldotna. The document is both internally-facing and public to help guide NMFS’ decisions. There were three goals listed in that document, the first of which was to ensure the sustainability of fisheries and fishing communities. He changed it to read “maximize fishing opportunities while ensuring the sustainability of fisheries and fishing communities.” “There are a number of fisheries around the country where we’re not fully utilizing the available harvest whether it’s choke species or bycatch constraints or outdated regulations,” he said. “We’ve been approaching that pretty aggressively in that form. There’s not a huge amount of headroom in our wild stock harvest fisheries, but there’s some.” The second was to manage protected species, including those under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Under that, he added language to manage those species while supporting responsible fishing and resource development. NOAA encounters a variety of resource conflicts with endangered species, be they migrating salmon species impacting agriculture or fishermen wanting to harvest king salmon that whales feed on or, more recently in Alaska, fishermen concerned about the number of sea otters impacting the shellfish fisheries in Southeast. “I think that’s another reflection of the priorities of this administration, approaching things in a more business-minded manner while not disregarding the basic science mandate of our mission,” Oliver said. “Balancing that mandate of our mission to protect and conserve those protected resources with the administration’s focus on supporting energy and infrastructure development is a very delicate balancing act. And it’s really taken a lot of my focus and a lot of my time, but it’s an important balancing act.” The third goal he revised was to improve agency excellence, adding “regulatory efficiency,” in line with President Donald Trump’s administration’s goal to reduce regulatory burden on business. He said NMFS has “aggressively” moved that direction as fisheries managers move many more regulations than other agencies. Oliver spent 27 years in Alaska with much of that time as the executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — one of eight such regional councils established under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — and said he brought much of the experience he gained working with the council to the job in Washington. He’s now getting a better look into what other fisheries around the country are dealing with. His moves toward streamlining regulations and promoting simultaneous uses with fisheries align with another initiative the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is advancing known as the Blue Economy Initiative. Included in that is maximizing both recreational and commercial fishery opportunities and boosting the opportunities for aquaculture in the country. NOAA Acting Administrator Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet said at a July 24 hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Transportation the fact that U.S. aquaculture production is ranked 17th in the world despite its large Exclusive Economic Zone “unacceptable.” “We are changing that by executing a strategy to use existing authorities to expand aquaculture in federal waters,” he said. Aquaculture is a particularly hot-button topic in Alaska. Aquaculture is allowed in a variety of types: operations in Southeast and Kachemak Bay produce clams, mussels, oysters and kelp. In 2015, the state permitted 65 farms, though only 22 reported production, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For finfish, it’s limited to the hatchery operations that dot Southeast, Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Kodiak; net-pen farming in the style that other countries and states like Washington allow is illegal in Alaska. Even hatcheries have recently come under fire from fishermen and environmentalists with concerns about the impact of increasing pink salmon hatchery numbers on the food web of the Gulf of Alaska and their interference with wild stocks by straying into nearby streams. Oliver said the initiative will include a set of incentives to invest, making it easier for potential aquaculture operations to make it through the permitting hoops and get going. “As I mentioned before, we don’t have a lot of headroom in our wild capture fisheries,” Oliver said. “but with the growing population of the world, and the amount of coastline that we have, promoting marine aquaculture is a huge initiative of this administration. I know in Alaska that’s not always a welcome prospect … nobody’s going to be forcing anybody to take on anything, but we want to make it (easier to permit).” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Report says 6 percent of patients account for $148M in ER spending

About 6,600 people in the state accounted for $148 million in hospital emergency department spending in 2016, or about 6 percent of total patients that year. This group, called superutilizers, visited hospital emergency rooms numerous times in 2016, according to a report from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Division of Public Health. Among all patients, 1,216 visited 10 or more times each, and 6,651 visited five or more times. Eight patients visited emergency departments 50 times or more in a single year, and 95 of them had 25 or more visits, according to the report. That includes both private insurance companies and patients on public insurance such as Medicare or Medicaid. The statistics are based on the total charges reported by the hospitals to the state through the Health Facilities Data Reporting program. Emergency room visits are notoriously expensive and vary widely based on the condition treated. In total, hospitals charged approximately $621.6 million for 204,880 visits in 2016, coming out to an average charge of $3,033.85 per visit. However, the vast majority of those charges went to less than 10 percent of the users. “Individuals who use the ED frequently contribute disproportionately to total charges,” the report states. The state only has two years of data, for 2015 and 2016, as 2015 was the first mandatory year for reporting, so it’s hard to track long-term trends so far, said DHSS spokesman Clinton Bennett in an email. The state didn’t have any specific goals in compiling the data, he said. “This analysis was produced for general informational purposes, to better understand who most uses Emergency Department services and why,” he said. “Any interested entity could then possibly make informed changes in their process.” The most frequent diagnoses for the top 1.1 percent of emergency department visitors were alcohol-related disorders, abdominal and pelvic pain, pain in the throat and chest, back pain, unclassified pain, joint disorders, nausea and vomiting and anxiety disorders, according to the report. Medicaid was by far the most dominant type of insurance among the most common users, with about 53.9 percent of the top 1.1 percent of users on Medicaid. Medicare was the next highest at 18.4 percent, according to the report. Anchorage is the most frequent location for both general emergency visits and for superutilizers, correlated to Anchorage being the population center for the state as well as having the largest hospitals. However, a data error may have led to a slight undercounting, according to the report. “Because one major facility in the Mat-Su region did not report a unique patient identifier, repeat visits cannot be identified and superutilizers from this region are likely undercounted,” the report states. The trend of superutilization has received attention nationally after the term was coined in the early 2010s to refer to patients to utilize significantly more health care dollars than the average. In 2012, about 5 percent of patients accounted for 50 percent of Medicaid spending nationally, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Multiple other states have instituted programs to try to coordinate emergency department data to reduce usage and improve treatment, such as the University of Florida Health, which saw a 25 percent reduction in superutilizer hospitalizations after instituting a specialized clinic to treat them. Alaska’s hospitals are starting to link together and coordinate information to do the same. The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association launched a collaborate project with the Alaska chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians in 2017 to coordinate care better both to reduce overutilization and to help track prescriptions amid the ongoing opioid crisis in the state. Most of the hospitals on the railbelt are already signed onto the system, which connects emergency department data between hospitals to keep both primary care physcians and emergency room physicians better informed about a patient’s background, said Becky Hultberg, the executive director of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. All the hospitals on the Kenai Peninsula are online with the project, she said. “Emergency room physicians feel very strongly about the need for this project because it is improves quality of care — it gives them better information,” she said. “The goal is really better patient care.” Emergency room physicians can feel like they are treating patients in a vacuum — when people come in, the physicians may not have any idea what medications they are taking at home or what their medical histories may be. It’s often the case with patients who live off the road system and come into Fairbanks or Anchorage to use hospitals, Hultberg said. The idea is to connect primary care physicians and emergency department doctors so they have more complete pictures of patients to improve care, she said. “The states of Washington and Oregon are also live on this system and it is really becoming a regional if not a national network,” she said. One of the challenges to quantifying how successful the project is, though, is in isolating its effect from other projects going on. The coordinators haven’t established any clear success metrics yet, Hultberg said. “It’s a little bit difficult to identify the data,” she said. “There are also a number of other projects that are using the reducing of utilization of ED as their metric.” ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Forecast predicts another below-average sockeye year

Next year’s sockeye salmon forecast for Upper Cook Inlet looks only slightly rosier than this year’s forecast. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its 2018 forecast for the sockeye salmon return to Upper Cook Inlet on Nov. 21, predicting about 4.6 million total sockeye to return to all the stream systems in the area. About 2 million would go to meet escapement goals, about 1.9 million would go to the commercial fishermen and about 700,000 to other user groups, according to the forecast. The prediction is about 1.3 million below the recent 20-year average of about 5.9 million fish returning to Upper Cook Inlet, but slightly higher than the 2017 forecast of 4 million sockeye returning to all systems. The actual 2017 return was slightly higher than the forecast, in part because the Kenai River’s late run of sockeye was larger than forecast. The 2018 forecast still leaves the commercial harvest lower than 20-year average as well. “The forecast commercial harvest in 2018 is 0.9 million less than the 20-year average harvest,” the forecast states. The Kenai River is forecast to see 2.5 million sockeye return, about 1.1 million fewer than the 20-year average of about 3.6 million. The Kasilof River is forecast at about 866,000 sockeye, the Susitna River at 329,000 and Fish Creek at 211,000 with all other unmonitored systems in Upper Cook Inlet accounting for the remaining 665,000 fish. If the forecast proves true, it will be the third below-average harvest year in a row for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen. Commercial fishermen brought in about 2.6 million sockeye during the 2015 season, substantially below the 20-year-average, and though the preseason forecast for 2016 was promising, the run did not live up to expectations and commercial fishermen had another poor year, bringing in about 3.3 million sockeye rather than the 5.3 million predicted. The 2017 season was predicted to be below average and actually exceeded expectations, with a later and larger run than predicted. However, commercial fishermen ended their season with about 1.8 million sockeye, the smallest sockeye harvest in the last decade. The forecast of 2.5 million places Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon management into the middle tier for management, changing some of the restrictions on commercial fishermen, including giving drift gillnet fishermen the option of one inlet-wide fishing period in July. The managers watch the run throughout the summer and update the forecast by about the third week of July and adjust management strategies accordingly. Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet are forecast to harvest about 7,400 king salmon, 389,000 pink salmon, 177,000 chum and 203,000 coho in 2018, though those numbers are based on harvests in the last five years and not on enumeration data. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Judge orders council to get to work on Cook Inlet salmon plan

KENAI — The United Cook Inlet Drift Association’s lawsuit against the federal government has finally reached its conclusion, though its repercussions are far from over. Alaska U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess signed an order Aug. 3 stipulating the next steps for UCIDA and the National Marine Fisheries Service. A panel of three federal judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of UCIDA in September 2016, saying the North Pacific Fishery Management Council had been wrong to remove Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries from federal oversight. The order requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to file a report with the district court three times per year, keep the public involved in the council process of determining a proper rule and ensure that the National Marine Fisheries Service finalize a rule within a year of the council passing one. It also provides measures if the council doesn’t produce an amendment and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, has to produce a secretarial amendment. It also gives UCIDA a right to ask the court to set a deadline for a new fishery management plan for Cook Inlet salmon if the council doesn’t form a stakeholder group that includes UCIDA. Both sides would still have the right to brief the court on their beliefs about a reasonable deadline date, according to the judgment. When the fishery management plan was discussed at the council’s meeting in April, the testifiers asked for some type of stakeholder group to be formed so the users could have a voice in the amendment process. The council passed a resolution solidifying the preliminary purpose and need for the FMP amendment, a number of alternatives and forming a stakeholder workgroup, which would decide its scope and agenda at future meetings. UCIDA isn’t the only stakeholder group involved, either. When Cook Inlet was removed from the federal FMP in 2011 upon the council’s passage of Amendment 12 to the FMP, an area of Prince William Sound near Cordova and an area near the Alaska Peninsula were as well. Both those groups testified at the meeting in April that they wanted to be left under state management as much as possible. Under an FMP, the management of the fishery would have to comply with federal sustainable fisheries criteria under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Other fisheries that do use tools like annual catch limits and acceptable biological catches as compared to the state’s escapement goal-based management system for salmon. The Aug. 3 judgment only requires an FMP to address Cook Inlet. However, it doesn’t mean that the Alaska Peninsula and Prince William Sound fishermen will be left out of the discussion in the future. UCIDA Vice President Erik Huebsch said the court settlement was specifically applied to UCIDA and so didn’t address the other two groups. However, at the meeting in April, the council members asked if they could separate the three areas and address the FMPs individually. “At some point, they’ll probably have to deal with (the other areas),” Huebsch said. “But … this whole FMP for Cook Inlet isn’t necessarily going to be what they end up with. One size doesn’t fit all in these things.” There’s also still the matter of the state of Alaska asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, leaving the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision up in the air. The state, which filed to become an intervener in the case in 2013, asked the Supreme Court in February to overturn the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision on the grounds that the lower court didn’t understand the issue and that reverting to federal fisheries management could risk overfishing. The Supreme Court, which is currently on break for the summer, is scheduled to consider the case during a conference Sept. 25. UCIDA filed its opposition in June. ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Stakeholders voice preferred changes to federal fisheries act

SOLDOTNA — Sportfishing groups and advocates want to see the federal government separate the management of sport and commercial fishing in the upcoming renewal of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The act, originally passed in 1976 and co-sponsored by the late Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, establishes the management system for federal and state fisheries in marine waters. Under the law, the state has authority over waters from the mean high tide line out to three nautical miles offshore, and federal government has authority over waters from 3–200 nautical miles offshore, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oversees the fisheries in federal waters. Last reauthorized in 2006, the act is up for renewal and potential amendment. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who chairs the Senate Oceans, Atmospher, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee, chaired a field hearing for the act at Kenai Peninsula College on Wednesday, hearing from more than a dozen witnesses on three panels and discussing potential changes to the act. The hearing on the Kenai Peninsula was the first of the field hearings on the reauthorization. Panelists with interests in the sportfishing industry repeatedly emphasized that commercial fishing and recreational fishing are two distinct activities and asked for recreational fishing to be considered in management decisions. “The recreational and commercial fishing are simply two fundamentally different activities needing distinctively different management tools,” said Ben Speciale, the president of Yamaha Marine Group, in testimony at the hearing. Liz Ogilvie, the director of the Keep America Fishing initiative for the American Sportfishing Association, echoed Speciale’s point and noted that a group of senators had introduced a bill addressing some of the sportfishing industry’s concerns. The bill, formally entitled The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, was introduced this summer. “Fairly or unfairly, the general perception among anglers is that NOAA Fisheries only understands and cares about commercial fishing,” she said. Some of the provisions included in the act include mandatory periodic review of allocations among various fisheries, setting up alternative management approaches for recreational fishing, amending limited access privilege programs for mixed-use fisheries, amending the timelines for rebuilding fishery stocks considered depleted and setting up data collection systems that include recreational fishery considerations, among other provisions. Some of those with commercial fisheries interests on the panel disagreed that commercial and recreational fisheries diverge enough to merit separate management methods. Shannon Carroll, the deputy director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, said the two were not so different. “We may agree that they have different objectives, but the end result of both sectors is really the same — it’s the harvesting of a public resource,” he said. “I would urge this committee to ensure that sound science and individual accountability are the foundation of any new proposal.” Some of the speakers with commercial fisheries interests said they thought the act was largely working and should stay the course, though others raised their own issues. Duncan Fields of the Gulf of Alaska Coastal Communities Coalition, who completed nine years on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2016, urged Sullivan to amend the act to mitigate the impacts of limited access programs on coastal communities. Limited access programs, which issue quota shares to fishermen, have raised the cost of participation so young people in small coastal communities have not been able to enter the fisheries, contributing to what has become known as “the graying of the fleet.” “I have a real sense of urgency relative to the rural communities in the Gulf of Alaska,” Fields said. “This isn’t abstract to me. Changing the community provisions in Magnuson will affect real people that I know, families and communities that I’m engaged with.” However, both sides had some common ground. Both identified the need for greater flexibility for the eight regional councils created under the act, which locally set harvest limits and other regulations on their fisheries. Dan Hull, the current chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, testified at the hearing that the council largely supports the current act’s structure for fishery management, though some flexibility could help. “We also recognize the potential benefits of increased flexibility in some circumstances to allow regional councils the opportunity to optimize their management programs with the appropriate precautionary notes,” he said. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, who also sits on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, said at the hearing that the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act should address the issue of recusals during council votes. Because of the entangled interests on the council by the stakeholders, some have had to recuse themselves from votes when it may not be totally necessary, so the rules could use some revision, he said. He also mentioned the state’s concern over the recent court decision that Cook Inlet’s salmon fisheries must be managed under a federal Fishery Management Plan, which is under the purview of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council only jumped into the process this April and it will likely take years to develop a plan, and the state has also appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cotten said the decision could have heavy implications in jointly managed state and federal fisheries around the country. “Cook Inlet salmon management is fairly complicated, always controversial, difficult to satisfy all 10 or 12 different interest groups in those fish,” he said. “To have the United States government as a player on that scene I do not think would be helpful or a positive addition.” One common note among many of the panelists was additional funding for scientific research. Accurate stock assessment data is a major component in modern fisheries management, and without data, the only option is for management to be more conservative and reduce harvest opportunities. Though scientific funding for NOAA is separate from the Magnuson-Stevens Act, many of the testifiers took the opportunity to ask Sullivan to pressure for it. Sullivan said he has long been committed to securing full funding for NOAA and fisheries management research and would push for it in Washington, D.C. Sullivan said he hoped to use the hearing to gain a variety of perspectives. The Magnuson-Stevens Act places conservation first, and after that comes the charge to maximize opportunity for both recreational and commercial fisheries, he said. “That is the greatest responsibility that Congress has assigned to our fishery managers through the MSA,” he said. “This requirement is often a strained balancing act and it forces tough choices between competing interests, but again, what I think we’re trying to do here is look at ways to achieve consensus.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

North Pacific council director takes top federal fish job

Chris Oliver, the former executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, has moved up the ladder to lead the agency overseeing the all the federally managed fisheries in the U.S. Oliver, who has lived in Alaska since 1990 and been the executive director of the council since 2001, officially took the post of assistant administrator at the National Marine Fisheries Service effective June 19. The move places him in the top job at the federal agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that regulates and enforces fisheries occurring in federal waters, which are between 3 and 200 miles off U.S. coasts. As administrator, he will oversee NMFS’ 3,200 employees, five regional offices, six science centers and 24 labs and fish stations. NMFS works with the eight regional fisheries councils across the country to develop recreational and commercial fisheries policies, providing research and recommendations for conservation and management. “I look forward to leading NOAA Fisheries and working with our partners to rebuild U.S. fisheries and conserve and recover protected resources where necessary, promote domestic marine aquaculture production where appropriate, maintain our reputation for world-renowned science and analysis, and do so while maximizing fishing opportunities for the benefit of recreational and commercial fishermen, processors, and the coastal communities which depend on them for generations to come,” Oliver said in a NOAA news release. Oliver has a reputation for practicality and being politically neutral. His new position is a political appointment, which he told the Journal in February could be “a bit of a misfit” because he was able to stay out of the notoriously heated politics of fisheries as the executive director of the council. Seafood companies with interests in Alaska backed Oliver’s nomination in large numbers, having worked with him first as a biologist and deputy director before he became executive director for the council. He replaces former administrator Eileen Sobeck, who left as President Donald Trump’s administration began. When he was first tapped for the position in the spring, he said he didn’t know if he’d accept the position were it to be offered. At the last council meeting in Juneau in early June, the members took time to say farewell. Oliver thanked the council members and said he’d likely be back to visit. “I want to say what an honor and a privilege it’s been again to work for this council. It’s because of this council that I’m having this opportunity,” he said. “…It’s been a wonderful ride and I’m going to miss all of you.” North Pacific Fishery Management Council Deputy Director David Witherell will serve as interim executive director until a new one is hired. ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Copper River outlook improves

Things are looking better than expected for Copper River kings. Sportfishermen, personal-use dipnetters, subsistence fishermen and commercial fishermen are all out now on the Copper River drainage. When the season began May 18, the forecast estimated that only about 29,000 kings would return to the river system, leaving about 5,000 for total harvestable surplus. But early indicators from the commercial fishery showed larger takes, despite more conservative management measures such as restricting hours and closing certain areas. The low forecast also led the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to announce a preseason sportfishing closure for king salmon on the Copper River drainage and a two-fish king salmon limit for subsistence fishermen. On June 3, though, the managers reevaluated the king run based on commercial takes and limited inriver information, and opened up the sportfisheries and rescinded the subsistence restriction. As of the June 12 commercial fisheries opener, Copper River District fishermen had taken about 11,960 king salmon, according to ADFG’s inseason harvest summary. The managers are getting toward the end of the king salmon run and so far have been relatively relieved that the sockeye return hasn’t been exceptionally large, said Jeremy Botz, the assistant area management biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Cordova. “We’ll start to remove some restrictions here over the next couple of weeks as the chinook salmon run winds down and we’ll be focusing more on our delta wild sockeye and later-timed upriver sockeye salmon,” he said. “The schedule might become a little more liberal here in the next few weeks.” In the past several years, the managers have been dealing with exceptionally large sockeye returns on the Copper River, significantly surpassing the river system’s escapement goal. However, this year, the sockeye run was projected to be weaker than usual, and so far it looks like the run is coming in closer to the forecast than the kings. As of June 13, about 351,360 sockeye had passed Fish and Game’s sonar at Miles Lake, and Copper River District commercial fishermen had taken a total of 328,996 sockeye, according to ADFG data. The preseason forecast was for a run of about 1.5 million sockeye. The sockeye salmon escapement upriver is slightly ahead of what it usually is this time of year, according to the commercial fishing recorded announcement for the Copper River District. “I think the sockeye salmon escapement in the river is the really conservative fishing restrictions we’ve been prosecuting this year,” Botz said. “It just happens that that’s what this sockeye run can sustain anyway. It just ended up pairing fairly well.” Because there is little inseason data available on king salmon, ADFG biologists will gather data from the commercial fishery and from a mark-recapture project near Eyak and perform a post-season assessment of the king salmon run to determine the final escapement.

UFA president’s home pack ticket caught up in Copper River controversy

Four commercial fishermen, including the president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, have been cited for failing to record retention of commercially caught salmon for personal use on an Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish ticket. On May 18, the opening day of the Copper River salmon season, Alaska State Troopers cited Peter Breckert, 58, John Thomas, 75, Michael Glasen, 69, and Jerry McCune, 68, all of Cordova. The offense, a misdemeanor, requires a court appearance and comes with a fine. McCune is also the president of the Cordova Fishermen District United, which represents the approximately 900 commercial fishermen in Area E, and of the United Fishermen of Alaska, the largest commercial fishing organization in the state. Reached Wednesday, McCune said he didn’t want to comment on the ticket but that he pled no contest and paid the $110 fine. Commercial fishermen are legally allowed to retain salmon from their catches for personal-use as long as they account for it on their harvest tickets. The trooper dispatch did not specify the type of salmon, but under their Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits, Cordova district fishermen are legally allowed to retain all five types of Pacific salmon. The four fishermen received their tickets amid a fury of controversy over the management of the Copper River fishery this year. Before the season began, biologists forecast a run of approximately 29,000 king salmon to return to the river, only about 5,000 over the minimum escapement of 24,000 king salmon for the river system. In response, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed all the sportfisheries for king salmon on the Upper Copper River drainage for the entire season and restricted the subsistence fishery to only two king salmon between June 1 and July 15, according to a March 6 news release. However, the commercial fisheries were allowed to continue to operate, albeit under tighter restrictions. Commercial fishermen have been shut out of an inside area designated for king salmon conservation and restricted to nine hours instead of their usual 12 for the last few periods in an attempt to protect king salmon. But they still harvested more than the predicted entire harvestable surplus. As of Wednesday, they had harvested 6,899 kings, with another period scheduled for Thursday. Commercial fishermen and managers have said this is a sign the run is larger than the forecast. McCune did say the commercial fishermen understand the frustration of the upriver fishermen who are completely shut out of fishing for king salmon while the commercial fishermen still get some periods. “I don’t blame them for being mad,” he said. When ADFG managers announced the closure of the Copper River sportfishery but that the commercial fishery would operate, the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee requested the Board of Fisheries place additional restrictions on the commercial fishery to protect king salmon. One of the actions requested by the Fairbanks AC was for the board to prohibit so-called “home pack” retention of king salmon by commercial fishermen. The board decided against taking up the emergency petition, saying the managers had enough tools to conserve king salmon. As the run progresses, the commercial fishing managers and the upstream sportfisheries managers are working together to evaluate the run and see if there will be any potential for some sportfishing opportunity, said Mark Somerville, the Upper Copper River area management biologist for the Division of Sportfish. ADFG has limited tools to evaluate the run in the Copper River inseason, in part relying on mark-recapture studies, but there are a lot of variables for inseason data to consider, he said. “We’re definitely going to be on the cautious side,” he said. “We’re in discussions every day, which is pretty new for something like this. All the divisions are working together to see if there is some sort of harvestable surplus that all the different user groups can take advantage of.” The managers are watching all the data they can get, both from the commercial fishery and from the subsistence fishery set to start Thursday, Somerville said. “It’s either going to show up things are doing clearly better than expected, or not,” he said. “If they’re somewhere in between, we’re going to be between a rock and hard space.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

After season closure, board revises Tanner crab strategy

Bering Sea Tanner crab fishermen have a new harvest strategy in place, though it likely won’t be the last time the plan gets revised. The Board of Fisheries held a special meeting in Anchorage May 17 and 18 to deal with just the harvest strategy. Crab fishermen raised concerns about the value of the harvest strategy and survey methods after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided to close the 2016-17 season because surveys showed that the biomass of female crabs in the Bering Sea survey area fell below a required threshold for the fishery to open. Fishermen, however, said they were seeing large numbers of females in their catch. The board unanimously voted to adopt a new harvest strategy at the recommendation of ADFG staff that will revise a number of standards for calculating how the fishery will open. Major changes include transitioning how female maturity is assessed, including the females west of the 173 degrees West latitude line in the calculation and changing the year range used to estimate long-term Tanner crab female biomass. Fishermen raised several issues with the previous strategy’s assessment method and worked with ADFG to hash them out. The harvest strategy the board passed included a number of industry-supported suggestions but didn’t go entirely along with their recommendations. Ben Daly, the commercial fisheries biologist who presented the staff report on the Tanner crab fishery to the board on May 17, said the department collaboratively manages the fishery with the National Marine Fisheries Service through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council, through its Scientific and Statistical Committee, sets the overfishing limit and the acceptable biological catch limit, and ADFG sets the total allowable catch, or TAC, and manages the fishery in accordance with the plan approved by the board. The managers have a middle amount of information about the Tanner crab fishery — more than some and less than others, Daly said. The old harvest strategy had more conservative measures programmed in when data was lacking, he said. “The general philosophy of the department is when uncertainty is high, precautionary measures are appropriate,” he said. Tanner crab populations have also been in decline, with a sharp change in the late 1970s in an event that biologists call a regime shift. At that time, a number of unclear factors led to a decline in crab production and an increase in fish production, Daly said. To account for that and not skew the numbers too high for a threshold beyond what the fishery can reasonably produce, ADFG recommended adjusting the long-term data accounting from 1982–2016. ADFG will start including female crabs west of the 173 degrees West latitude line in their calculations for female biomass, whereas in the past, only females east of the line have been included. Under the new harvest strategy, females will also be assessed for maturity based on their abdominal flaps, known as observed maturity. The female threshold functions like an on-off switch for the fishery, which can leave fishermen completely without recourse if the survey turns out below that level. ADFG is considering alternatives to the threshold tool, creating a scale instead, which Daly referred to as the “conservation band,” essentially providing a range of actions based on the assessment. It’s not ready for implementation yet, but the department will continue to work on it, he said. “What we’re doing here is essentially creating a band that defines points of conservation concern,” he said. “…It would essentially turn the on-off switch into a dimmer.” Multiple stakeholders said they favored the conservation band approach. If the fishery were not controlled by a strict threshold, fishermen who depend on the income could depend on it more year after year, said Wes Jones, the fishery development director for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., in public testimony to the board. “Fisheries that have this on-off switch are not good for continual year after year employment,” he said. “We’re not talking these people need three months’ employment … one month works really well, it fits into their lifestyles really good.” The Tanner crab fishery has grown significantly in the past several years with successful marketing strategies, said Tyson Fick, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association. The closure marked a sharp halt to a fishery that had grown equally sharply. The previous year’s Tanner crab harvest was 19.7 million pounds, an increase over the 15.1 million pounds in 2014-15, and was worth $45.3 million. International demand has always been strong, but domestic demand has grown as well with restaurants like Joe’s Crab Shack and Red Lobster featuring Alaska bairdi Tanner crab in advertisements. The industry has an interest in working with ADFG toward a consistent but sustainable harvest strategy, he said. “With worldwide recognition that we are continually looking to look out for the resources and improve how we assess that resource, how we can have an industry and have a industry and protect that resource?” he said. The board retained one part of the harvest strategy despite industry requests for it to be eliminated, known as the half-TAC penalty, which halves the total harvest if the fishery was closed the year before. ADFG staff said the rule won’t apply to next year’s fishery because the harvest strategy changed, but recommended the board retain the rule until a better conservation tool is developed, Daly said. However, it would only come into play when the entire threshold calculation is below the confidence interval in the calculation, which isn’t likely to happen in most years, he said. “It’s there; we think it’s a reasonable conservation measure,” he said. “The probability of it being enacted it certainly lower. If it’s enacted, we think we have bigger concerns. It’s still there.” Multiple board members praised the collaboration between the department and the stakeholder groups, who provided recommendations through an ad-hoc committee, on coming up with solutions for the Tanner crab fishery strategy. Some of the other issues can be addressed at the upcoming regular cycle meeting in March 2018. For now, the strategy seems like a reasonable approach, said board member Sue Jeffrey. “This allows more flexibility and consistency, we’ve heard a lot from … the harvesters and processors want consistency, as do the markets,” she said. “I really think that this answers a lot of those concerns. There was that short-term loss, losing a crab season is painful for everyone involved. I think through this exercise, we are on solid ground for more stability.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Copper River managers proceed cautiously after large king harvests

Commercial fishing managers in Prince William Sound are planning to continue opening the fishery, despite concerns about low king salmon returns to the Copper River system. In the first two commercial fishing periods of the season on May 18 and May 22, salmon fishermen brought in about 3,600 king salmon, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game in-season harvest summaries. The first wild-caught king salmon of the season, the fish garnered a record-breaking $50 per pound in the Lower 48, where they arrived late last week. However, the low preseason forecast led to a complete closure of sportfisheries on the Copper River drainage for king salmon and led to a restriction on retention in the subsistence fisheries. The Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee petitioned the Board of Fisheries to find the situation as an emergency and take action to restrict the commercial fishery to conserve kings. However, the board declined to take up the petition on May 17, saying the commercial fishing managers had enough tools to manage for the low run. The harvest of kings so far is above what the managers expected, indicating that the preseason forecast of 29,000 kings — only about 4,000 fish above the 25,000 minimum escapement goal — could have been low, according to the Wednesday fishing update from the Cordova office. Salmon gillnet fishery area management biologist Jeremy Botz said the managers plan to maintain a conservative approach to openings. The next commercial fishing period is set for Thursday, May 25. The 4,000 harvestable king salmon above the escapement goal isn’t a hard and fast number for the managers; the high harvest in the first two periods, despite additional time and area restrictions, may mean that the run is larger than forecast, he said. “That’s the forecast, so there’s no sort of predetermined harvest limit, that’s just what we anticipate,” Botz said. “…We don’t have enough information there whether to say whether it’s necessarily larger or not. So far, the commercial harvest has been larger than expected.” Commercial fishing managers need to provide openings for fishermen to harvest sockeye salmon, the primary target species in the area. In the first two periods, commercial drift gillnetters harvested nearly 88,000 sockeye, according to Fish and Game data. However, the king salmon run will peak soon, and a set of low tides will make the fish more vulnerable to harvest, so the managers will account for that in their decisions on how to prosecute the commercial fishing periods, Botz said. “We’re also approaching peak run timing for Chinook, and also some additional peak tides that are going to move some extra fish into the river,” he said. The managers cut back the hours for the Thursday period from 12 hours to nine hours, lasting from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and kept the inside king salmon conservation area closed. The delay in the morning time will be to account for the low tide that makes fish more vulnerable to harvest, Botz said. Subsistence harvest is open in concurrent areas and times with the commercial fishing areas, according to the commercial fishing announcement. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board denies emergency petition on Copper River kings

The Board of Fisheries denied a request on May 17 from the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee to set more restrictions on the Copper River commercial fishery to protect king salmon. The Fairbanks AC petitioned the board to further regulate the commercial fishery in the area after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecast a small number of kings to return to the stream system — about 29,000, with the minimum escapement for the drainage set at 24,000 fish. ADFG Commissioner Sam Cotten initially denied the petition as qualifying as an emergency under regulations, but the board elected to take up the petition for discussion and ultimately voted to agree with his decision. Subsistence, personal use and sportfishermen also target kings on the river system, which winds its way 290 miles up northward to headwaters near Slana, on the north edge of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. When the forecast came out, ADFG issued an emergency order closing the sportfishery for king salmon on the river, prohibiting retention of kings in the popular Chitina personal-use dipnet fishery and restricting subsistence harvest of kings to two per fisherman using dipnets or fish wheels between June 1 and July 15. Fishwheels also have to be closely attended, which creates a burden for the fishermen, the Fairbanks AC argued. “This will be a significant departure from historical methods used in this fishery,” the group’s petition states. “…It is clear that the upriver fishers are going to take significant actions to help achieve the escapement goal.” The AC asked the board to find the department’s decision to restrict the inriver fisheries but not the commercial fishery as an emergency, which allows the board to act out of cycle. In its petition, the AC asked for the board to require the department to use genetic information about the strength of the Gulkana River kings for at least the first two commercial openings, restricting the commercial fishing area, restricting nets to 29 meshes deep, closing the fishery after July 1 if the commercial harvest exceeds the forecast objective, prohibiting the sale of king salmon bycatch and requiring incidentally caught kings to be surrendered to the state and prohibiting retention of kings for commercial fishermen taking home fish as their subsistence harvest, known as “home pack.” However, the board voted 4-3 not to take up the petition as an emergency. The members opposing the emergency finding said they thought the fisheries managers had enough tools to manage the commercial fishery to maximize sockeye harvest while keeping an eye on king salmon. Like most systems in Alaska, the Copper River has seen historic low returns for king salmon in the past decade. This year’s poor return was expected, so doesn’t qualify as an emergency, said Bert Lewis, the Prince William Sound fisheries management coordinator for the Division of Commercial Fisheries. Managers missed their king salmon escapement goal in 2016 — only about 11,864 kings made it up into the river system, about half of the lower bound of the sustainable escapement goal, or SEG, according to ADFG data. At the same time, the managers saw an extremely large return of sockeye salmon, leading to additional hours and space, but the harvest was still lower than the previous 10-year average, according to the 2016 season summary. Lewis told the Board of Fisheries the managers had to provide extra time to the commercial fishery to control overescapement of sockeye. That likely won’t be the case this year, he said. The total predicted Copper River sockeye salmon run for 2017 is below the recent 10-year average, with about 1.81 million expected to return, according to the 2017 forecast. “We’ve been fishing at an aggressive schedule because of large sockeye returns for the last couple of years,” he said. “We expect to reduce time … (and) we expect to achieve the SEG.” The Copper River does not have much of an inseason assessment for king salmon other than reports from anglers and commercial fisheries fish tickets, Lewis said. The managers reconstruct the run after the season, and while they thought they were in good shape last year because of the solid forecast, the post-season came out lower than they expected, he said. “Forecasting is inherently uncertain,” he said. “We react inseason as the runs develop. In this case, the indicators continued to suggest we were comfortable where we were. We thought we had an appropriate strategy, and then postseason assessment indicated that it didn’t work out.” Board members Sue Jeffrey, Robert Ruffner and Orville Huntington and chairman John Jensen voted against accepting the petition. Jeffrey agreed that it didn’t meet the emergency criteria because it wasn’t unforeseen and the managers have the tools to reduce the commercial fishery this season. “I also know from public comment that the public is concerned about the resource and this region, and I am mindful of that too, but I think we have to consider this seriously and not declare this an emergency unless it is a trend that is ongoing,” she said. “As others have said, I’m sure we will be watching this very carefully.” Board members Israel Payton, Reed Morisky and Al Cain voted to support it. The fisheries upriver seem to be unfairly bearing the burden of conservation this season and they have no alternative fisheries, Morisky said. Payton said he understood the managers were considering the long term but the board should consider the present effects as well. “Though the department states that they don’t think it will affect the long-term sustainability of king salmon stocks, but we have to think about the short term as well,” Payton said. The Copper River District commercial fishery had its first opening Thursday. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

How big can the Alaska health care bubble grow?

KENAI — Alaska faces a paradox with its health care industry. In an economy sliding downhill, health care is the only sector still growing. With many jobs that pay solid wages and a growing need for medical services, in some ways it is encouraging even as other high-paying jobs in the state are lost. However, health care is also one of the top costs to the Alaskan government and a heavy burden for many local municipalities and businesses. As it continues to grow, with more employees and more income, it is worrisome for employers and public agencies, who pay the vast majority of health care costs in the state. To try to trim away at some health care costs in the fiscal year 2018 budget, Gov. Bill Walker upped premiums for state employees’ health care, avoiding an approximately $8 million increase in costs, according to the Office of Management and Budget’s summary. “The Governor recognizes the negative impact this will have on lower paid state employees, but it is necessary for the state to make changes that are equal in measure to the challenge,” the summary states. The Senate and the House of Representatives approved a Medicaid reform bill in 2016 and have been sorting through Health and Social Services’ expenses this year, looking for places to cut. The Senate’s budget, passed April 16, proposes millions in cuts to the department, while the House of Representatives proposed a small increase. Changes at the federal level under the American Health Care Act, recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting hearings in the Senate, may mean changes for the Medicaid program, including requiring the state to shoulder more of the cost. After Walker accepted the Medicaid expansion in early 2015 under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the state began receiving millions from the federal government to prop up the Medicaid program under the additional enrollees. Now, with Republicans in charge of Congress and the White House, the American Health Care Act may roll back that support, leaving the state on the hook to either drop all the additional enrollees or pick up the multi-million-dollar bill. In February, when Congress was debating the first version of the bill, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson formally said the state couldn’t bear the cost shift. “With a $3 billion budget deficit in Alaska, we simply cannot absorb a shift in federal responsibility to states,” Davidson said. Mouhcine Guettabi, an assistant professor of economics with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, researches both the health care industry and state government spending. It’s sometimes an interesting juxtaposition, he said. “At times I present (economic) forecasts … and the only field we’re relying on is that health care is still growing,” he said. “And I’ll go to the next room and rail about health care costs.” Alaska’s health care industry, with some of the highest costs in the country, is an isolated bubble. While other states’ hospitals and clinics draw medical tourists from out of state, bringing in additional money to their economies, Alaska sees the reverse. Many health care plans pay for medical tourism — flying a patient down to hospitals in the Lower 48 to receive treatment and reimbursing the costs of hotels, food and flights along the way, because it is cheaper to do so than have the same procedure in-state. So the fiscal growth of Alaska’s health care industry is coming entirely from the pockets of insurers and companies based here, Guettabi said. Many of Alaska’s people also rely on federal dollars for their health insurance. Besides those receiving Medicare, Tricare and Indian Health Services benefits, Medicaid in Alaska is in part paid for by the federal government and 90 percent of those who purchase individual plans from Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield through the Affordable Care Act marketplace receive federal subsidies, according to a research summary published by ISER in April 2017. Altogether, about 53 percent of Alaskans have employer insurance, and about 9.2 percent of Alaskans still report being uninsured, according to the summary. “Employer insurance is still the most common, covering half of all Alaskans,” the summary states. “But fewer small businesses are offering it.” The actual costs of health care services increase every year, leaving it up to commercial insurers to raise premiums and public insurers to either raise taxes to cover the cost increase or to lower the percentage of a price they reimburse doctors for. The lower reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid relative to private insurers affect providers at all levels. Alaska has not lost any of its rural hospitals yet, unlike the Lower 48, but they feel the lower reimbursements, said Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “From a hospital standpoint, doing more with less can mean a reduction in rates, utilization or eligibility,” she said. “When the decision to do more with less means lower rates, that is just asking hospitals to do the same thing for less money, which essentially is just squeezing the balloon.” The federal administration and some in Congress are also looking to reform Medicare, a growing program as the population ages. Among the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association’s 2017 legislative priorities are goals to preserve Medicaid reimbursement rate stability and look for new payment models, strengthening policies to support the growth of the individual insurance market and advocate for Alaska-specific solutions for Medicaid coverage for low-income residents, according to its website. In June, the Alaska Legislature is due to receive a feasibility study on the formation of an Alaska Health Care Authority, which would oversee the implementation and expenses of the Medicaid program. Among its functions could be running a single health care plan for state employees and retirees, with the potential for expansion to private individuals and businesses — fundamentally a single-payer insurance program for Alaskans. Pat Linton, former executive director of the Seward Community Health Center, said he spent 40 years working in health care and watched its share of the national gross domestic product triple as costs rose out of control. The cost is only likely to increase as the population ages and public health continues to be poor, despite how much the health care system costs. Socioeconomic status, proposed by many researchers as a major determinant of health, is not recovering for many of the poorest people nationally and until it does, health care delivery is not going to solve many widespread health problems people see, he said. Linton, who also served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Healthcare Task Force in 2015 and 2016, advocates for a national single-payer system, which he said would at least simplify the currently complex health care insurance system. “Scrap this — transition to a single-payer ‘Medicare for all’ system and it will at least do probably better than we’ve been doing through this hybrid, hodgepodge of market based (and) public-based, just this cacophony of things,” he said. Hultberg said it’s too early to say what the effects of an Alaska Health Care Authority might be, but that the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association will provide comments on the study when it is released. The current status of the health care industry, growing beyond what anyone can afford, is clearly unsustainable, Guettabi said, but just how big it can grow is unclear. Until there’s an incentive for providers to change the system, they won’t be motivated to move toward reducing costs, which means reducing profits as well. And the question of better health outcomes is a separate one entirely — it’s easy to get inexpensive systems or systems that produce good results, but finding one that meets both is the challenge. “The state is trying to save money,” Guettabi said. “Is it trying to maximize the health of its citizens? I have no idea. The hospitals are trying to maximize their profits, if it’s a for-profit (hospital). The individual is trying to save money. We all have different objectives. It’s not like we’re all in this together.”

NOAA releases annual fisheries economic report

KENAI — The total value of commercial fisheries landings in Alaska didn’t change much between 2014 and 2015, but by species, salmon prices have been the millstone around the industry’s neck. Total landings for all commercially fished species in the North Pacific region came out to $1.7 billion in 2015, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service annual report for the North Pacific region, released May 9. It didn’t change much from 2014, when total landings came in at $1.712 billion, but the 2015 value is a 25 percent increase in real terms since 2006 when accounting for inflation. Total value climbed for most species, some dramatically — crab is at an all-time high since 1999 for all species except for Dungeness crab. Salmon, however, is down 24 percent since 2014, or $133 million, despite some record-breaking total poundage. The salmon market has been in trouble for the last several years. An ongoing embargo in Russia preventing the import of food products from the U.S., Canada, Norway and the European Union has heavily impacted prices, eliminating a major market for seafood. A strong U.S. dollar has also weakened demand in traditional markets for salmon such as the European Union and Japan, according to the NMFS report. A record-breaking harvest in Bristol Bay flooded the market in 2015, but with prices close to 50 cents per pound, fishermen didn’t bring in much income that year. Prices rose a little in 2016, but not to pre-2015 levels, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game ex-vessel value data. Alaska still leads the nation in commercial salmon catches, with about 1 billion pounds landed in 2015 for a total value of $413 million, according to the NMFS national fisheries management report, also released May 9. Meanwhile, pink salmon supply increased dramatically from 2014, up about 95 percent, and chum salmon increased by about 49 percent, according to the Alaska report. Lower Cook Inlet saw record-breaking returns of pink salmon in 2015, as did Prince William Sound. “With the Russia ban also covering farmed salmon, the market for wild caught salmon faced further pressure from that source,” the report states. Herring value is also down, falling about 39 percent, or $4.5 million, between 2014 and 2016, according to the report. The Russia import ban also affected herring, and the cut in the Sitka Sound herring sac roe fishery by about half impacted total landing values. Salmon and herring fishermen in Alaska may be having a hard time, but other species are seeing healthy increases in value. Crab landings revenue is up nearly 122 percent since 2014, with a total value of $284 million for all species. Southern Tanner crab nearly doubled, climbing $20 million between 2014 and 2016 to $41 million. Dungeness crab was the only species that declined, but it came after a year of nearly record-high prices, according to the NMFS report. Walleye pollock climbed by more than a fifth, or $87 million, for a total of $509 million. The total allowable catch for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands increased slightly, allowing for larger catches and increasing total value, according to the report. Pacific halibut prices were the highest of all North Pacific species at $4.85 per pound in 2015, but with concerns about declining stocks, it also saw one of the greatest decreases in poundage — down 67 percent between 2006 and 2015, according to the Alaska report. Pacific halibut saw the largest revenue decline, about 49 percent in real value, between 2006 and 2015, according to the NMFS national report. Alaska’s seafood sector supports about 53,400 full- and part-time jobs, none of which rely on imports, according to the NMFS national report. Altogether, the industry is worth about $4.4 billion in sales, $1.9 billion in income and $2.4 billion in value-added impacts. Commercial fishing contributes the largest portion of that, with 38,000 jobs, according to the report. The increase in Alaska landing values follows the national trend — total landing values are up about 17 percent in real value between 2006 and 2015, according to the NMFS national report. Total pounds landed are were up about 2 percent between 2006 and 2015, Alaska still leads the nation in both total pounds and total value landed. The season looks better for salmon fishermen this year as well, based on Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts. Despite disastrously low pink salmon returns last year, Fish and Game is predicting rosier returns for Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, Kodiak and Lower Cook Inlet. They aren’t predicted to be record-breaking returns, but ADFG biologists are reasonably confident in the forecasts, and the colder winter breaking up the warm surface temperature anomaly in the Pacific Ocean — nicknamed “the blob” — may make for better pink salmon returns. Sockeye returns are far below average for Upper Cook Inlet, where approximately 4 million fish are predicted to return in 2017, with a commercial harvest of about 1.7 million. Bristol Bay forecasts predict a return about 27 percent higher than the average, and Kodiak is expecting close to its average. Prices look to improve as well, with sea lice and algal blooms troubling the farmed fish sector in Chile, Scotland and Norway while demand continues to grow and the dollar weakens slightly. Suppliers have diminished back stock and supply this year may be lower, aiding prices. ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Senate budget cuts holes in public health service

The state’s public health division has been whittled down significantly over the past several years and is facing more cuts this year. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has been high on the chopping block for a Legislature looking for places to cut expenses in the fiscal year 2018 budget. The Senate passed a budget on April 18 cutting another $29.2 million out of the department’s budget, on top of a $1.5 million reduction in the final fiscal year 2017 budget passed last year. The House of Representatives is still debating it, but if the cuts go through, one area that will feel them strongly is the Division of Public Health. Unlike other states, where the counties or boroughs run their own public health programs, the state runs one for the entire population of Alaska outside Anchorage, with a network of traveling nurses and public health centers to provide basic services such as well child exams and vaccinations. However, due to budget cuts, several centers have had to be scaled back or closed within the last few years. The Senate’s proposed budget cuts Unrestricted General Fund dollars from the Public Health Nursing section by an additional 5 percent, “with the expectation that PH Nursing collaborate with other Health Centers,” according to the Conference Committee motion document. Division of Public Health Director and Chief Medical Officer Jay Butler said nothing is decided for sure, but if the division does have to take the cut, they’ll have to make them thoughtfully. Cuts have already led to a series of service reductions across the state, he said. “With those cuts of nearly 20 percent to DHSS over the last three years, we’ve had to reduce statewide services, with basically very little for people over age 29 now,” he said. “It sort of breaks my heart when people call me and say they’ve always gotten their first shot at the public health center and they can’t do that anymore.” Cuts to the Medicaid program will also ripple through the Division of Public Health through matching, he said. Public health nurses don’t just administer shots and provide tests for sexually transmitted infections — they also investigate epidemic outbreaks of diseases and provide a safety net for basic medical services. For example, when an outbreak of whooping cough occurred in Homer last year, it was the Section of Epidemiology that started gathering information on infections from private physicians and hosting a vaccine drive. But as the budget for public health gets slimmer and slimmer, fewer nurses can travel to remote communities and fewer regular services are offered. There are no full-time nurses in Cordova, Haines, Wrangell and Seward, and as more positions are cut, there are only so many people who the department can send out, Butler said. “At some point, you can’t have more work done by fewer people,” he said. “You do less with less because you phase things out. There’s no more efficiency to be gained.” More of the burden has shifted to organizations like community health centers, which like public health centers offer sliding-scale payment systems. Seward Community Health Center had to step up when the Seward Public Health Center’s one full-time nurse retired, leaving the public health center there as an outpost to be visited by a traveling nurse from Kenai. But there are situations public health nurses are set up to handle that community health centers aren’t equipped for, such as a mass disaster or epidemic, said Seward Community Health Center Executive Director Pat Linton. “You cannot make a simplistic conclusion that if you close the public health centers that the community health centers will pick up the work,” he said. “That’s not true. That’s impossible.” Epidemiology is unique to the state’s public health nurses, Butler said. “Community health centers are really focused on providing individual access to care, whereas public health centers are better at looking at (larger questions),” he said. “That is a somewhat different mission, and oftentimes what the public health centers do are much less likely to be billable services.” Public health is a long-range game. Programs implemented tomorrow can take years to show measurable results. Amid the conversation of health care reform and reducing costs, a common question has been held forth by industry members, regulators and activists, known as the triple aim: How do we get better health for more people at a lower cost? Linton, who retired at the end of April, testified to the Senate with Butler and Head Public Health Nurse Linda Worman about the effects of cutting too far into public health services. The state has already worked out some partnerships to cut costs, like in the case of the Healthy Alaskans 2020 public health effort — when federal support for that effort lapsed, the state worked out support in partnership with community and private organizations, he said. “Health is one of those fundamental aspects of life that we oftentimes take for granted and when we lose it, we really begin losing everything — relationships, wealth, property,” he said. “The protection of health is one of a lot of things that Alaskans hold dear.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

2017 sockeye forecast weak for Cook Inlet

KENAI — Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial salmon fishermen are predicted to have another slow season, if the forecast proves accurate. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s 2017 commercial salmon fishery outlook predicts a total run of about 4 million fish to all the stream systems in Upper Cook Inlet, which includes the Kenai, Kasilof and Susitna rivers as well as a number of smaller streams. Commercial fishermen are projected to harvest about 1.7 million of that, the lowest projected harvest in the last 15 years. It’s largely the Kenai River not living up to the recent 10-year average. The river is projected to see a return of 2.2 million sockeye, about 39 percent below the recent 10-year average of 3.6 million fish. By contrast, the Susitna River is projected to see about 366,000 sockeye return, about 5 percent below the average; the Kasilof River is expected to see about 825,000 sockeye, about 16 percent below the recent average, according to the forecast. The 2017 forecast follows a poor 2016 season, when the run came in significantly below the prediction. Total harvest by all user groups was about 3.3 million sockeye rather than the 5.3 million fish predicted. “Overall, the 2016 sockeye salmon run was 26 percent below forecast, largely due to the below forecast Kenai sockeye salmon run,” the forecast states. The biologists who conduct the forecast always include a margin of error — for the Kenai River run, it’s 20 percent below or above, with the 2.2 million as the point estimate. For the Kasilof, it’s a 12 percent margin of error. Area Management Biologist Pat Shields said the managers are relatively confident in the forecast models, though it’s always subject to error and is reviewed when in-season data starts to come in. “When you run those models and if you get a big difference, (the forecaster) tends to look at the performance of a model for the last few years … and look at which of the models has performed the best,” Shields said. “You can end up using multiple models.” Better than 2016 By late summer 2016, it was apparent that the big days of sockeye harvests weren’t going to materialize. Commercial fishermen had only harvested 1.6 million salmon by July 19 last year, what is typically in the middle of the sockeye season. By July 26, Fish and Game dropped its estimate for the return to all of Cook Inlet by 1.8 million to 1.9 million sockeye. Two age classes seemed to have had a hard time returning: the 4- and 5-year-old sockeye. It wasn’t the only strange run. Commercial fishermen all over Alaska puzzled over the disappointingly small pink salmon returns, but many noted the exceptionally large fish. Cook Inlet’s setnetters recorded an average of 5 pounds, the largest on record, as compared to the usual 3.6 pounds. But this year, pink salmon returns look better around the state, and sockeye runs outside Cook Inlet look rosy. Bristol Bay is expecting a run of approximately 41.5 million sockeye, about 26 percent more than the recent average, according to the 2017 Bristol Bay season outlook. Of that, about 27.5 million fish would be available for commercial inshore harvest. About 16.1 million sockeye salmon are expected in the Naknek-Kvichak District; about 10.7 million in the Egegik District; about 5.5 million in the Ugashik District; 8.6 million in the Nushagak District and 660,000 in the Togiak District, according to the outlook. All fisheries in Bristol Bay open June 1 by regulation, but additional fishing time is based on in-season data. “The department manages fisheries based on inseason information regarding abundance,” the outlook states. “The inseason management approach uses a suite of tools to provide information on abundance in each district as each run develops and that information is used by the department to determine fishing opportunity.” If the forecast holds true, it will be the second big year in a row for Bristol Bay. In 2016, salmon fishermen in the bay saw a run of 51.4 million fish, the second highest in the last 20 years. The preliminary ex-vessel value of $156.2 million was about 40 percent higher than the average in the last 20 years. Improving prices Prices look to rise as well, said Andy Wink, the seafood project manager for research firm McDowell Group. For several years, a large harvest of sockeye salmon in Alaska has pushed down prices, especially in competition with the massive numbers of farmed salmon entering the market from farms like Norway, Chile and Scotland. However, an algal bloom in Chile and widespread infections of sea lice have damage farmed salmon production, pushing up prices significantly. Processors’ backstocks of frozen sockeye are down, and with demand up but supply lower, the prices are likely to rise, Wink said. “We’ve got strong headwinds, but it hasn’t all been pulling against us,” he said. “Because, for the last 10 years, farmed salmon production has grown about 5 percent. Last year, they estimated production down 7 percent. That’s certainly a very large decline when you’re talking about 4.5 billion pounds of fish. That’s a lot of missing supply. That’s been helpful.” Processors have been hit hard by the extremely strong U.S. dollar. A valuable U.S. currency is bad for Alaska’s seafood market — when other currencies are worth significantly less than the dollar, it typically pushes prices down. Cook Inlet lost a major processor in spring 2016 when Great Pacific Seafoods filed for bankruptcy, closing its Kenai, Anchorage and Whittier plants. Bristol Bay saw an improvement in prices last year from the very low prices in 2015, but not quite up to pre-2015 levels, according to ADFG records. However, with the farmed market down and demand higher, signs look good for improved prices, Wink said. “This year it’s going to be kind of interesting how this year plays out,” he said. “I suspect there’s a lot of buyers out there who would like to reproduce what they’ve done in the last several years, but there’s probably not going to be as much going around this year.” Board of Fisheries changes Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen also have some new regulations to watch for. The Board of Fisheries passed several proposals loosening regulations on East Side setnetters, including exempting the East Forelands statistical area from the paired restrictions system, which pairs setnet openings with Kenai River late-run king salmon escapements, and pushing back the effective date for the one-percent rule. Because the king salmon forecast predicts a run of 33,600 large king salmon, which is higher than the sustainable escapement goal of 13,500 to 27,000 large king salmon, the season can start off normally and be managed for in-season abundance, according to the outlook. The board also opened up the use of a near-shore fishery to help control Kasilof River sockeye salmon escapement and keep the managers from having to open the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, a terminal fishery in the mouth of the Kasilof River that has been widely criticized by fishermen. When authorized, setnetters can operate their full complement of gear within 600 feet of shore, which allows them to stay on their sites and has shown promising results for controlling escapement without catching too many king salmon, Shields said. “It puts commercial fishermen more in their regular area,” he said. “It lets people fish from their regular fish sites rather than getting hundreds of people to move from their regular fish sites. That change the board made, probably of all the changes for setnetting, has potentially the largest impact.” Drift gillnetters can now stack multiple permits and have the potential to get one inlet-wide period in July if the projected run to the Kenai River is between 2.3 million sockeye and 4.6 million sockeye. Though the current projected run is less than 2.3 million, Shields noted that it would only take a relatively small variation to push the run into that management tier, so the managers may have the option to open up one inlet-wide period. Otherwise, the drifters are restricted to fishing in Drift Gillnet Area 1, a large area that stretches across the inlet between the south side of Kalgin Island and the Anchor Point Light. “If the forecast is correct, the change to the drift plan won’t come into play this year,” he said. “If the forecast is just a little off, that’s something the department will have at their discretion to use.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

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