Elizabeth Earl

Marijuana board considers Outside investment in testing labs

Reversing course on an earlier policy, the state is considering allowing Outside investment in marijuana businesses. The Marijuana Control Board is seeking public comment on a set of regulations that would allow limited investment from outside the state in marijuana testing facilities. The testing facilities are a bottleneck in the state’s industry; all cannabis products bound for the retail market have to pass through a lab first. There are currently three operating testing facilities in the state: one in Anchorage, one in Wasilla and one in Ketchikan. A fourth is approved for Juneau, pending inspection, according to the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. One of the problems with getting more testing facilities in the state has always been the high cost of entry. In addition to the license application fee of $2,000, an operating testing facility has to employ a scientific director, who must hold a college degree in chemical or biological sciences and have a number of post-graduate scientific lab experience and conductive a comprehensive array of tests on cannabis products. The fee to renew a testing facility license is currently $2,000, but a separate proposed regulation would raise the fee to $5,000 for renewals. When the Marijuana Control Board began regulation cannabis businesses, one of the lynchpin items was that only Alaska residents could invest in or own them. Part of the reasoning was to keep an already-developed cannabis industry in the Lower 48 from swooping in and taking control of the new industry away from Alaskans. However, with limited capital available because of the state’s small population and lack of access to traditional lending methods due to marijuana’s status as a federally illegal drug, cannabis businesses have struggled to find the money to get off the ground. In 2015, the board passed a regulation allowing anyone who qualified as an Alaska voter to invest in cannabis businesses. However, the board tightened that policy later, requiring investors to qualify for a Permanent Fund dividend, a much stricter requirement. But a new regulation project would open up the opportunity for entrepreneurs applying for cannabis testing facility licenses to seek Outside investment within a number of boundaries. The Marijuana Control Board voted to send the regulations out for public comment at its meeting in Nome Sept. 11-13. The Alaska Department of Law suggested revising some of the language to make it more quantifiable than the original language, boiling it down to five conditions: whether the investor “directly contributes to improvements in the testing facility’s procedures; enables or supports hiring and retention of highly qualified employees; provides expertise not otherwise reasonably available in this state; enables the facility to obtain and maintain state-of-the-art equipment, and any other factor the board deems relevant,” according to the memo attached to the regulations. The last factor drew some attention from the board members. Member Loren Jones said he thought it was too ambiguous, allowing board members to use too much discretion. Board chairman Mark Springer said the ambiguity would provide the breadth board members would need to regulate participation in a new opportunity for investment in the industry. “We do really need the leeway to look at that investor from all sides and say, ‘Eh, maybe not,’” he said. The board also considered whether to change its policy regarding cultivator tax delinquency. During every board meeting, the members receive a packet of notices of violation — NOVs for short — that outline the business owners who have violated conditions of their licenses. Oftentimes, those NOVs have to do with cultivators who are behind on the taxes they owe to the state. Of the packet of notices the board received for the September meeting, about half were because of delinquent taxes. The main debate was whether continuing to issue notices of violation over and over again for tax delinquency is appropriate, or whether the board should look at revoking licenses. Some members suggested switching away from using NOVs for tax delinquency at all, but AMCO Director Erika McConnell said the NOVs are developed from a template and any other form of notification would be just as much or more work for staff. Board member Bruce Schulte suggested a suspension of some privileges, like transferring product, until taxes are paid rather than revoking a license. Springer pointed out that that would interrupt cash flow, which would exacerbate the problem of not being able to meet tax liability. Revoking a license would cut off the cultivator’s ability to grow or sell product to meet that tax liability as well, he said. “Especially for a small cultivator, it’s a very, very competitive marketplace, and some people as you suggested didn’t realize what they were getting into,” Springer said. “Even some standard (cultivation facilities) put a lot of investment—they either realized they couldn’t sell what they thought they could or they had crop issues.” Underlying the debate is the issue of tax structure on the cannabis industry. Cultivation excise taxes are assessed on weight alone in Alaska — as price fluctuates in the market, assessed tax obligations stay the same, cutting into cultivators’ profits. As more people have entered the industry and the prices have become more competitive, industry members have begun advocating for a change in the tax structure. The Marijuana Control Board does not have the authority to change the tax structure; that authority lies with the Legislature. Ultimately, the board agreed to continue to issue NOVs for tax delinquency, but to consider the cases of businesses that amass NOVs over time and consider taking action based on the recommendation of the AMCO director and working with the business to get on a repayment plan if possible. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Schulte’s return to marijuana board restores industry influence

When the Marijuana Control Board meets this week in Nome, there will be a familiar face behind the dais again: Bruce Schulte, the board’s first chairman. Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy appointed Schulte to the Marijuana Control Board in August. The Legislature will consider his appointment for confirmation during its next session, but until then, he’ll serve in one of the board’s seats designated for a member of the public or active in the industry. That’s a change from the last time he served on the board, when he served in the seat designated for a member of the industry after helping lead the campaign to legalize recreational use. Schulte doesn’t actually have a financial stake in a cannabis business. When it was first legalized, he intended to pursue a license, but reconsidered based on the economics, he said. “I applaud the folks that have put so much time and energy and capital into this,” he said. “I want the industry to succeed, but the free market being what it is, some will succeed and some won’t. My sense is that the market is a little saturated. Already we see some people pulling out, merging forces… which is kind of what we expected to happen.” He was dismissed from the board in 2016 under former Gov. Bill Walker’s administration amid accusations of poor behavior to staff. At the time, the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office was run by former director Cynthia Franklin, who had a somewhat combative relationship with the board and the nascent industry. Schulte said he expects to be asked about the accusations during the confirmation process but described Franklin’s behavior to the board as bullying in those days. “That led to some frustration on my part,” he said. “And rightfully so.”  In a statement provided to the Journal after publication, Franklin wrote that she was “saddened” that Schulte was engaged in “sniping about perceived slights that happened years ago.” “Although Mr. Schulte had personal power and control issues that interfered with his ability to serve in a professional manner on the board back in 2015-2016, I hold out hope that he has grown in the interim,” Franklin wrote. “Given this second chance, surely Mr. Schulte will focus on having mature interactions with the AMCO staff, industry members and his fellow board members. “In my role as director of AMCO when Alaska legalized marijuana, I did my best to balance the need to protect the nascent industry from federal overreach while giving newly licensed businesses room to grow. There were some folks determined to drive a wedge between AMCO and those new businesses, but for the most part, we managed to come together and create regulations that work for Alaska.” Franklin added that she voted for legalization and was “proud” of her work establishing the legal cannabis industry in Alaska. The Marijuana Control Board was established in 2015 after Alaskans voted in favor of Proposition 2, which legalized the recreational use of cannabis, in 2014. At first, two seats were dedicated for industry representation along with one law enforcement, one public health and one public seat. However, statutes establishing the board allowed for one of the industry seats to be a member of the public with no stake in the industry. Dunleavy initially nominated Fairbanks resident Vivian Stiver to fill a vacant seat after he decided not to reappoint industry member Brandom Emmett of Fairbanks. Industry stakeholders heavily objected to Stiver because of her earlier involvement in a citizen initiative to ban commercial cannabis operations from the City of Fairbanks. Stiver said in testimony during confirmation hearings that she intended to regulate the industry fairly at the state level, but the Legislature ultimately voted against confirming her to the seat. Dunleavy later appointed her to the board of the Alaska Housing Finance Corp. and Schulte to the seat on the MCB. The governor’s decision to appoint Schulte came after conversations with people both inside and outside the industry, said Matt Shuckerow, Dunleavy’s press secretary. Schulte’s name was included on a list of five people suggested by the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association shortly after the Legislature voted not to confirm Stiver, and while the governor ultimately chose one of the individuals on that list, he was not obligated to, Shuckerow said. “I think that the governor, in his review of all boards and commissions, has expressed a desire to have people who think innovatively, who take into consideration the different views of their communities and the whole,” Shuckerow said. “He wants someone who can think outside the box, who can bring a different perspective … My understanding on this appointment was that under Mr. Schulte’s credentials, he does qualify as a public member.” In his initial fiscal year 2020 budget, Dunleavy proposed dissolving the Marijuana Control Board and Alcoholic Beverage Control Board and consolidating the powers into the office of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office director. The Legislature did not accept that change, and it was ultimately removed from the budget. Shuckerow said he did not have any news about the governor’s intentions related to the boards, but that there is clearly public interest in the actions of the board, as shown by the recent public interest in proposed regulations before the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board about breweries. “More broadly, there is an examination and will continue to be an examination of boards, looking at alignment and intent and whether or not they can be changed or reformed in some manner,” Shuckerow said. “That is something that is important.” Schulte said though he’s not serving in an industry seat, he does have a clearer history of advocating for the industry than the average person. The industry has matured since the first legal sale in 2016, reaching about $130.5 million in retail sales and $15.7 million in total taxes in 2018. In some ways, that’s what early advocates envisioned, Schulte said: that cannabis would be just another industry in Alaska’s economy. There are outstanding issues facing regulators and the industry, though. At the forefront of those issues is the tax structure implemented on cultivators, which is assessed entirely on weight at a rate of $50 per pound. While advocates originally proposed that tax structure for simplicity’s sake in the initiative approved by voters, stakeholders have since raised the alarm that it will strangle cultivators as supply increases and the retail price for cannabis drops. As the price drops, the assessed tax will remain the same, as it is based on weight, cutting more and more into cultivators’ profits. Schulte said he originally supported the tax structure but now agrees that it’s a problem. However, it’s not up to the Marijuana Control Board to change it; that’s the purview of the Legislature. “As prices come down, the taxes have not changed,” he said. “In some cases, people have found that it’s impossible to be profitable. I think that that’s something that needs to be looked at. But again, the best the Marijuana Control Board can do is inform the Legislature what some of the options are and then it is up to the legislators.” On-site consumption endorsements are still an issue for the Marijuana Control Board as well, with the backdrop of a statewide indoor smoking ban complicating the landscape. The board approved endorsements in general for edible on-site consumption indoors for businesses that hold endorsements, but smoking is relegated to outdoor areas with adequate ventilation, but even that is complicated by the smoke-free workplace law. Going forward, he said he wants to see the board partner with the industry stakeholders to help them be successful in addition to being regulators. “The question I would raise in any situation is: are these folks conducting themselves appropriately in regards to regulation and statute, and what are we doing to help them be successful?” he said. “Some of these regulatory boards get too wrapped up in telling folks what they can’t do, not what we can do to make it better. I think if I were to bring any preconceived notion to the board, it would be that: what can we do to help you succeed?” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected] Editor's note: This story was updated to include a statement from former Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office Executive Director Cynthia Franklin.

Sockeye harvest breaks all-time top 5; pinks picking up

The 2019 salmon season has seen plenty of fish return to the state, but far from evenly across regions. As of Sept. 10, commercial fishermen across Alaska have landed 198.4 million salmon of all five species, about 8 percent less than the preseason forecast of 213.2 million. Most of that shortfall is in pink and chum salmon, which haven’t delivered on their forecasts so far, but a surplus of sockeye salmon helped make up for some of that gap. Statewide, commercial fishermen have landed more than 55.1 million sockeye, about 9 percent more than last year and 5 million more than the preseason forecast. The boom in sockeye salmon mostly landed in Bristol Bay, the state’s largest sockeye fishery. Commercial fishermen there landed about 43.2 million sockeye by the end of their season, eclipsing last year’s harvest of 41.2 million. The total sockeye run across the state is the largest since 1995 and the fourth-strongest season since 1975, according to a weekly harvest update from the McDowell Group and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Sockeye are still coming in, though; commercial fishermen in Kodiak landed 130,000 last week, according to the update. The sockeye harvest there clocked in at just more than 2 million fish as of Sept. 10, which is slightly less than the preseason forecast for the area. Kodiak has some of the latest sockeye runs in the state, and weaker runs tend to come in later than stronger runs, said area management biologist James Jackson. But like other areas of the state, Kodiak has seen sockeye salmon arrive near their terminal streams and hold in the salt water, waiting to enter the streams. “We’ve had sockeye holding in the Karluk Lagoon for what seems like a month now,” he said. The sockeye run hasn’t been exceptional, but the pink salmon run has done well in Kodiak this year. Pinks are the bread and butter for salmon fishermen there, and this year has brought more than 32.5 million of them so far. That’s significantly better than the total forecast harvest of 27 million pinks for 2019, and it showed up early, Jackson said. “The pink run mostly shows up in July and August, and we usually have a very small September component,” he said. “We had the fourth-largest July harvest of pinks, and the fourth-largest overall harvest of pinks, and we’re on track to have the largest September harvest ever.” The run this year never seemed to have a discernable peak, though, he said; the fish showed up early and just kept showing up. A warm summer with record-low precipitation all across the Gulf of Alaska coast, though, made escapement a little tricky for salmon, as creeks were warm and water was low. Kodiak is on track to have high escapements for pinks, Jackson said, though there will likely be some pre-spawning mortality, in part related to low water and limited oxygen. Pink salmon in other areas were slow to return early on. At the end of July, the statewide cumulative harvest was about 20 percent behind the previous odd-year harvest; as of Sept. 10, it’s only about 8 percent behind. Most of that upswing in harvest has come from Kodiak and Prince William Sound, where fishermen have harvested 31.5 million pink salmon since Aug. 8, according to ADFG’s weekly summary. “Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation wild stock pink salmon run entry was delayed this year, likely due to the abnormally warm weather and drought conditions in Prince William Sound,” the summary states. The low water in many creeks and warm temperatures for the majority of the summer reportedly led to many pink salmon holding offshore in Prince William Sound, delaying fisheries. The lack of precipitation in normally rainsoaked Cordova also led to a water shortage, which was compounded by the increased need at processing plants as the pink salmon season ramped up. Rain and cooler temperatures arrived across much of the Gulf coast on Labor Day weekend, bringing relief to many of the state’s parched communities. Chignik, which initially looked to be having a second summer of disastrously low sockeye returns, swung back into sockeye fishing in recent weeks as well. As of Sept. 10, 614,000 sockeye had been harvested in the Chignik Management Area, and though overall season harvest is less than than average, daily harvest is better than average for this time of year, according to ADFG’s weekly update. Participation is lower, though, in part due to fishermen heading elsewhere early in the season as the run failed to materialize. September is usually when commercial fishermen transition away from sockeye and pink salmon to coho. However, this year has presented slower returns of coho in general so far. Harvest in Prince William Sound and parts of Southeast are reportedly less than average. Statewide, fishermen have landed just more than 3 million coho, about 11 percent behind last year’s harvest. Jackson said Kodiak may see a better-than-average coho run as well, but harvest may be limited by participation. The fleet isn’t as motivated to fish for silvers if the price isn’t high enough, he said. Low water in some areas has challenged coho the same way it challenged other species of salmon. In the Mat-Su Valley, sportfishing managers closed the Little Susitna and the Deshka rivers to coho fishing effective Aug. 19 until Sept. 30 out of concern for the low numbers of coho entering the river, citing low water levels in the upper parts of the rivers. “The story of coho for 2019 is one of slower production,” said Garrett Evridge, an economist focusing on fisheries with the McDowell Group. Preliminary production numbers for coho show that harvest slowed down to about 250,000 fish last week, with the five-year average being double that. But compared to other species of salmon in Alaska, coho are not a particularly high-profile species like sockeye and king salmon, Evridge said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Proposed regs on tasting rooms tighten tensions in alcohol industry

A new set of proposed regulations has split the state’s alcohol industry: breweries, wineries and distilleries that make it versus bars, hotels and restaurants that serve it. The regulations themselves don’t have anything to do with alcohol production, service or distribution. Instead, the regulations proposed by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board published on Aug. 26 are a revision to what’s allowed on site at taprooms and tasting rooms; the new regulations clarify the definition of “other recreational and gaming opportunities.” Breweries, wineries and distilleries are allowed to sell alcohol to consumers directly in their taprooms and tasting rooms, but with a number of restrictions: no more than 36 ounces of beer or 3 ounces of liquor per person per day, no serving after 8 p.m., no seats at the bar and no games, entertainment or televisions, among other restrictions. The regulations proposed would more closely define some of the activities prohibited, including festivals, games and competitions, classes, parties (except for private parties limited to specific invited guests), presentations or performances and “other types of organized social gatherings that are advertised to the general public.” The Brewers Guild of Alaska, which represents craft beer breweries all over the state, opposes the language of the regulations as proposed for numerous reasons, said Lee Ellis, the president of the organization and the director of operations at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. For one, the guild doesn’t agree that this regulation would be the intent of the Legislature in authorizing taprooms in the first place and would disrupt a number of operations for breweries, he said. “This would make giving brewery tours not available,” he said. “(Midnight Sun Brewing) has a first Friday art event … If we promote any sort of beer release at our brewery, that would not be allowed. That would ban other sorts of marketing.” Taprooms and tasting rooms are a relatively new phenomenon in Alaska. They were not allowed in the state until 2006, when the Legislature passed a bill to authorize them with a number of regulations like the limitations on gaming. Since then, the craft brewing industry in the state has exploded. Before 2001, only a handful of breweries existed. Today, there are dozens all over the state, many with taprooms and tasting rooms of their own. Some distribute to package stores and bars, like Juneau’s Alaskan Brewing Co., while others simply sell growlers at their manufacturing location or glasses in a restaurant, like Soldotna’s St. Elias Brewing Co. Even as overall beer consumption has decreased in the U.S., craft beer consumption has increased. In 2018, craft brewer sales by volume increased 4 percent, reaching 13.2 percent of the national beer market according to the National Brewers Association. Craft “micro” beer is also more valuable than large, “macro” beer; though it’s only 13.2 percent of the total beer sales by volume, it made up more than 24 percent of the total dollar value nationally. Some of the conflict is over whether bars and taprooms draw the same customers. The Brewers Guild of Alaska says that’s not a full picture of why bars may have seen business decline since taprooms and tasting rooms began operating, as there are a number of complicated factors in the state such as an ongoing recession, Ellis said. “I would say that our customers are driven to come to our facilities for a specific reason,” he said. “I don’t know if we didn’t exist that a bar would fill that niche for them. The way that we see it is that we are drawing out a customer that might not be going out to get a beer otherwise.” Another aspect of the conflict dates back to Alaska’s regulation structure post-Prohibition. Traditionally, there are three tiers of alcohol distribution: manufacturer, distributor and retailer. With the advent of taprooms, manufacturers have been able to bypass the other two tiers and sell directly to consumers. Glenn Brady, who owns Fairbanks-area brewery Silver Gulch Brewing Co. and serves on the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, said the three-tier system was originally intended to keep one tier from gaining too much power over another. While the regulations seem onerous, he says they may have helped set the stage for the boom in craft breweries happening all over the country. “It’s fabulous to see the resurgence since Prohibition of local manufacturers,” he said. “A lot of people are doing interesting and unique things …. That’s the good part. The difficult part of it is that some see it as the erosion (of the three-tier system, and) some see it as a zero-sum game.” The craft beer, wine and spirits stakeholder group has grown significantly since 2006, both on the manufacturer side and the consumer side, Brady said. There were compromises made then to get the bill through, including the restrictions on activities in taprooms and tasting rooms, he said. There has been a lot of discussion since the proposal was announced, but Brady emphasized that these are just proposed regulations that are out for public comment and still have to be approved by the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board before going into effect. The public comment period runs until Oct. 4, at which point staff from the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office will compile comments for the board members to review. The proposed regulations are a revision to an existing regulation, so the Legislature does not have to be involved to deal with it; the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board could pass a revision on its own after debate. However, the last time a controversial revision to alcoholic beverage regulation came before the board in 2017, when the board debated banning distilleries from serving cocktails in their tasting rooms, the Legislature stepped in. However, the Legislature plays a key role in another large issue facing the alcohol industry in the future: a rewrite of the Title 4 statutes regulating alcohol businesses. Legislators have been debating different versions of bills to rewrite the statute for the last three years, but disagreements among legislators and in the industry have held the bills up. The rewrite was on track to pass in 2018, but a last-minute amendment by former bar owners Reps. Adam Wool, D-Fairbanks, and Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, that would have cut the allowable amount of drinks at tasting rooms by a third (from three to two) killed the bill before the session expired. Ellis said the BGA and the Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, or CHARR, have been meeting this summer to discuss language for the Title 4 rewrite, working toward an agreement on revisions. “We’ve had certain legislators that very much side with bars, they’re very much concerned about them,” he said. “We’ve tried for three years in a row to get this thing through. We decided we’re going to sit down this summer and decided on language we need to change.” The proposed regulations have thrown some additional difficulty into the task of resolving the conflicts in the industry, wrote Sarah Oates, the executive director of CHARR, in an email. “While I sincerely believe that setting clear and consistent expectations and requirements certainly helps prevent confusion and frustration on all sides, Alaska CHARR has not yet taken a position on whether the proposed changes are appropriate or reasonable,” she said. Elizabeth Earl can be reaced at [email protected]

Ombudsman finds Board of Fisheries violated law on Upper Cook Inlet vote

First it was scheduled to be in Kenai. Then it was yanked back to Anchorage. Now, the location of the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting is up in the air again. The Alaska State Ombudsman, which investigates complaints against state agencies, found in a report released Sept. 3 that the Board of Fisheries violated the Open Meetings Act when the members voted this past January to reconsider the location for the 2020 meeting and that the manner in which the vote was taken called into question whether chair Reed Morisky and other members “acted in good faith.” The fix? They’ll vote on the location again at the upcoming work session from Oct. 23-24 in Anchorage. A confidential complaint was filed with the ombudsman’s office in May 2019, according to the report. A draft investigation was finished in July, and the Board of Fisheries responded on Aug. 15. “The Ombudsman recognizes that the decision to set a meeting location may be, in some circumstances, a purely ministerial action,” the report states. “However, in this instance, the Board itself has noted that ‘one of the most divisive issues it faces almost every year is not a regulatory subject, but rather where to hold the Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting.’ As such, the Board should exercise increased diligence to ensure that its decisions on this issue are beyond reproach, to include strict adherence to the Open Meetings Act.” In a response to the findings, Morisky wrote that the board will reconsider the location at the upcoming work session, when the board normally discusses locations for upcoming in-cycle meetings, and will issue notice in accordance with the Open Meetings Act. At the same time, the board will reconsider a policy previously passed that would formally set the Upper Cook Inlet meeting locations on a rotating schedule between Palmer/Wasilla, Anchorage and Kenai/Soldotna to “determine if it has any future viability,” Morisky wrote. “It is within the board’s purview to revoke a policy,” he wrote. The Upper Cook Inlet meeting location is a perpetual source of controversy. With nearly half the state’s population and large stakeholder groups in sport, commercial, subsistence and personal-use fisheries, the Cook Inlet basin is one of the most heavily fished areas in the state. The Board of Fisheries makes allocation and fisheries management decisions that are often controversial, and the Upper Cook Inlet meeting is the longest, lasting about two weeks. Stakeholders often have to travel to the location to participate in board proceedings. Kenai Peninsula residents have been asking for the Board of Fisheries to hold a meeting on the central Kenai Peninsula for at least a decade. The last time the board held a meeting there was in 1997; the meetings have been in Anchorage since. Stakeholders contend that it is more expensive and onerous for them to travel to Anchorage, where they have to pay for hotels and travel long distances through the mountains in the winter, than for Mat-Su and Anchorage residents, who can stay at home and attend the meetings. Board members have consistently voted to keep the meetings in Anchorage, citing the expense of holding it on the Kenai Peninsula or the neutrality of Anchorage as a meeting location. At the March 2018 meeting, board members voted 4-2 in favor of holding the 2020 in-cycle meeting in Soldotna and to adopt a proposed policy to rotate the meetings on a regular basis between the three major communities of the Cook Inlet basin. However, the following January at the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim in-cycle meeting, Morisky raised the issue again in the middle of the meeting and called a vote, which proceeded 4-3 in favor of moving the meeting back to Anchorage. The ombudsman’s report cites the lack of public notice on the debate at the January meeting as a major reason for the finding. “Despite the paucity of the notice given of the addition of the UCI Finfish meeting location to the January 2019 meeting, interested members of the public managed to learn of the change and travel more than 100 miles to attend,” the report states. “Then, the Board Chairperson by his own admission told representatives from the Kenai/Soldotna area that the matter wouldn’t be taken up — only to introduce the matter for a vote later the same day, after they had gone. “This not only violates the spirit and the letter of the Open Meetings Act, it brings into question whether the Board Chairperson and members acted in good faith.” The composition of the Board of Fisheries has changed since the January 2019 meeting. Former board member Robert Ruffner, who lives in Soldotna and advocated for the meeting to be held on the Kenai Peninsula, has been replaced, as has board member Al Cain, who proposed the policy that would rotate the meeting locations between the three communities. Former board member Orville Huntington has moved to the Board of Game as well. The governor has appointed three new members: Marit Carlson-Van Dort of Anchorage, John Wood of Willow and Gerard Godfrey of Eagle River. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska hospitals take advantage of tech to coordinate care

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Rachel Lieber's last name and the estimated number of hospitals in Collective Medical's network.  It’s pretty easy for patients to disappear in the labyrinth of the medical system. Alaska’s hospitals are trying to make sure that it’s much harder. By late August, more than a dozen Alaska hospitals were live on a technology platform run by Collective Medical that allows them to see a patient’s medical history upon arriving at their emergency departments. That’s somewhat novel; without it, hospitals would have to gather all the information they could from the patient and request any prior information from other emergency rooms and other hospitals to put together a medical history. “For years, I have worked in emergency departments where there is a book somewhere where there are care plans for our patients,” said Dr. Keri Gardner, the chief medical officer at Alaska Regional Hospital. “That care plan, instead of just being at Alaska Regional, will now be visible to (any hospital in the network).” Alaska Regional Hospital’s Emergency Department went live on Collective Medical’s platform in early August. It’s easy to use and embedded in the hospital’s electronic medical record system, Gardner said. The providers there recognize the value in being able to see a patient’s recent emergency room visits, prescription history and other records. Collective Medical, a 10-year-old company with about 1,000 hospitals in its network around the country, collects information from hospitals’ emergency departments and runs it through its platform, sending notifications to emergency departments where a patient is also seen to provide more information. It runs through an HL-7 interface and is Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act-compliant, said Rachel Lieber, the northwest region manager for Collective Medical. Beyond the medical side, the system also provides another notification of interest: safety threats. Assaults and threats against emergency department staff happen all over the country, including in Alaska. Lieber said the safety notifications came up fairly early in Collective Medical’s development. “Knowing how often your staff are facing assault, aggression or violence helps you know what your staff are dealing with in the workplace,” Lieber said. How a hospital deals with safety issues for staff varies from patient to patient, Gardner said. The safety flags can also help protect other patients. For example, if an incoming patient may be a threat to other people in the emergency room, he or she could be placed in a separate room, she said. “This is a big issue in Anchorage,” she said. “The health care workers who staff emergency departments are at risk. I have personally experienced and personally witnessed injuries to emergency department workers ranging from cuts and bruises to broken bones.” Gardner pointed to the leadership of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association in getting all the hospitals in Alaska to invest in the same platform. Lieber said Collective Medical began working with providers in the state about four years ago, around the same time that ASHNHA began its care coordination initiative. Care coordination is a key reason for choosing the program, along with improving emergency department utilization, said Becky Hultberg, CEO of ASHNHA. Other hospitals in the network have documented 15 percent decreases in emergency department utilization and 10 percent utilization decreases among frequent emergency department users. “Along with improving patient care, reducing avoidable hospital admission and readmissions and (streamlining) transition to post-acute care providers are often cited by hospitals as the biggest benefits of using the Collective platform,” Hultberg wrote in an email. Gardner said another important driver of the program is cost reduction and improved value. Being able to see which procedures and prescriptions a patient has undergone recently may inform care and reduce overutilization, especially on controlled prescription drugs. Over-utilization of emergency departments at hospitals is a major issue nationally. Emergency services are one of the most expensive ways to receive health care, but studies have shown that some individuals are visiting emergency departments more than a dozen times per year. Alaska has a handful of these individuals as well, known as “superutilizers,” who are responsible for a major chunk of the emergency room costs annually. In 2016, the top 6 percent of emergency department users accounted for 23.8 percent of the charges, or about $148 million, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Some have suggested one of the reasons individuals may be over-using the emergency departments is that they do not have adequate access to behavioral or primary care services. The Collective Medical platform works with providers of various specialties and populations, including jail clinics and behavioral health providers, which helps connect different points in the care continuum, Lieber said. “The emergency room may be the best place to interact with some individuals that are facing housing insecurity or homelessness, or are challenged by mental health disorders or substance abuse,” she said. “Sometimes the emergency room, while we want to make sure we’re using it appropriately, might also help us start conversations with individuals who may not otherwise have access to a primary care.” Whether because of health care record privacy laws or because of insular operations, hospitals and health care organizations do not always communicate. An effort like this is helpful, Gardner said. “It’s unusual to see hospitals working together at this level, and it’s refreshing to see,” she said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

State continues process for behavioral health Medicaid waiver

About three years after starting the process, the state is finally moving forward with a plan to try something different with behavioral health patients on Medicaid in an effort to reduce costs. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has been in the process of applying for a Section 1115 waiver through the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services since 2017 under former Gov. Bill Walker, which would allow the state to use Medicaid funding on non-traditional services for patients with behavioral health and substance use disorders. The waivers, which target innovative practices not usually authorized by Medicaid, are intended to help states demonstrate a way to reduce health care costs while still providing care. The origin of the program goes back to 2016, when the Legislature passed a Medicaid reform bill and directed the DHSS to apply for the waiver, said Gennifer Moreau-Johnson, the director of the DHSS Division of Behavioral Health. Behavioral health is the lynchpin to Medicaid reform, she said; without an effective behavioral health system, underlying problems driving costs will remain. But it may not necessarily fit into the same screening tools as other medical procedures like measuring height and weight. Without an effective continuum of care that emphasizes intervention, behavioral health issues escalate into crises. “If you think of Medicaid as a health care model, behavioral health doesn’t fit really neatly into the model,” she said. The federal government fast-tracked the portion of the application related to substance use disorders, approving it in November 2018 with an effective date of Jan. 1, which allowed the state to get the ball rolling on providing those services. The state is expecting approval for the behavioral health section any day, Moreau-Johnson said. Behavioral health services in the state suffer from both a lack of availability in all communities and overuse at the acute end of the care spectrum. By the time patients access services, they are typically at a critical stage, and families may be broken up as children are put into the care of the Office of Children’s Services. Inpatient services are limited in Alaska, with only a set number of beds available at Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage. The waiver targets three specific populations: children, adolescents and their parents or caretakers with or at risk of mental health and substance use disorders; transitional age youth and adults with acute mental health needs; and adolescents and adults with substance use disorders. In addition to the difficulty for patients, delivering acute care for behavioral health disorders is often the most expensive. That is a key opportunity to reduce costs, said Farina Brown, the deputy director of the Division of Behavioral Health. The waiver program helps expand the number of services that are eligible to bill Medicaid, such as the standardized screening for mental health and substance use disorders, and community-based outpatient services and mental health day treatment. That draws down federal funds to help support services that are needed or are already being provided rather than relying on state funds. In some cases, what the division has done has been to align service codes to make services clearer to bill, Brown said. The waiver is authorized for five years. However, the state has to complete a number of evaluations along the way, Moreau-Johnson said. The program has to show budget neutrality to the federal government and, in the case of the cash-strapped state government, show savings, she said. “Section 1115 waivers get evaluated to a degree that no other waiver does,” she said. “We are, for example, required to hire an outside evaluator. We also have a contract with an outside actuarial firm.” Originally, the state applied for both the behavioral health and substance use disorder components. Because the federal government fast-tracked the substance abuse portion, the state was able to get some of the components in place earlier, Moreau-Johnson said. Currently, 96 sites are operating around the state, with the majority clustered in urban areas but nine “early adopters” operating in more rural areas, she said. Capacity is a major concern. The workforce and facility availability in Alaska is already limited, and Moreau-Johnson said providers and organizations in behavioral health identified workforce as a top concern for behavioral health service expansion. The state has contracted with Optum, an outside organization that provides various services for health plans and population health management, as an administrative services organization to help offset the capacity issue. One of the key goals of the program is to help keep individuals from having to leave their communities to obtain quality mental health services, she said. “We want to reduce the number of people being treated out of state but also the people going to Anchorage for treatment,” she said. Brown noted that a recent bill passed by the Legislature also expands provider eligibility to licensed medical family therapists and licensed clinical social workers, who can provide family therapy as an early intervention. Though the cost savings are a major driver for implementing the program, Brown added that providing behavioral health care for individuals who need it should still be the purpose. “This is really about providing services to those in need, to meet folks where they’re at, helping providers serve people,” she said. “At the end of the day, this is about changing people’s lives.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Partnership mines old gold while reclaiming Fortymile

Tailings from placer mining operations a century ago have left some streams in Interior Alaska less than ideal for fish. Miners caused the damage, and now miners are trying to fix it. And in the process, they get some gold out of it. Up on Jack Wade Creek, a tributary of the Fortymile River east of Fairbanks, the Salmon Gold project is entering its second year of operation. Existing placer miners in the area are working with RESOLVE, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, to re-mine old sites on the river and then reclaim the bank with vegetation, restabilization and restored river structure. The goal is to make the rivers more habitable for fish — not just salmon — and to pull out some of the remaining gold in the process. The project just delivered its first batch of gold to refiners, on its way to companies like Apple and Tiffany &Co. So far, it’s only produced about 1,000 ounces among three sites, but RESOLVE and the miners hope to scale it up into a self-sustaining operation in the future, said President Stephen D’Esposito. The project dates back to when he spent time in Canada and saw some of the damage in creeks that had hosted placer mining in the past. “It was the first time I had seen placer and the historical impacts of placer mining — sediment in streams, that kind of thing,” he said. “And about four years ago, when I was doing some work in Alaska, talking to mining industry people, conservation groups, I hadn’t really known that there was a historical impact of placer mining (in Alaska). My thought was if you could pull the gold back out of the tailings and work hard at reclamation, that could be a really interesting combination.” RESOLVE is a nonprofit, and operating mining equipment is expensive. D’Esposito said he quickly realized buying equipment and running its own mining operation wouldn’t be economically feasible, so instead began to look around for partners. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management was already working with placer miners on federal lands on how to allow mining operations while mitigating damage and restoring fish habitat. Dean Race on Jack Wade Creek, Peter Wright on Sulphur Creek in the Yukon Territory and Tod Bauer on Gold Creek near Talkeetna are partnering with the project so far. Through the BLM, D’Esposito said the organization was able to find three miners to work with on Jack Wade Creek, Sulphur Creek and Gold Creek. Operations began in 2018, and though they weren’t expecting to recover any gold that year, they were able to extract about 50 ounces from the Fortymile River drainage. By comparison, the Fort Knox Gold Mine near Fairbanks produced 255,569 gold-equivalent ounces in 2018, according to the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. The production volume was never going to be extremely high, D’Esposito said — the main goal is to find ways to reclaim stream habitat for fish, and the gold can help provide marketable support for that. “In stage one right now, it’s commercial in certain aspects, but it’s mostly philanthropic,” he said. “In the second stage we get to, as we scale up, RESOLVE will keep raising money to figure out how it can work, and we need to find long-term funding sources.” Tiffany &Co. and Apple also help supply some of the funding at this stage, D’Esposito said. As they go forward, the companies hope to scale up to other streams and other miners, allowing the project to become self-sustaining. But at the same time, the companies and miners recognize that the process and model is still experimental, he said. It may also be a step forward on another front: compensatory mitigation. Under the Clean Water Act, all mining companies have to perform offsetting mitigation measures to compensate for the loss of or adverse effects on aquatic resources or habitat. In the past, mining companies have taken such actions as buying land and setting a conservation easement on it, which will prevent it from being developed. But in a case like Salmon Gold, the re-mining of old placer mining sites and the stream reclamation along the way may be able to be counted as a sort of bank for compensatory mitigation purposes, said Steve Cohn, the former state deputy director for resources for the BLM in Alaska. Under the Clean Water Act, some operators act as “mitigation banks.” Essentially, a party can purchase a damaged site and restore it, and work with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to then sell compensatory mitigation credits in connection with that restoration. How many credits the work is worth is up to an interagency review team, but developers who need to account for compensatory mitigation for a project may buy those credits to offset adverse impacts. “(Miners) are required to reclaim, but there’s a difference between reclaiming a site … and restoring it,” he said. “There’s a delta in there, and that delta could be turned into a profit. It hasn’t really materialized yet, but it’s one of the ideas that’s hopefully still being explored.” Cohn said there has been a history of tension between miners and the BLM over standards for reclamation, particularly in areas of the Fortymile River, which has more than a century of mining history but was also designed a Wild and Scenic River by Congress in 1980 in a number of places. Wild and Scenic River designations limit some development activities. In an effort to work with the miners and to restore some of the fish habitat, the BLM began convening meetings with stakeholders through the Resource Advisory Council. “I feel like the miners are very well-intentioned people and they’re willing to try different things if it makes sense to them and it fits within their business model,” Cohn said. “(The Wild and Scenic designation was) almost set up for conflict. It really set up the BLM and the miners to be in conflict in some ways. Both entities have tried hard to find some middle ground, and that resource advisory council really helped serve as a mediator.” D’Esposito said as the project moves forward, RESOLVE will be working on bringing additional placer miners interested in reclamation work in, and how to coordinate the differences in sites as it expands to different creeks. The suppliers are interested, placer miners showed support as well. “There’s an appetite, there’s a hunger out there for this kind of project, which is interesting,” he said. “I’ve really been quite impressed with the placer miners, how interested they are in this working. Even though I think people were skeptical that this would actually produce gold, they’re rooting for us.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Drought and dry conditions impacting salmon across state

This summer has been hot and dry in Alaska — so hot, in fact, that even the fish are feeling it. All over coastal Alaska, temperatures have hovered significantly greater than normal. The state began sweltering in mid-June and crested on July 4, with Anchorage hitting 90 degrees Fahrenheit and Bethel reaching 91. The bright, sunny days brought Alaskans out to swim and recreate, but they also left the waters where salmon were returning exposed to the direct, unforgiving heat. Shallower lakes and rivers across Southcentral and Southeast Alaska were the first to heat up. In the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, lakes like Larsen and Judd, where the Alaska Department of Fish and Game operates weirs for sockeye salmon, reached 80 degrees. The Kuskokwim River in western Alaska registered water temperatures about 10 degrees greater than normal, likely contributing to a reported salmon die-off as the fish headed upstream. On the lower Kenai Peninsula, the Anchor River hit its warmest temperature on record on July 7: 73 degrees. It’s dropped since then to about 66.2 degrees, but the spike was troubling, said Sue Mauger, a scientist with Homer-based conservation nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper. The lack of rain has contributed to the temperature increases too. “I think (the snow) melted out fast,” she said. “It takes a really long time for that volume of water (after a rain event) to warm up again … a rain event can be really significant in these streams.” Mauger runs a network of stream temperature monitors on 48 creeks around the Cook Inlet watershed through Cook Inletkeeper. Of the four streams she monitors in real time — the Anchor, the Russian River, the Deshka River and Crooked Creek, near the Kasilof River — all have been above normal temperatures except for the Russian River. Though the Russian is a clear water river, it’s likely buffered by its connection to two large, deep lakes at higher elevations near Cooper Landing. The Deshka’s elevated temperature — more than 81 degrees Fahrenheit on July 7 — was troubling to more than just people. July is normally the height of the king salmon return to the Deshka, but from July 1 to 9, a total of 13 individual king salmon passed the weir, according to Fish and Game. Numbers increased afterward, with nearly 2,000 passing from July 11 to 17, but soon plummeted again. ADFG has also closed fishing for silvers on the Deshka and Little Susitna rivers until the end of September. “As soon as the temperature dropped a little bit, hundreds were coming in,” she said. “Clearly, we are seeing the behavior of holding in cooler water.” In Prince William Sound, managers reported having slow escapements of pink salmon but reports of large aggregations of fish milling in the salt water, which made it difficult to plan fishing periods, as the management systems are based on inriver escapement. Prince William Sound does not currently have any offshore test fisheries to gauge salmon return indices in the marine waters for fishing periods, so managers and fishermen were stuck waiting for salmon to be ready to head up the creeks. The one exception has been glacially fed creeks. Not only are water levels relatively normal or high on glacial river systems, their temperatures are also closer to normal. The Copper River experienced record water levels on both ends of the spectrum this year — it was the lowest recorded level ever when Fish and Game put in the sonar in the spring and it hit its highest level ever later in the year — but the temperature has been relatively closer to normal, said Stormy Haught, a research biologist with the Fish and Game commercial division in Cordova. “Any glacial streams are doing much better than groundwater, rainfall streams,” he said. “Part of it is snowpack; we’ve had a lot of hot weather so there’s just not a lot of source for these streams. Copper River has been high and doesn’t seem like any major temperature anomalies this year.” The groundwater and snow-fed systems are low, and some are simply drying up. In Prince William Sound, dewatering is relatively normal for some systems; on Montague and Hinchinbrook islands, some short streams can dry up even in wet years, Haught said. However, even normally stable creeks are experiencing extremely low water levels. In Southeast, the Stikine River’s most recent discharge level was below the 25th percentile, according to the U.S. Geological Survey; the Situk River near Yakutat is below its lowest recorded discharge level, as of Monday. Most of Southcentral and Southeast Alaska are officially in drought stages, according to the National Integrated Drought Information System. About 21 percent of the state is abnormally dry, but not officially in a drought, while some areas in southern Southeast are in extreme drought as rain continues not to fall. In Cordova, a city that usually receives about a dozen inches of rain even in the summer months, public works officials have been urging people not to water their lawns, wash their cars or water down the dust on the dry roads. Public Works Director Samantha Greenwood said it’s a game of trying to keep up with the salmon processing plants, which are now receiving some of their largest deliveries of pink salmon all year. The processors can use millions of gallons of water per day to keep up with operations, and the city can only process so much a day. “I send an email to the processors, who’ve been great at trying to turn water off whenever they can,” she said. As of Aug. 19, fishermen in Prince William Sound had harvested about 30.2 million pink salmon in one of their strongest weekly harvests so far this season. But as the sun continues to shine, Cordova’s reservoirs are dropping now, unable to be recharged by lakewater. The city’s website asks residents to conserve water as much as possible. Upstream, with the low water levels and high temperatures, salmon may be entering a difficult environment. In Bristol Bay, salmon die-offs were reported in the Igushik River in June, likely due to hypoxic conditions as salmon packed into the river and would not pass upstream through pocket of warm water. As more salmon pack into less water, they deplete the oxygen supply and can suffocate. Because pink salmon tend to spawn low in the river systems or in the intertidal zone, they may do fine in Prince William Sound, Haught said. “The beauty of salmon is that they have these (variable) life histories, and that’s what helps them survive these environmental events,” he said. “That said, yeah, it’s fairly ugly out there. A fish can’t swim into a stream if there’s no water.” Mauger said it’s hard to know if salmon will have spawning success, even if they were counted on weirs — there may have been enough water downstream, but maybe the spawning grounds were cut off or too shallow. The low water levels are also leaving gravel bars — prime salmon spawning habitat — high and dry, she said. And if the water levels continue to drop after salmon have laid their eggs, exposed eggs will dry out and die as well. Cook Inletkeeper produced projections for water temperatures in different case scenarios for climate change in 2004, projecting out to 2069. This summer saw the Deshka’s water temperature crest above what the models predicted would happen by 2069, Mauger said, putting the temperature increases 50 years ahead. “I think it’s important that people realize that this is the new reality of where we are and where we’re headed,” she said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Sockeye harvests wind down; pinks and chums slow going

As Alaska’s salmon fisheries transition away from sockeye and kings to pinks and chums, the harvest results so far look mixed. May, June and July are the main harvest months for sockeye salmon across Alaska, beginning in Prince William Sound and reaching a crescendo in Bristol Bay throughout July. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasted a total sockeye harvest of 41.7 million sockeye salmon for the 2019 season. Some sockeye are still being harvested, but as of Aug. 11, the count stood at 53.7 million sockeye, more than 43.1 million of which came from Bristol Bay. Bristol Bay’s harvest blows away even the large harvest from 2018 of 41.7 million, though it didn’t quite reach the all-time record. The Prince William Sound harvest is about 2.5 million sockeye, and the Cook Inlet harvest is about 1.9 million as of Aug. 13. The Kodiak harvest was about 1.64 million as of Aug. 13. While Prince William Sound’s sockeye harvest is close to its preseason forecast, Upper Cook Inlet fishermen are about 1.5 million fish shy of their preseason forecast of about 3 million sockeye. Constrained by low late-run king salmon returns to the Kenai River, managers closed setnet fishing in the Upper Subdistrict on the eastern shore of Cook Inlet on Aug. 5 and Aug. 8, with a possibility of reopening if king salmon escapements improve on the Kenai. The closure continued Aug. 12 for Upper Subdistrict setnetters. The drift fleet was scheduled to fish its normal period. “Kenai River late-run king salmon escapement will continue to be monitored on a daily basis and if escapement projections estimate the SEG (sustainable escapement goal) will be achieved, the Upper Subdistrict set gillnet fishery may be reopened,” the closure announcement stated. The commercial closures to shield kings come at the cost of exceeding escapement goals in the Kenai River; as of Aug. 12, more than 1.7 million sockeye had passed the sonar in the Kenai, about 400,000 fish more than the upper end of the in-river goal and 500,000 fish more than the upper end of the sustainable escapement goal. The Kasilof River sonar has counted about 376,184 sockeye as of Aug. 11, greater than the upper end of the biological escapement goal for that river but still within the optimum escapement goal. And so far, pink and chum results across the state are tepid at best. The statewide preseason forecast predicted a rosy harvest of 137.8 million pinks and 29 million chum, which would have been a record chum harvest. Though pink harvest has been good in Kodiak so far — as of Aug. 13, fishermen there are on their way to the preseason forecast of 27 million with 14.4 million harvested so far — it hasn’t lived up to expectations in Prince William Sound yet. As of Aug. 12, only 17.6 million pinks had been harvested in Prince William Sound. At this point, nearly 25 million pinks would need to be harvested per statistical week through the end of the season to reach the forecast, and the odds of those numbers appearing are relatively low. Warm weather and drought conditions in Prince William Sound may be holding back escapements, though. Purse seine commercial fishery manager Charles Russell said the escapements of pink salmon into streams across the region have been delayed as fish shy away from the extremely warm water in creeks, waiting for temperatures to cool and rain to fall. “We were already in a drought scenario moving into the season, and that heatwave just exacerbated the situation,” he said. “In the low water and extremely warm water temps we were seeing around the sound, salmon were holding offshore. They didn’t have any urge to move into stream mouths like they typically do. It’s delayed the fisheries here. Obviously, we manage on escapement in streams, and if we don’t get escapement in streams, it’s hard to justify a fishery.” Catches are improving, though, after a slow start. The aquaculture associations have met their cost recovery goals and escapements are catching up, Russell said. However, with underperformance from the Solomon Gulch Hatchery — the run is estimated to finish at about 10 million to 12 million pinks as opposed to the 20 million forecasted — it seems unlikely that the area will reach its preseason forecast of 64 million fish, he said. Chum runs look likely to disappoint, too. Southeast Alaska’s salmon hatcheries had collectively projected about 10 million chum salmon to be harvested in that area, courtesy of a large parent year return. However, that run has yet to materialize, and at this point seems unlikely. As of Aug. 9, commercial fishermen had harvested about 2.5 million chum. “Based on our harvest so far, it looks like we’re going to have one of the lower harvests since the program for chum salmon began,” said Andrew Piston, a research biologist with Fish and Game’s Division of Commercial Fisheries in Ketchikan. “Over the last decade, (the chum harvest) averaged about 10 million, and the way things are shaping up, we’ll be lucky to get about half that.” It’s hard to say what happened to the chum salmon that were predicted to come back this year. The forecasts for chum are produced by the hatcheries, which collectively produce about 90 percent of the chum harvested in Southeast Alaska. The wild stocks are returning in decent numbers, but the hatcheries are having trouble harvesting enough chum, Piston said. Southeast is about on track to meet its forecasted pink salmon harvest, Piston said, but that wasn’t high to begin with — about 18 million pinks total. There has been very little opportunity in northern Southeast, which is divided roughly at Sumner Strait near Wrangell, but southern Southeast has harvested about 9 million pinks as of Aug. 12. The low abundance of hatchery chums wouldn’t change ADFG managers’ fishing strategies for the commercial fleet, Piston said; as long as the wild stocks are meeting their goals, they’ll continue to fish as normal. “We wouldn’t not let our fishermen fish on wild stocks because there aren’t enough hatchery fish,” he said. Though it’s struggling for pinks so far, Prince William Sound is doing just fine for chum salmon — about 82 percent greater than last year’s catch, and above the preseason forecast of about 2.8 million. As of Aug. 13, just shy of 5 million chums had been harvested in Prince William Sound, according to ADFG. Russell said the hatcheries were expecting a good harvest this year based on past returns, and the same pattern played out with chums as with pinks — many fish were caught milling around in the sound. As of Aug. 12, fishermen across the state had harvested just more than 120.7 million salmon. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Juneau Assembly gives greenlight to on-site consumption

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify the American Lung Association’s position on marijuana smoke. Cannabis retailers in Alaska’s capital city will soon be able to offer spaces for customers to consume cannabis in their stores. The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly approved an ordinance last week allowing licensed marijuana retail shops to legally open on-site consumption areas. Within Juneau, smoking will be allowed in outside areas only, while edibles can be consumed indoors or outdoors. The Assembly had been discussing it for a few months, following the Marijuana Control Board’s approval of a regulations package. Lt. Gov. Kevin Meyer signed the initial regulations into law in March, allowing retailers to work on their applications for on-site consumption endorsements to be added to their licenses. The regulations became effective April 11. However, no one has made it through the rigor of the application process yet. The Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office has received two applications so far, one of which from Fairbanks has gone to the board and was denied at its July meeting, wrote AMCO Executive Director Erika McConnell in an email. The board still has an open regulations project about on-site consumption, which is set to go before the members at the September meeting, she added. “Since the adoption of the initial regulations, some issues have arisen that need clarity, so the board has opened a new regulations project to do some ‘clean up’ to those regulations,” she wrote. “That project remains open and a revised draft will be provided to the board at the next meeting.” Under proposed regulations, any retailer can open a consumption space for edibles, but in order to have an outdoor smoking space, the building has to be freestanding. The applicant that was denied, the Fairbanks Cut, made a case to the board that its building is in fact freestanding, as it’s not supported by any other structure and the only other occupants are the landlords. Correspondence from AMCO staff noted that the application would be recommended as not meeting the freestanding requirement. “We have an agreement with them that our on-site consumption area will only be open when their office hours are closed,” wrote owner Lily Bosshart in a letter to the board. “As such, on-site would be open Monday-Friday from 5:30 p.m.–Midnight, Noon–Midnight Saturday and Sunday. We share the building in a collaborative way and are both on-board with a small on-site area to be built in the parking lot.” There are a number of other particulars with the on-site consumption endorsements as well, mostly for those who wish to open smoking areas. The regulations require that an outdoor smoking area also include a ventilation system, directing the air outside the building and eliminating the odor by the time it reaches the property line. But the practical application of a ventilation system for an outdoor facility that allows smoking is still a little unclear. The Legislature passed a statewide ban on smoking in workplaces in 2018 as well. That complicated the debate about whether an indoor smoking area for cannabis was legal, whether the business wanted to allow it or not. During the Juneau Assembly’s original debate, City Attorney Robert Palmer noted that if the assembly wanted to allow on-site cannabis smoking but not tobacco, the members would have to make a meaningful distinction between cannabis and tobacco. Before passing the ordinance on July 22, the Assembly members did have a fairly extensive debate to help clarify the differences. Palmer said he thinks the city is fairly clear, given that the memo outlines the various ways this ordinance differentiates marijuana from tobacco. The outlined points include items like consuming marijuana outdoors still protects workers, complies with indoor secondhand smoke laws in protecting the public, and serves the public interest by providing cruise ship passengers with a legal place to consume. Juneau’s sizeable cruise ship population currently has nowhere to go. “The big picture is that the assembly in Juneau decided that the smoking of marijuana at licensed retail stores is something lawful they want to allow,” he said. The main opposition to the legalization of on-site consumption came from the public health community and neighbors concerned about odor and smoke. The American Lung Association in Alaska says exposure to neither tobacco nor marijuana smoke is safe, said spokesperson Ashley Peltier in a written statement. “To fully protect our public health, we support and advocate for smokefree indoor and outdoor environments, and believe that everyone has the right to breathe smokefree air, which includes air free from marijuana smoke,” she wrote. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Kenai River sockeye push liberalizes bag limits; commercial catches rise

SOLDOTNA — After a slow start to their season, things are looking up for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen. Total salmon landings reached 1.4 million after the July 29 fishing period, with more than 1.1 million sockeye so far. The majority of those landings have come from the Central District drift gillnet fleet and east side setnets, with setnetters on the west side, Kalgin Island and in the Northern district bringing in about 150,000 salmon between them, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It’s hard to say whether the forecast of 6 million sockeye across all the systems of Upper Cook Inlet will materialize yet, but it’s definitely looking better than it was a few weeks ago, when Upper Cook Inlet fishermen were lagging significantly behind even their 2018 catch by this date. Last year was one of the worst years in recent memory for sockeye harvest for fishermen across the Gulf of Alaska, Cook Inlet included. On July 26, fisheries managers in Soldotna estimated that the Kenai River run is 2 to 4 days later than usual, but that it will likely be greater than 2.3 million. That’s on track with the preseason forecast of about 3 million. That’s much more on time than last year, when the run turned out to be at least a week later than usual. Even a run four to five days late can significantly interrupt fishing management plans in Upper Cook Inlet, where the interlocking user groups and their management plans keep operations fairly tight. The Kasilof River, about 12 miles to the south of the Kenai, is getting close to the upper end of its own escapement goal of 340,000 sockeye. As of July 29, 306,812 sockeye had passed on the sonar on that river. Commercial area management biologist Brian Marston said the managers will likely start opening up more hours in the Kasilof area to help control that escapement, with an eye toward not having to open the Kasilof Special Harvest Area. “We have several steps that we’re supposed to take before that, which is to use more hours than the management plans normally allow and also to not adhere to the (mandatory closure) windows,” he said. “The SHA is a last resort. The management plans actually state that you shall do extra hours and step on the windows before you do the SHA. Although it’s a good idea, it doesn’t function to really stop the river that well.” The SHA is a constrained terminal harvest area around the mouth of the Kasilof River, functioning as a last effort to control escapement to that river. Because of the tidal flats and constrained area, it’s relatively hard to fish. During the 2017 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting, the board members took several steps to help managers avoid having to use the SHA to control escapement, including expanding opportunities for the use of the 600-foot setnet fishery along the nearby beaches. The Kenai River is already within its sustainable escapement goal range, and as of Monday was within the inriver goal range of 1 million to1.3 million sockeye. The sustainable escapement goal is set for spawning; the in-river goal is designed to account for sportfishing harvest. Now it’s a game of controlling escapement to not exceed the upper end of the escapement goal using the commercial and sport fisheries. But one confounding factor is the king salmon run there. The kings are still returning to the Kenai, but only 8,615 large kings had passed the sonar as of July 29. The lower end of the escapement goal for late-run kings is 13,500. In trying to protect kings, the commercial area managers are somewhat hamstrung when trying to open setnets to harvest sockeye salmon in the Kenai River area. After Aug. 1, the managers get more hours as the restrictions on commercial fishing hours through the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan are lifted, Marston said. “As soon as we get out of the king plan at the end of the month, we have to still pay attention to the escapement of king salmon,” he said. The Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery closes on July 31 at 11:59 p.m. as well. Sport anglers will keep fishing, and ADFG sport fishing managers doubled the bag and possession limits to six per day with 12 in possession for the Kenai River downstream of Skilak Lake effective Sunday. They also increased the bag limits for sockeye in the Kasilof River Effective July 24 to six per day with 12 in possession. The personal-use dipnet fishery there will continue as well until Aug. 7. Pink and coho salmon are starting to show up as well, though this year is set to be a relatively weak pink year, as odd-numbered years are in Upper Cook Inlet. As of July 29, commercial fishermen had landed 83,307 coho salmon across Upper Cook Inlet, and though there are no escapement goals for coho salmon south of the Deshka River, Marston said there were signs the run could be strong this year. The Deshka River weir has counted 826 coho salmon as of July 29, ahead of last year on the same date. The northern streams are on target for their coho runs so far, and strong numbers have been showing up at Fish and Game’s weirs since the rain began last week. The run could still turn out to be unexceptional, as coho didn’t show up strongly in the test fishery numbers, but it could also be another excellent year, he said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bristol Bay sockeye harvest blowing away forecast once again

Bristol Bay is approaching the record for sockeye salmon harvest once again. As of July 21, fishermen in Bristol Bay’s five districts had harvested just more than 42 million salmon. More than 41.5 million of those were sockeye, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game; that’s already more than the 41.3 million sockeye harvested in 2018, the second-largest harvest on record. The largest harvest on record, which occurred in 1995, still stands at 44.2 million sockeye. The total return so far is about 53.6 million sockeye, significantly fewer than the record-breaking run of 62.3 million fish last year but already beyond the upper end of the preseason forecast range of 27.9 million to 52.4 million. Fishermen in the Nushagak district have been leading the area for total catch, but the Egegik isn’t far behind; both have topped 14 million sockeye. Bristol Bay west side area management biologist Tim Sands said he expects Egegik to catch the Nushagak area for total harvest soon. Fishermen in the Nushagak district, at least, have become more efficient in selecting their gear in recent years, which may be helping to boost the catch, he said. “The last two years we’ve had these really tremendous runs of two-ocean fish here in the Nushagak,” he said. “People probably saw fish going through their gear. I think there’s definitely been some learning going on.” So far, the processors in the region have been able to handle the landings without too much difficulty, he said. Fish are coming in relatively steadily, and with a reported price so far of $1.34 per pound on average, fishermen are poised to do fairly well this season again in Bristol Bay. However, there have also been some odd hallmarks to this season. June brought bright sunny days that led to skyrocketing water temperatures across Alaska, which can be bad news for salmon. Dead salmon have been reported floating in rivers in Norton Sound and in the Kuskokwim River. In Bristol Bay, warm water seems to be preventing salmon from moving upstream in at least one system: the Igushik River, a broad river on the western side of the Nushagak District. Sands said many systems across Alaska have seen salmon kills due to heat, including the Nushagak, but the Igushik in particular is having large numbers of them because warm water is blocking salmon from moving upstream. “The Igushik River itself is kind of an interesting river,” he said. “It’s really slow, a lot of tide and not a lot of flow. It’s more like a really long pond. Because of that, it’s much more susceptible to heating up. The warmer the water is, the less oxygen can dissolve in it. There’s a bunch of fish in the river holding, there’s less oxygen available.” Though other areas of Alaska aren’t quite having Bristol Bay’s luck for large sockeye returns, things aren’t going as poorly as last year. Prince William Sound fishermen have landed about 2.3 million sockeye as of July 21, with just shy of 1.2 million of those coming from the Copper River district. That’s about 300,000 fish more than the preseason point forecast of 955,000 fish. Fishermen in Prince William Sound are now shifting attention to pink salmon, which are forecasted to arrive in numbers close to 23 million between hatchery and wild production. Chignik has reported no landings so far this year, but that’s not because no fish are coming in; it’s because there aren’t enough processors in the area to require public disclosure of landing data. Dawn Wilburn, the area management biologist for salmon and herring in the Chignik Management Area, said the two processors taking fish in the Chignik area this year have not signed voluntary waivers for the disclosure of fish landing information, and by law, ADFG cannot disclose that data without them. There hasn’t been a lot of harvest yet anyway, she said. But the sockeye run does at least look better than last year, which brought a disastrously low run to Chignik and prompted a request for disaster support in the area. She said the Chignik River has not experienced the elevated temperatures other river systems in the state have, and there have been no fish die-offs reported there. “It’s a lot better than last year,” she said. “Our early run was pretty weak, and our late run is looking OK.” Things are still slow in Upper Cook Inlet, where fishermen are in the middle of their sockeye season. As of July 24, they’d harvested a total of 824,351 sockeye, about a quarter of the preseason forecast of 3 million sockeye. Sonar counts on the Kenai River are tracking ahead of 2018 and 2017 so far, with 525,936 sockeye having passed the counter as of July 24. The Kasilof River is tracking ahead of 2018, 2017 and 2016, according to ADFG sonar counts, with 238,463 fish having passed the counter as of July 22. Lower Cook Inlet should be ramping up soon, with pink salmon beginning to arrive in the various creeks and bays near Homer. Some of the creeks host sockeye and chum runs as well, with sockeye coming both from wild production and from the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association’s hatcheries. As of July 22, fishermen had harvested 194,476 sockeye — with 120,823 of those coming from the predominantly hatchery-produced run in Resurrection Bay — and 128,026 pink salmon. The forecast predicts about 2.4 million pinks to be available for commercial harvest district-wide. So far, ADFG hasn’t spotted any fish kills in aerial surveys of the Lower Cook Inlet streams, said Glenn Hollowell, the area management biologist for commercial salmon and herring fisheries in the area. Water temperatures may be a little cooler in the area due to cloud cover and smoke so far, he said. “I am concerned about warm water when they do show up and start moving into the rivers in big numbers,” Hollowell said. Resurrection Bay’s sockeye salmon run has actually significantly underperformed so far — though 120,823 sockeye have been harvested, that’s only about half what the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association projected it needed to harvest for cost recovery. The hatchery organization is still harvesting some fish at its Bear Lake weir, but those fish are not the same quality as the fish harvested in marine water and may not be able to be sold to the processor, said Dean Day, the executive director of CIAA. The organization tries to work around the recreational fishery in Resurrection Bay, which can hamper commercial fishermen as they try to harvest the sockeye for CIAA, Day said. ADFG raised the bag limit for sockeye in the Resurrection River this year from 6 to 12 per day because too many were making it upstream. He said CIAA may consider doing a creel survey on recreational fishermen in Resurrection Bay in the future to quantify how many fish are being taken in the sportfishery there, as the only data available now is the voluntary reporting ADFG collects in the annual Sport Fish Harvest Survey. “In the next couple of weeks I’ll be able to have a pretty good number on what we can estimate was our total return,” Day said. “But a huge unknown number is the fish harvested recreationally.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Providers await impacts of Medicaid cuts; dental services axed

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s cuts to the state Medicaid budget have providers holding their breaths as they wait to see the impacts. Dunleavy vetoed about $58 million of general fund support for Medicaid programs from the Legislature’s enacted budget on June 28. The Legislature, divided between special sessions in Wasilla and Juneau, failed to override the vetoes, and so the cut stands for now. Because Medicaid is a federally matched program, the dollars the state cuts lead to forfeited federal dollars as well. The $58 million general fund cut is compounded by those federal dollars, meaning at least $77 million less in total. Though there’s no immediate impact for hospitals, but one of their concerns is for the end of the next fiscal year, when money starts running out to reimburse providers. The state suspended payments for about two weeks in June due to a Medicaid funding shortfall, forcing hospitals to wait until the turnover of the fiscal year to be paid. While hospitals are again being paid, there’s the possibility that if funding is cut, the suspension could go on for longer next year, said Jeannie Monk, senior vice president of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “Right now, in terms of hospitals and Medicaid, everybody’s okay,” she said. One Medicaid service would be eliminated entirely if the vetoes stand: adult preventive dental medical coverage. Up until this year, Medicaid recipients were able to access preventive dental services such as cleanings and X-rays. Dunleavy vetoed $27 million supporting the program, which would stop the preventive program, though emergency situations would still be covered, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. Providers say it’s more than a luxury. During the regular session, legislators and providers argued for the retention of the program, saying it was an essential part of preventative health and provided opportunities for people to encounter the medical system who might not have otherwise gone in for a doctor’s appointment. Without the benefit, there’s a concern that those patients will just wind up in the emergency rooms with abscesses and acute dental conditions, Monk said. The same is true of the homeless population, with the vetoes applying to social services that help run homeless shelters. For patients at federally qualified health centers, that means paying a sliding scale fee. Though that fee reduces the patient’s cost, it’s still about 25 percent of the total charge, said Jon Zasada, the policy integration director for the Alaska Primary Care Association. “I think a lot of folks know that once you start doing the cleaning, fillings, and other procedures, it becomes a lot more expensive,” he said. “Let’s say a cleaning or a tooth pulling … a patient could easily have a bill that at full cost is multiple thousands of dollars, and then they would be responsible for $1,000, which they generally are not able to pay.” Other states who have cut their preventive dental services for Medicaid have studied and tracked increases in emergency room visits for dental reasons, Zasada said. Though that isn’t something Alaska has done in the past, it’s something the APCA will be looking into, in part because of the inefficiency of treating those problems in an expensive place like an emergency room, he said. “Certainly an abscess or an infection, when treated in an emergency room, is far more expensive than when it might be under control because someone has access to preventative care,” he said. At hospitals, those patients would be eligible for financial assistance, or charity care. Hospitals generally have to eat that cost later. That’s not the case for federally qualified health centers; they often have grants to help cover that shortfall from the sliding scale fee. But with more patients not able to pay for services, they may have to rely more on those backup funding sources. For the Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, that means probably looking for more grants to support their services and relying on patients who come with private insurance, said Tammy Green, the CEO of Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center. “We have figured out that we have a fair amount of our dental patients that are on Medicaid with our dental benefit,” she said. “We’re going to have to figure out where else to shoulder that in our business.” The Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center has integrated medical, dental and behavioral care, and patients who come in for dental services are frequently referred for medical services and vice versa. Without the dental benefit, patients may not be as likely to receive care in the first place, which may lead to more serious conditions down the road and may hamper their ability to get jobs. Green said a number of the patients who have had dental services have written to the clinics and said oral care played a role in their ability to be employable by correcting their speech or smiles. The other problem is that the caseload may go up as other providers in the area stop taking Medicaid patients, she said. “I think the other piece about these cuts is that in our community, the dentists will no longer be able to see the Medicaid patients and we are going to be deluged, but more importantly, I think the hospital emergency rooms are going to end up (seeing these patients),” she said. The House Finance Committee, meeting in Anchorage July 15, introduced House Bill 2001 to reinstate many of the cuts from the line-item vetoes, including Medicaid, and using remaining state funds to pay the Permanent Fund dividend. Zasada said the APCA hadn’t formally endorsed the bill, but “anything that would reinstate funding for broad health care services amongst all of the other things, we are supportive of.” During a press conference July 15, Dunleavy said his administration hadn’t had time to review the House’s new bill yet but planned to continue discussions with legislators later in the day. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cultivators still seeking changes to cannabis excise tax

Questions continue to bubble up about potential changes to state cannabis taxes to keep the current structure from hampering business in the future. Alaska voters legalized recreational marijuana use in 2014, but it took about 18 months for the first cultivators to be licensed and open their doors. When they did, they began paying into the cultivation tax that Alaska assesses on commercially grown marijuana. Generally, any part of bud or flower is taxed at $50 per ounce and the remainder of the plant is taxed at $15 per ounce. That tax is assessed entirely on weight, rather than scaling with price. According to growers, that’s going to be a problem. From the beginning of the program through April 30, the state has assessed more than $28.5 million in taxes. That’s just the cultivation taxes, as sales taxes are assessed by local governments. As cultivators have ramped up production to meet sales demands — retail sales reached $130.4 million in 2018, up from about $57.5 million in 2017 — that tax amount has gone up as well. Cultivators have had to account for it in their businesses and so far have been able to do so, in part because with limited supply, the price has stayed relatively high. That’s not always going to be the case, though, said Jana Weltzin, an attorney representing cannabis businesses through the firm JDW Counsel. “That price will go down because supply will go up, and the demand will stay the same,” she said. In a presentation to the Marijuana Control Board, she presented a case for the Legislature to consider changing the way taxes are assessed in the future to prevent the strangulation of businesses. Based on Notice of Violations, some businesses aren’t even keeping up with their taxes now, she said. The Marijuana Control Board does not have any control over tax policy; the Legislature has to set it by statute. Weltzin said she recognized that but wanted the board to be informed of the problem so they could help educate legislators and advocate for a policy change. Since the inception of the program, cannabis-related businesses have hired many of their own employees but have also led to work generated in ancillary businesses. Between the taxes and indirect economic impacts, the businesses have stimulated enough activity to create a return of about $3 per dollar spent, much at the local level, she estimated. But looking forward, the inflexible tax structure may put excessive pressure on cultivators. Because Alaska assesses the tax based on weight, the amount that will be taxed will not change. The sale price will, and Alaska should respond by revising its tax structure to not jeopardize businesses, Weltzin said. She pointed to states like Nevada, which balances its tax revenue from cannabis between a 15 percent excise tax and a 10 percent sales tax. Colorado splits its revenue evenly, at 15 percent on both an excise and a sales tax, according to the Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Tax Foundation. Alaska, on the other hand, set a dollar amount per ounce rather than on a percentage. “We are the only solely based weight excise tax,” Weltzin said. “We maybe need to bob and weave and adjust our approach.” In a hypothetical example, she noted that a rough average of costs per month for a 5,000-square-foot cultivation facility at about $97,300 per month, not including rent and advertising. Based on the average sales price of $2,800 per pound, that leaves about $31,500 in profit to cover items like rent, advertising and local taxes. That doesn’t go a long way, and once the price begins to go down, that would cut into the profit. She suggested an approach like a 10 percent tax on sales from cultivators to manufacturers and a 10 percent tax on sales from manufacturers to retailers, but emphasized that this is not an industry-generated idea — it was just to get the conversation started, she said. “If we get tagged as the industry that doesn’t fulfill its tax obligations, most of the people aren’t going to understand that economically, with an inflexible price floor like we’ve set here with $800 per pound, it’s not possible,” she said. “While we strive to make the state money, the state needs to be our partner. The state needs to move and ebb and flow with the market like we do.” Board member Loren Jones said that while he understands the situation, consumers ought to be paying the taxes in the retail price because it should be built into cultivators’ business plans. The Legislature is unlikely to want to see the tax revenue go down, he said. In the case of local governments, businesses have to plan around local retail taxes when planning prices and expenses, he said. “If (businesses) say they can’t make money if they pay (local governments) the 5 percent, they’re doing it wrong,” he said. The Alaska Marijuana Industry Association hosted a call-in on the same topic on July 15 night and sent out a call for industry stakeholders to send in comments to the industry organization on the topic before July 22 to work on a proposal to send to the state. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet salmon fisheries into full swing after rough 2018

Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct that the 2018 Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery closed two days early. Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries are now in full swing, with promising sockeye returns finally showing up. East Side setnetters in the sections north of Kasilof opened for their first period July 8, and the personal-use dipnet fishery on the Kenai River opened July 10. They join the drift gillnet fleet and other Upper Cook Inlet setnetters as well as the inriver sportfishery and the Kasilof River personal-use fishery. As of July 8, nearly 80,000 sockeye salmon had passed the sonar in the Kenai River. That’s more than double the number that had passed through on the previous date in 2018, when only 37,513 had passed, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The Kasilof River sonar has registered about 98,635 sockeye, ahead of the 81,076 counted in 2018. Both rivers saw an uptick in daily passage on July 8 compared to July 7. Commercial fishermen throughout Upper Cook Inlet have harvested about 186,305 sockeye so far, according to ADFG. They’ve also harvested about 18,736 pink salmon, the second-largest component of their harvest so far. The pink salmon runs fluctuate wildly on a two-year basis in most areas, peaking in even years in Upper Cook Inlet. The run would normally be small this year, but ADFG has already had to apportion the pink salmon run within the sockeye run in the Kenai River. The managers run a fishwheel near the sonar site to help apportion the run when the pinks comprise more than 5 percent of the samples during the day. “The pinks in an odd year are usually earlier,” said Brian Marston, the commercial area management biologist for Upper Cook Inlet. “Now is exceptionally early for pinks.” The catch hasn’t been exceptionally high so far, he said. The managers apportioned both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers for about three days, but the passage on both rivers has dropped since then. Pink salmon usually peak in the area in early August. One of the major hallmarks of this summer so far has been the heat. Southcentral Alaska has smashed heat records in Anchorage and Kenai, with temperatures soaring into the upper 80s and up to 90 degrees on the Fourth of July. Along with the atmospheric heat, and possibly contributing to it, is increased sea surface temperatures across the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea. Data from the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks show that the waters around Cook Inlet are several degrees Celsius above average. While the effects of warmer ocean temperatures are unclear this summer so far, past studies have connected warmer water temperatures with changing marine organism behavior, including fish. So far, Marston said he hasn’t heard reports of particularly abnormal sockeye behavior. The lack of wind this summer may have made it harder for fishermen to hit aggregations of salmon, so members of the fleet have reported some tough fishing. The only direct data ADFG collects on sea surface temperature in Cook Inlet are with the Anchor Point test fishery, which takes place off the coast of Anchor Point as a way of gauging run timing coming into Cook Inlet. In the winter, ADFG collects data on the temperature of the Gulf of Alaska as a way of informing the run timing of the run the following year. Marston said the data they gathered this winter showed that the run this year is likely to be three or four days early. Stream temperatures are also significantly warmer than usual. The Kenai River at Soldotna, which is usually about 54 degrees Fahrenheit in July, measured at 64 degrees on July 9, according to the National Weather Service. Little Willow Creek in the Mat-Su Valley clocked in at 74 degrees. Those warm temperatures may discourage salmon from entering the lakes. Marston said the ADFG weirs in Mat-Su Valley lakes— Chelatna, Judd and Larson lakes — just went in and no fish have passed them yet, but with nearly 80 degrees measuring in some of the lakes, sockeye may not be eager to leave the cooler streams to head into the lakes. For all systems, ADFG is expecting about 6 million sockeye salmon to return to Upper Cook Inlet. With escapement goals totaling about 2 million, that leaves about 4 million for harvest, 3 million of which would go to the commercial fleet. The bulk of those sockeye are bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, the two largest producers in the inlet, followed by the Susitna River. The forecast, which is slightly greater than the 20-year average, was welcome news for fishermen, who endured one of their worst sockeye seasons in recent memory in 2018. The harvest, about 1.3 million salmon total, was about 61 percent fewer than the recent 10-year average. Fishermen were out of the water for a big chunk of the season due to the poor sockeye return, and ADFG closed the Kenai River dipnet fishery two days early. The sockeye did eventually show up, but for the first time in recent memory, more than half the run showed up in the river after Aug. 1. So far, the run timing has been right about on average. About midway through July, ADFG reevaluates the run projection and adjusts management accordingly. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Best practices help Juneau absorb leap in tourist traffic

JUNEAU — On a given summer day in Juneau, it can be hard to tell that there may be 10,000 tourists roaming around the island. In certain areas, it’s easy to see the crowds pouring off the cruise ship docks, headed for the main stretch of downtown. But a few streets away, the sidewalks are clear, the bus shelters empty, the benches unoccupied. Most of the traffic comes from the cruise ships that visit the capital each summer. When all six docks are occupied, they can deliver enough passengers to double the population of Juneau, which is home to about 30,000 people. This year, over the course of the whole summer, cruise ships are expected to bring about 1.3 million tourists through the state, with the majority of them landing in Juneau at least briefly. That’s more than half of the estimated 2.2 million total visitors expected in Alaska this season. That’s a significant increase, even over last year’s traffic. However, the businesses in downtown Juneau are taking it in stride. On the Saturday before the Fourth of July, some workers said the summer had been going well so far, with the busiest days on Mondays and Tuesdays or “six-ship days.” The extra numbers haven’t upset the flow of business too much so far, they said. The number of people coming to Juneau every summer has increased dramatically in the past few years. In 2016, the city received more than 1 million visitors, a 19 percent increase versus the year before. Two years later, more than 1.17 million people came to Alaska by cruise ship. In fact, visitation to the state has increased every year for at least the last five years, according to statistics from the McDowell Group, with more cruise ship passengers for the past three years than the number in 2009, before a drop in Alaska tourism after the 2008 financial crash. But so far, Juneau has handled the increases well. The city’s Tourism Best Management Practices, or TBMP, coordinated by the industry, have been in place since 1997. They’re not officially required by any government agency, but the tour operators and other businesses in the industry have agreed to operate within their parameters to keep the impact of visitors to a minimum. “A lot of (the provisions) came about through a process like now, in the 1990s, when the industry was growing and the city was admittedly behind the eight ball,” said Kirby Day, who manages the port operations for the Holland America Group in Alaska. “As the years went by … we built those into what we do today.” Though they’re not enforced by the city, the program has good compliance, with about 130 operators and about 3,000 employees included, Day said. Even when an operator disagrees with a proposed rule, they’ve been able to work together until everyone is on the same page. The group meets as a whole about once a year to go over complaints from the summer and update or address the guidelines to keep on top of changes. Operators have taken it on themselves to work on improving service while reducing impacts, too. The aviation operators in Juneau, which include a handful of fixed-wing services and a number of helicopter tours, meet at the beginning of every summer to discuss their flight patterns, call frequencies and the landmarks they use to better coordinate their traffic. It’s a major step for safety, said Joe Sprague, the CEO of Wings Airways, which operates flight tours to the Juneau Icefield. (Wings Airways is partly owned by the Binkley family, which also owns the Anchorage Daily News and the Alaska Journal of Commerce) Wings operates a fleet of five DeHavilland Otters, which carry 10 passengers each. But planes that big were a conscious choice and investment; there are now fewer planes in the sky, which improves safety, Sprague said. The new planes are also equipped with 900-horsepower engines that operate relatively quietly. “It took investment, but the result is that we have fewer flights that are quieter, which the neighbors appreciate, while still accommodating the same number of guests,” he said. While the cruise ship docks are regularly crowded with visitors, they generally spread out. Wings Airways gets about 85 percent of its customers from cruise ships, Sprague said, and the majority are booked through the cruise line companies ahead of time. But the operators also regularly bus people out of the downtown area to locations like Mendenhall Glacier or to Auke Bay for whale-watching tours, coordinating them within the city. Lines at downtown businesses and popular tourist sites can get long when buses arrive, but there are still relatively quiet downtown neighborhoods even when the docks are in full swing. Even as the number of tourists increases, new companies are stepping in to offer various excursions. The city has been instrumental in planning with the industry to keep the process streamlined as well, looking to projects like the installation of new stanchions near the cruise ship docks to improve the flow of people through traffic. “It’s planning and have some process and intentionality about what you’re going to do with (visitors) when they come,” Sprague said. Each individual cruise passenger doesn’t spend that much money in Juneau — about $162 per person, with the majority going to tours and excursion activities. But combined with other visitors, the cruise lines and crew members, it can make a significant total: $218 million in direct spending in 2016, according to the McDowell Group. That meant about $13.5 million in tax revenue for the City and Borough of Juneau, with about $10.4 million of that in sales taxes. Another $14.2 million came in from marine-related revenues, including the state cruise ship passenger tax and Juneau’s marine passenger fee. Most other industries in Alaska have been shrinking or holding level since 2015. Tourism, however, has been riding the wave of an improving economy in the Lower 48. Other areas of Alaska have been brushing up their efforts to attract tourists to get in on a cut of that spending. So far, they are seeing an increase — just more than 2 million tourists visited Alaska last year, with about 900,000 of them visiting areas by air, car and rail. As they look to expand their industries, trade group Alaska Travel Industry Association is working on policy and marketing efforts to attract tourists year-round, including expanding winter tourism. Though Juneau has a head start on other cities and boroughs, some are starting to look at its best practices, according to Julie Jessen, communications and public relations manager for ATIA. “Haines has also started a discussion on tourism growth and planning,” she said in an email. “As tourism — particularly the cruise sector — continues to project growth, more and more communities may seek examples like the TBMP.” She added that the ATIA will host a community and industry discussion Oct. 7 about the growth of the cruise tourism industry in Juneau as a lead-in to the annual conference and trade show, and will include a plenary session with how other communities are handling growing visitation. When the industry first implemented the TBMP in 1997, the city received about 600,000 visitors per year. In the 20 years since, the number has more than doubled, even though people thought at the time that Juneau couldn’t handle any more visitors, Day said. No program will be perfect, but the TBMP plan has helped mitigate impacts and made Juneau a different place than it would have been without them, he said. Every community looks different, but the template for the protocols would work anywhere, he said. “Growth in visitation is taking place everywhere,” he said. “Places like Homer, Talkeetna, anybody, can take this template and pare it down to what works in their community.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Woodrow officially takes director’s helm at ASMI

JUNEAU — Alaska’s seafood industry has a new captain at the helm of its main marketing agency. Jeremy Woodrow, previously the organization’s communications director, officially took over as executive director of he Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute this June. He replaces former executive director Alexa Tonkovich, who left the position in December 2018 to pursue a master’s degree in international business. In some ways, it’s the top of a long ladder for Woodrow. Born and raised in Juneau, he started as an intern with ASMI in 2001 and worked with the organization’s former public relations firm Scheidermeyer &Associates Alaska. After a stint in the communications department at the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, he returned to ASMI as the communications director in 2017. Though he’s not in commercial fishing at present, he said his family has a long history in it. That connection has helped inform his involvement in the ever-changing fisheries of Alaska, and though ASMI stays out of fisheries policy, there are plenty of other tangles to sort out. High on that list is the increasing volatility in fisheries. Salmon fisheries in particular are always fluctuating from year to year, but fishermen have had unpredictable disasters followed by banner years followed by disasters, which is a relatively new phenomenon, Woodrow said. In response, some fishermen are looking to diversify their income or their fishing portfolios to help offset that uncertainty, he said. The fleet is consolidating as well, especially in the larger offshore fisheries. However, Alaska’s wild seafood products have never been more valuable. “While our fisheries have been fully exploited for several decades, we have seen the value continue to go up, and that’s a good thing,” he said. “That shows that there is value in the fish. There are other ways to gauge value than just the price of fish at the dock. More people wanting to get into it, the price of boats …. all that generates money to fisheries economies.” Part of that is due to increasing seafood consumption in the U.S., but part is also due to the increasing price wild Alaska salmon has been able to command in markets. Salmon is the most valuable commercial U.S. species, with a total value of $688 million in 2017, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Alaska salmon accounted for 98 percent of landings in 2017. The average landing price for all species — the majority of which were pink salmon — was 65 cents, according to NMFS, but once those salmon are sent to the supermarket, consumers are paying significantly more for them than for Atlantic salmon or salmon from elsewhere. That’s in part due to ASMI’s work over the years to promote the Alaska brand, Woodrow said. The state’s fisheries have a good story to tell: comprehensively managed fisheries, small communities and a fleet dominated by small boats and local fishermen. “We have such a great generational story to tell, a management story to tell, all that, wrapped into an incredible place,” Woodrow said. Things are changing there as well, though. The ongoing trade conflict between the U.S. and China has presented ASMI with a complex new marketing landscape. China is Alaska’s single large market for seafood, and the organization has spent about two decades building relationships with buyers and processors there. A significant portion of Alaska’s fish are exported to China and reprocessed there, with most bound for either export to other world markets and the U.S. or for domestic consumption in China. On top of that, other countries are increasing their salmon farming efforts and marketing in the U.S., attracting consumers with lower prices for salmon. Norway, for example, is ramping up efforts to market its salmon in the U.S., and Iceland is in the process of expanding its aquaculture industry for salmon. ASMI has been clear about its intentions to remain in China, Woodrow said. With 1.3 billion residents and a rapidly expanding middle class, the country is too big a market to abandon because of tariffs. While the disagreements over trade have merit, the tariff battles have impacted seafood demand there, Woodrow said. “We do agree that something has to change (in U.S.-China trade), but this conflict going on has definitely created extra headwinds for the Alaska seafood industry,” he said. ASMI received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop markets for seafood in other countries, focusing on Southeast Asia, Woodrow said. The organization has also established a presence in South America, with an office in Brazil and significant interest in seafood among people there. There’s also an opportunity to take some of the reprocessing market there, reducing some of the dependence on China for that service. There are also opportunities for marketing other products. Mariculture is a growing industry in the state, with expanding interest in kelp and geoduck clam farming. Most of those products are currently bound for foreign markets, but there’s growing interest in the U.S., especially among younger consumers, who are more open to tastes for different palettes. But it’s not only alternative products. Pollock — the single largest commercial fishery in the U.S. by volume — also has an opportunity. “A great example is pollock roe,” he said. “I guarantee you very few Alaskans or Americans have ever eaten pollock roe, but pollock roe is incredibly popular in Japan … the size of the pollock roe is very similar to the size of fish eggs that you see on sushi. That’s a perfect segment for it to come into the U.S. market.” The ASMI board announced Woodrow’s hire as executive director June 10, saying the board was excited to have a lifelong Alaskan to lead the agency. “The Alaska seafood brand is as strong as ever and we are confident that Jeremy’s leadership will advance the direction and mission of the agency,” said Jack Schultheis, chairman of the ASMI board of directors, in the announcement. Going into the role, Woodrow said one of the things he considers with each decision is how Alaska fishermen will accept decisions that ASMI makes, in part because the agency is ultimately paid for by the fishermen with state funding zeroed out over the past few years through budget cuts. “Anytime that we have a marketing plan, I always keep in the back of my mind how will an Alaska fisherman react to this, because they’re always our first audience,” he said. “We have to make sure they understand they’re getting good value.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Invasive elodea leads to Alexander Lake shutdown

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

MSA reauthorization still stalled with 2018 House bill expired

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

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