Elizabeth Earl

Halibut charter operators brace for more cuts in 2020

The continued decline of Pacific halibut stocks in Alaska’s waters is putting increasing pressure on the charter fleets in Southcentral and Southeast as they try to attract clients. Though the International Pacific Halibut Commission has yet to formally decide on catch limits for the various sectors, survey data discussed at the commission’s interim meeting in November indicates that catch limits are likely to go down to keep the stock within acceptable limits in the future. The Gulf of Alaska is down in particular, with fishermen there facing more restrictions in the future to maintain a healthy stock. Because the council won’t know what the sector allocations are until the first week of February, when the IPHC will meet in Anchorage, the council recommended a progressive set of recommendations for the charter fleet that become more restrictive as the catch limit goes down. In Area 2C, which covers Southeast Alaska, the measures begin with instituting a reverse slot limit with an upper limit fixed at longer than 80 inches and a lower limit increasing until the allocation is reached, and progress to closing some Wednesdays and decreasing the lower size limit until the allocation is reached. In Area 3A, which covers the central Gulf of Alaska, the situation is different because there isn’t as much information available to analyze what could be done to decrease the charter fleet harvest. Until more information is available, the council recommended maintaining status quo management measures with the addition of closed Tuesdays throughout the year and reducing the size of the second allowed fish on charter boards from 28 inches to 26 inches or less. The recreational charter fleet has its own allocation separate from the commercial fleet. While the Southeast Alaska charter fleet has fluctuated between more and less than its allocation, the Central Gulf of Alaska fleet has consistently exceeded its allocation. Participation has declined in Area 3A over the years but generally increased in Area 2C, said Sarah Webster, a fisheries biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in a presentation to the council. “Effort has been increasing across 2C over the years, but was down in 2019,” she said. “The projection is for a small increase in 2020.” The Charter Halibut Management Committee, a stakeholder-run committee that offers advice to the council on how to manage the charter fleet, considered a variety of recommendations on how to work with the new information about the halibut stock, but the recommendations for the Gulf of Alaska were so low that no one quite knew how to proceed, Webster said. “The takeaway is that nobody expected the numbers to be nearly this low when (the Charter Halibut Management Committee) met back in October,” she said. Halibut numbers have been declining across the Pacific coast for several years, without any single known cause; environmental causes and fishing pressures have been linked to declining recruitment, and though there are some promising age classes showing in the data, they are too young to be included in the fishery yet. Southeast Alaska in particular has felt the pinch of the tightening regulations. The charter fleet there largely targets king salmon, silver salmon and halibut. King salmon have been in decline across the state since about 2007, with especially low numbers in some of the stream systems in Southeast Alaska. In order to meet the requirements of the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, fisheries managers have to provide a certain level of escapement, and with fewer fish coming back, that means less and less opportunity for Southeast Alaska’s salmon fishermen. Charter fishermen have been able to divert to fish halibut, but that’s becoming more of a struggle, said Forrest Braden, the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, a nonprofit representing sportfishing guides across the region. “It’s not the only front where they’re losing fish to market, but there’s no optimism,” he said. “They’ve only seen reductions.” Southeast Alaska has three major legs to its economy: commercial fishing, government and tourism. In recent years, cruise ship traffic has dramatically increased, with tourists looking for charter boats as excursions when they dock at Juneau, Sitka, Ketchikan and Skagway, the four major cruise ship destinations. Many independent travelers also seek out guided trips as a way to either fill their freezers or for recreational purposes. Guides usually try to book in advance, but with the tightening regulations, they are seeing more cancellations, Braden said. This summer, though statistics say participation was up, guides are anecdotally reporting holes in their schedules, he said. “I think there’s recognition that each of the sectors have tipping points and that the charter fleet is at a tipping point,” he said. “I think the message was that we need to brace ourselves, because obviously, the IPHC forecast … is that the stock is going to continue to decline for the next couple of years.” There’s some hope coming in the form of the Recreational Quota Entity program, though, he said. The RQE program, developed through the North Pacific council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, would allow some commercial quota to be purchased by the charter fleet through an approved single entity to be used in a pool format as allocated quota for the charter fleets in areas 2C and 3A. Full implementation of the program is held up in Congress, though, with a logjam of conflicting interests within a bill and likely delayed by the ongoing impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. During the council meeting Dec. 7, members requested an update at the next meeting in February with current information about the status of the RQE program. Area 3A charter operators may be looking at some more stringent regulations, and those that testified to the council said they were concerned about the sustainability of the charter industry if they cannot adequately market trips. Council member and charter operator Andy Mezirow said the Advisory Committee is considering a variety of options to say within their allocation, but with the unexpectedly low numbers in the halibut survey sent to the IPHC, they needed more information before providing specific recommendations. “We would just really need to be able to weigh all the options to be able to go that far down,” he said. The IPHC’s annual meeting is scheduled to take place from Feb. 3-7, 2020, at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is scheduled meet the week before, from Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, 2020, in Seattle. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Stock decline leads to historic shutdown for Gulf P-cod

Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen will be keeping their gear dry this winter: The federal fishery has been closed for the 2020 season. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to close the fishery due to concerns about historic low biomass shown in the latest stock assessment. The spawning biomass available in the fishery has declined to less than the threshold where it can sustain a directed fishery and natural predation from Steller sea lions, which depend on Pacific cod as a keystone prey species. The Gulf of Alaska cod stock has been declining for the last four or five years, with biologists drawing the connection to the increased water temperatures in the gulf since 2014. Warmer water conditions have led to lower abundance and fewer young cod in the population, according to the stock assessment. “Female spawning biomass is currently estimated to be at its second lowest point in the 42-year time series considered in this assessment following last year’s record low,” the assessment states. “This following three years of poor recruitment in 2014-16 and increased natural mortality during the 2014-2016 (Gulf of Alaska) marine heat wave.” Cod enter the fishery around three years old. While total biomass has been declining since 2014, it increased slightly in 2019 because of improved recruitment in 2017 and 2018. However, spawning biomass hit a cliff: survey results estimate about 32,957 tons for 2020, less than a third of what it was in 2014 and a historic low. This is below the 20 percent threshold for a fishery, and likely has been since the beginning of 2018, according to the stock assessment. The population may improve in future years as younger fish move into the spawning biomass, but the 2019 age class is expected to be very weak, and biologists don’t know whether the average recruitment rate will apply in the future, according to the assessment. The struggles of the stock have been linked to climate change more than excessive fishing. In 2014, the Gulf of Alaska experienced a major influx of warm water, linked to the El Nino event in the south Pacific. Sea surface temperatures remained above normal in a major section of the Gulf of Alaska for nearly two years afterward, earning the nickname “the blob.” As the blob began to dissipate, Alaska saw another heat wave beginning in September 2018, where sea surface temperatures again spiked from the Gulf to the Bering Sea. Increased sea temperatures can stress fish and have been linked to reduced spawning and recruitment success. Pacific cod, like most fish, are cold blooded. When the water temperature goes up, so do theirs, and their metabolisms along with it. That means they need to eat more, and it becomes easier for them to starve or stay smaller for longer if not enough food is available. “Based on knowledge gained from the 2014-16 heatwave, we consider this to be unfavorable for Pacific cod as the prolonged increased temperatures likely increased their metabolic demands as well as the metabolic demands of their groundfish predators,” the assessment states. “Although as of 1 November 2019 the heatwave appears to have ended 12 October, it is unknown whether these lower temperatures will persist, particularly given the … forecast for warm conditions throughout the North Pacific through the upcoming winter.” The Pacific cod fishery is valuable, both to fishermen and to processors. The fishery in the Gulf of Alaska is primarily shoreside based, unlike the mixed at-sea and shoreside fishery in the Bering Sea, and came in at about $70 million in e-vessel value in 2017, according to a economic status report from the National Marine Fisheries Service. However, stock concerns that year led the council to drop the total allowable catch limit by 80 percent, prompting then-Gov. Bill Walker to request a disaster declaration for the fishery. There isn’t much to say about the fact of the closure except that it’s not good news for the fishermen, said Malcolm Milne, president of the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association. “Other than salmon, Pacific cod is the most important species to many Alaskan small boat fishermen especially in the winter when there are few other fisheries to substitute,” he said. The communities in the western Gulf of Alaska, such as Kodiak and communities in the Aleutians East Borough, depend on fisheries year-round to sustain themselves, both as fishermen and processors. The Aleutians East Borough sent a resolution to the council asking the National Marine Fisheries Service to “make every effort to allow” a western gulf fishery in 2020. The resolution states that fishermen have experienced good fishing for cod in the area and have been working on a voluntary catch share plan to help guarantee a season while not exceeding fishery limits. “Fishermen and communities have suffered under recent low Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod TACs, and the difference between a small cod fishery in 2020 and no fishery at all could mean the difference between the survival of our communities or those communities closing their doors,” the resolution states. In general, the Gulf Pacific cod harvest is much smaller than from the Bering Sea. In 2017, fishermen in Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands landed $178 million in ex-vessel value in Pacific cod, more than double the value of the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery in the same year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. There are significant markets for Pacific cod in both Europe and the United States, but much of the exported cod goes to China as headed and gutted fish for reprocessing and re-export. About 30 percent of Alaska’s cod production stays in the U.S., according to the stock assessment. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Uneven status of Pacific halibut revealed by annual data

Following the trend of the past several years, overall Pacific halibut biomass seems to be down again. The most recent stock assessment presented to the International Pacific Halibut Commission for its interim meeting on Nov. 25-26 shows a coastwide decline in spawning biomass, though that decline isn’t even across all areas. That’s a continuation of a trend seen in stock assessments since 2015. Particularly, surveys have indicated lower numbers of halibut in the central Gulf of Alaska. According to the 2019 stock assessment, biologists estimate the spawning biomass at 194 million pounds. It’s not down by much overall, but the impact to regulatory areas isn’t evenly spread; the central Gulf of Alaska, or Area 3A, has been declining fairly steadily since 2004, while Areas 2 and 4 — from British Columbia southward and the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands, respectively — have seen increases in the same time period. “What you will see here shortly … is that we have mixed trends coastwide. However, (commercial catches per unit of effort are) relatively flat at the coastwide level, with some relatively brighter spots and some relatively not-so-good spots across the coast,” said Ian Stewart, the lead scientist on the IPHC’s stock assessment. “…We’re looking at a period of relatively low productivity for the Pacific halibut stock over the next three years.” All signs are pointing, as they have before, to lower fishing yields in order to maintain the target level of intensity on the stock. Overall Pacific halibut landings increased in 2019, coastwide, by a little more than 1 million pounds. That increase is in commercial, with reported mortality for subsistence and recreational fishing flat, according to figures Stewart presented to the IPHC. Each year, the IPHC surveys halibut in the management areas to gather data for a stock assessment that will inform the fishing limits set by the IPHC in February, prior to the next season’s opening. This year, the biologists also had new data to work with for the assessment to gather more information about the stock: sex. Female halibut are bigger, and have long been estimated to outweigh male fish in the commercial catch by weight, but with definitive data on sex distribution in commercial catches, biologists were able to establish exactly what proportion of the catch was male or female. The sex ratio information improves the IPHC’s understanding of the stock dynamics significantly, Stewart said. Coastwide, catches are coming in at 82 percent female on average by total number of fish. That’s much higher than they expected, he said. “We’ve always known that the commercial catch would be dominated by female by weight, because female Pacific halibut are much larger than males, but in terms of having 82 percent by number, that is quite a bit higher than we would have expected,” he said. In some areas, it’s higher. Area 4, which covers the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, the catch was 92 percent female. Areas C, D and E, the Central Bering Sea, were 97 percent female. “(The catch is) almost completely females in the Bering Sea fishery,” Stewart said. Pacific halibut are broadcast spawners, meaning the females carry the eggs and lay them into the water column, where they are fertilized by males. Biologists don’t think it takes that many males to sufficiently breed to keep up the stock. However, there isn’t a good tool for fishermen to exclusively target male halibut at present, Stewart said. In addition to having fewer halibut, their size at age has been declining as well. In the early 1990s, the average halibut weighed more than 30 pounds; since 2010-11, the average weight has been in the mid-20s. However, there may be some promise of better numbers down the road. The surveys track halibut age classes as well. To date, the cohort of 1987 — the fish born that year — have been one of the strongest contributors to catches across the coast. In more recent years, the 2005 cohort has dominated catches, and because halibut are multi-year fish, they can be represented for many years as the fish age. While some of the other cohorts have been weaker, scientists have been tracking the 2011 and 2012 age classes, which are now starting to show up in catches. Because they’ve been younger, they haven’t been contributing as much to the overall catches so far, but in the future, they may show up more. The cohorts aren’t as strong as the 2005 or 1999 age classes, but it is good news, Stewart said. One of the factors that biologists think affects recruitment among Pacific halibut is an environmental trend called Pacific Decadal Oscillation, or PDO. PDO describes an environmental phenomenon in the North Pacific similar to the El Nino Southern Oscillation which can last years and describes an oscillation of sea surface temperature and pressure. When temperatures near the coast are higher and cooler in the interior, accompanied by below-average pressure, fishery biologists have noted that Pacific halibut tend to have better recruitment. The opposite is true when the temperatures are lower near the coast and higher near the interior, accompanied by above-average sea level pressures, recruitment tends to be lower. From 2007-13, the PDO value was described as negative, correlated with lower recruitment. Since 2014, the PDO has had a positive value, which may be mean better recruitment, but scientists won’t know for several years yet, Stewart said. The anomalously warm temperatures in the Bering Sea for the last two years may also play a part in Pacific halibut numbers in the future. For the last two years, scientists have noted extremely low sea ice cover in the Bering Sea, accompanied by much warmer sea surface temperatures than normal. This summer, residents and the National Marine Fisheries Service noted unusual sea bird and marine mammal die-offs, potentially correlated with ecosystem changes. There have already been some changes to the Pacific cod distribution, and scientists noted a “modest increase” in the density of Pacific halibut in the northern Bering Sea this summer, Stewart said. It’s hard to definitively say how the warmer temperatures and lack of sea ice will affect Pacific halibut, but scientists have their eyes on the Bering Sea, he said. “We don’t know if (the conditions) are bad yet, but they’re certainly different,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Opposite forecasts for SE pinks, Bristol Bay reds; Cook Inlet busts

Biologists are forecasting another weak pink salmon year for Southeast and another strong sockeye salmon run for Bristol Bay coming in the 2020 season. The forecasts for Southeast Alaska and for Bristol Bay, released in late November, continue the trends of the past few years in both areas. In Southeast, biologists are forecasting about 12 million fish to be harvested, with a range of 7 million to 19 million fish. That’s in the second-lowest forecast percentile, or just more than 20 percent of the fishery’s historic volume. A harvest of 12 million would be about a third of the region’s recent 10-year average harvest, according to the forecast. The forecast number, produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Auke Bay Lab in Juneau in collaboration with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Southeast regional hatcheries, is calculated from surveys of juvenile pink salmon in June and July in northern Southeast Alaska waters. The survey data from 2019 turned up the third-lowest index in the last 23 years, according to the forecast. “The low juvenile abundance index in 2019 was not unexpected. Pink salmon escapements in the parent year (2018) were very poor throughout northern Southeast Alaska inside waters and the escapement goal was not met in that subregion, which may have resulted in below optimal egg deposition,” the forecast states. “Escapement and harvest of pink salmon in the Northern Southeast Inside subregion have been very poor since 2012 and the 2020 forecast indicates this pattern is likely to continue.” Though escapement goals were met in the Southern Southeast and the Northern Southeast Outside regions in 2018, harvests were poor there as well. The reason for the low abundance in the 2019 survey isn’t clear, but it could be due to poor freshwater survival conditions or poorer marine conditions, leading to higher mortality, the forecast states. Drought conditions also lasted from 2018 into spring 2019 in Southeast. The juveniles caught in the survey were all large and healthy-looking, the forecast states, but so were the juveniles from 2014-16, when the returns were also less than average. The summer’s unusually warm and dry conditions may also have an effect, as well as the anomalously high sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska. “The impact of warm sea surface temperatures on the survival of pink salmon that went to sea in 2019 is unknown and adds uncertainty,” the forecast states. Southeast Alaska has had a series of poor pink salmon harvests for the past few years. In 2019, fishermen landed an estimate 21.1 million pink salmon for a total ex-vessel value of $23.7 million, according to a preliminary season summary from Fish and Game. The fish weighed an average of 3.68 pounds. Pink salmon are Southeast’s major volume fishery, but the fish are worth significantly less than other salmon fisheries. Chum, which are significantly larger, came in at an average weight of 7.99 pounds in Southeast. A total of 8.4 million of them landed came to about $37.5 million in ex-vessel value, according to ADFG. The total salmon ex-vessel value of $101 million in 2019 in Southeast was about $32 million less than the total 2018 value, with the shortfall mostly in chums. Bristol Bay Bristol Bay, on the other hand, is predicted to see another better than-average run. The forecast of 48.95 million sockeye is about 6 percent better than the recent 10-year average. If the prediction comes true, it would be yet another big year for Bristol Bay, which has broken harvest and value records for sockeye two years running. The 2018 season brought an estimated 62.5 million sockeye home to the rivers of Bristol Bay; the 2019 season brought more than 50 million. A run of 48.95 million sockeye would allow for a harvest of 36.9 million fish, with 34.56 million in the bay and 2.35 million in the South Peninsula fisheries, according to the forecast. As always, biologists warn caution when reading forecasts, as they may not be accurate, particularly for individual rivers. “Forecasting future salmon returns is inherently difficult and uncertain,” the forecast states. “We have used similar methods since 2001 to produce the Bristol Bay sockeye salmon forecast which have performed well when applied to Bristol Bay as a whole.” Another bust year for Cook Inlet Upper Cook Inlet’s salmon fishermen had another disappointing season, with only 2.1 million salmon landed. That’s about 37 percent less than the recent 10-year average. That brought in a total of about $18 million in ex-vessel value, which is about 40 percent less than the recent 10-year average in the fishery, according to ADFG season summary released Nov. 25. It’s better than the 2018 season, when fishermen in the area only landed about 1.3 million salmon total, about 815,000 of which were sockeye. The sockeye showed up erratically late in 2018, throwing management procedures for a loop and frustrating fishermen. This year, the fish were an estimated two days late, but both the Kasilof River and Kenai River sockeye salmon escapement goals were exceeded in part because of restrictions on commercial fishermen due to weak Kenai River late-run king salmon numbers. The sockeye salmon harvest of about 1.7 million was the second-smallest in the last decade, according to the season summary. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Feds declare economic disasters for Swan Lake, McKinley fires

Small business owners who can show that they lost customers because of the Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai Peninsula can now get low-interest federal loans to help them recover. The U.S. Small Business Administration declared the Kenai Peninsula and surrounding areas an “economic injury zone” due to the widespread Swan Lake Fire this summer. The fire, which started June 5 and burned more than 167,000 acres, threatened the Sterling Highway in August and burned across the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge between Sterling and Cooper Landing. Though firefighters controlled fire activity through the early summer and scaled back operations in July, a windstorm and exceptionally hot, dry conditions in mid-August caused the fire to flare again, crossing the Sterling Highway and threatening Cooper Landing with evacuation. Alaska’s exceptionally hot and dry summer saw a number of fires start and burn in areas they have not burned in the past. Because of the lack of rain on the Kenai Peninsula, the Swan Lake Fire was able to burn through alpine territory across the Mystery Hills and down into the popular Resurrection Pass Trail area. In East Anchorage, a brush fire in a wooded area in early July prompted a hasty response and evacuation orders among nearby residents. Hot, dry conditions with risks of high wind prompted forestry officials to declare a complete burn ban across the Kenai Peninsula for several weeks in August. A pair of destructive fires dubbed Deshka and McKinley also sprung up in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, burning dozens of properties from Talkeetna to Willow. Cooper Landing and Sterling are usually major destinations throughout the fall and summer for tourists, with plentiful hiking, fishing and camping opportunities. This summer, because of the difficulty of transportation and the heavy wildfire smoke, many visitors cancelled their trips, leaving business owners to swallow the shortfall. Though the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s sales tax figures for the third fiscal quarter have not yet been published, some small business owners estimated between a 5 and 20 percent revenue loss, said Cliff Cochran, Kenai Peninsula Center Director for the Alaska Small Business Development Center. The western peninsula was affected as well, with tourists from Anchorage not wanting to risk getting stuck if the fire closed the highway and the air quality significantly impacted by smoke. “In-state tourists from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley saw videos circulating on social media of the fire billowing over the highway, causing many of them to cancel trips down to the peninsula,” Cochran said in an email. “B&B and lodge owners complained that this occurred even when the fire was not anywhere near the highway and there was great weather with mountain views on the peninsula.” Air quality and threats of evacuation kept many tourists away from Cooper Landing, which depends heavily on the seasonal income from May to October. Firefighters and other personnel stationed in Cooper Landing buffered the impact some, but when they left, revenues dropped further as residents looked to conserve income after a poor summer, Cochran said. In some cases, small businesses reported their revenues down between 20 to 30 percent in September and October. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly appealed to Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy, who sent a request for a disaster declaration to the Small Business Administration on Oct. 2. About a week later, on Oct. 8, the agency granted the declaration for the Swan Lake Fire. The disaster declaration makes low-interest federal loans available for small businesses affected by the fire. Small business owners on the Kenai Peninsula and in the adjacent areas — including Kodiak, the Municipality of Anchorage, the Mat-Su Borough, and the Lake and Peninsula Borough — can apply for assistance. Business owners in the affected area don’t have to show property damage, only economic injury, said Kevin Wynne, the public information officer for the SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance in the West Field Operations Center. The interest rates are set at 4 percent for small businesses and 2.75 percent for private nonprofits. The loan funds can be used as working capital but not to replace lost revenue, Wynne said. All of the loans are worked out on a case-by-case basis as people apply. “(The rates) make recovery very affordable for small businesses,” he said. “One of the great things about the loans is they get a five-month deferral. They’re going to be low payments anyway, but (business owners) can spend all their resources in getting back up in running.” The Swan Lake Fire wasn’t the only disaster declared for Alaska’s summer. North of Anchorage, the McKinley Wildland Fire burned only 3,288 acres but caused much more property damage than the Swan Lake Fire. Ignited on Aug. 17, the fire had damaged 52 homes, three businesses and 84 outbuildings by the following night and threatened the Parks Highway, leading to road closures and traffic control. The SBA also declared a disaster for the McKinley Fire, though the conditions are a little different because buildings were damaged. In that area, homeowners are eligible for loans to help pay for repairs in addition to the small businesses in the area; in the Swan Lake Fire area, only small businesses are eligible. Homeowners can borrow up to $200,000 to replace or repair damaged real estate and up to $40,000 for damaged personal property. To date, the SBA has approved three homeowner loans for a total of $479,000 in the McKinley Fire area, Wynne said. The loans have a deadline, though. For homeowners in the McKinley Fire area, that’s Dec. 2. Small business owners in the McKinley Fire area have until July 1, 2020, and until July 8, 2020 in the Swan Lake Fire area. That’s in part because business owners have to get their paperwork in order, including tax documents and profit and loss statements, and that can take time, Wynne said. Small business owners can apply for loans online at the SBA’s website. “It’s generally as quickly as possible that they can apply,” he said. “Generally, for businesses, it’s within 21 days. The loan officer will call them and work with them to get the loan approved.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Premera grants $5.7M over three years for rural care

Programs financed by a grant from Alaska’s largest private individual health insurer are turning their eyes toward rural communities, where health outcomes tend to be the worst. Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, the Washington-based health insurer, announced a $5.7 million investment in the state Oct. 29, spread over three years and split among a handful of recipients. The overall intention of the grant is to improve rural health care access in a state that comprises about one-fifth of the land mass of the United States but where nearly half the state’s population lives in one urban area and the much of the rest is scattered across a largely roadless, largely undeveloped landscape. The majority of the investment — $3 million — will serve as seed money for a new Rural Health Care Fund, from which grants will be issued to address “equity, availability and access to quality health care in rural areas,” according to a press release from Premera. The fund will be managed by the Rasmuson Foundation and housed by the Alaska Community Foundation. In addition to three $100,000 grants to Norton Sound Health Corp., Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. and the Tanana Chiefs Conference to support community health aide/practitioner programs, the University of Alaska Anchorage will receive $1.77 million to expand its College of Nursing programs at four campuses, three of which are rural. The funds will also be used to increase recruitment efforts among Alaska Natives in rural areas. Another $700,000 will go to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, supporting the construction of its Anchorage-based Education and Development Center. The center provides Alaska Native-centered education for aspiring health care workers, particularly in rural areas, said Andy Teuber, chairman and president of ANTHC, in the press release. ANTHC has an Anchorage-based education center. However, the dental health aide, behavioral health aide and community health aide programs are in separate facilities at the moment; the grant funds will help build out the interior of the education center to bring all three programs under one roof, according to Shirley Young, ANTHC’s public relations and marketing manager. “Instead of housing the training programs in a variety of costly locations, which is how we have been operating, the students will benefit from offering co-location with inter-professional education on the Alaska Native Health Campus,” she wrote in an email. “Accessibility to quality education at a sustainable cost point is critical, especially considering Alaska’s current financial situation.” Young said having all the programs on the Anchorage campus will help provide students with culturally relevant training before going out to pursue jobs, many of which are in rural communities across Alaska. Increasing the number of qualified providers in rural areas remains a priority for ANTHC’s board of directors, she wrote. Health care disparities between rural and urban areas are well established, both in health outcomes and service availability. People living in the rural areas of the state tend to be poorer, are more likely to be uninsured and have less access to primary care. In 2016, more than two-thirds of the primary care providers in the state were located in the Anchorage or Mat-Su areas, according to a study from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. There were only 17 licensed primary care physicians in the Northern region and 37 in the Southwest region in 2016. Training more physicians is only part of the solution, according to the DHSS study; competition for clinicians is significant and training does not reduce unequal distribution of providers. The community health aide/practitioner program provides health professionals in many rural locations, but they are not licensed physicians of the same clinical level as a primary care physician. Improving access to nurses and physicians in rural areas of the state is the primary purpose of the grant, said Premera president and CEO Jeff Roe in a statement. “Many of Alaska’s communities are hundreds of miles from a regional medical center, and in most rural communities there is not an adequate number of physicians, primary and mental health care providers and sufficient facilities,” he said. “It is critical to invest in effective, long-term solutions to close the growing gap between urban and rural health care access.” UAA is placing the funding into recruitment and program expansion at its Bethel, Dillingham and Ketchikan campuses. Those three campuses have capacity for growth and community support, said Jeff Jessee, the dean of the College of Nursing and vice provost for University of Alaska health programs. UAA is partnering with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast for the programs, as the Ketchikan program is located on the UAS campus and the Bethel and Dillingham programs are on UAF campuses, he said. “All of our state universities understand there’s an enormous need for nurses across Alaska, and our long-term vision is to expand our nursing programs on other campuses as well,” he said. The University of Alaska system is under financial pressure due to state budget cuts, but UAA intends to design the program to be financially sustainable, Jessee said. The Premera funds will be used for startup and expansion costs, with between 40 to 50 new nursing students by the fifth year of the grant, he said. Tuition is the major source of revenue, and is intended to cover ongoing costs for the program. “The School of Nursing also has important community partners who have pledged consistent funding for our nursing programs in the state, and growing our nursing workforce remains a priority for the University of Alaska as a whole,” he said. We expect support to continue, because there’s widespread recognition of how essential nurses is to the future of our state.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Bering Sea halibut bycatch increases as council considers cod options

Editor's note: This article has been edited to correct the coastwide bycatch numbers. The bycatch numbers across Alaska exceeded the fishery limits, but in individual areas the bycatch was lower in 2019 than in 2018. Bycatch increase in areas 4 CDE+CA, in the Bering Sea. In the Bering Sea, commercial fishermen caught more halibut as bycatch this year, though overall bycatch in Alaska fell. Data released preceding the International Pacific Halibut Commission’s upcoming interim meeting shows that almost all the regulatory areas of Alaska from Southeast to the Bering Sea — areas 2C through 4E, respectively — caught less halibut as bycatch in 2019 than they did in 2018, though the areas all still exceeded their fishery limits, with the exception of Area 4B. Coastwide, from California and British Columbia through the Bering Sea, bycatch decreased from a little more than 6 million pounds to about 5.89 million pounds, though bycatch in areas 4 CDE+CA increased from about 2.98 million pounds to about 3.22 million pounds. Overall, commercial fishermen have landed about 16.5 million pounds of halibut in Alaska in the 2019 season, 13 percent less than the fishery limit. Alaska made up most of the non-directed commercial discard mortality, with about 5.56 million pounds. The IPHC will hold its interim meeting Nov. 25 in Seattle to review the stock assessment and season information, among other information, prior to its full annual meeting scheduled for Feb. 3-7, 2020, in Anchorage, where the commission adopts its season limits and regulations. Most of the non-directed commercial discard mortality — the technical IPHC term for bycatch — went to the trawl fleet, as it has in the past. There was also a small increase in Southeast Alaska’s bycatch numbers, though the area doesn’t have a trawl fleet and overall catch was down from the 2018 season. Halibut bycatch is a sticky problem throughout Alaska’s commercial fisheries. The high-volume trawl fleet targets a variety of species, including flatfish, that share habitat with halibut. While longliners can use larger hooks to avoid catching immature halibut, trawlers use large nets that don’t necessarily predict what will come up. To control the bycatch, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council sets prohibited species catch, or PSC, limits; when the limit on bycatch is reached, the fishery is restricted or closed. In the case of the Pacific cod fishery in the Bering Sea, this has been happening more and more often. Declining total allowable catch, or TAC, limits for Pacific cod increasingly shorten the season and pressure boats to work quickly, hoping to catch enough cod before the cap is reached. Because they work quickly, they increasingly may not take precautions to avoid bycatch, adding the pressure of the fishery closing more quickly as the PSC limit is reached. Combined with pressure on the stock from directed fishing and changing ocean conditions, researchers and stakeholders have raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of the stock. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is working on a major program aimed partially to control halibut bycatch in the Bering Sea: rationalizing the Pacific cod fishery in the Bering Sea, aiming to alleviate the pressure on the halibut there by eliminating what stakeholders call “the race for fish.” During the council’s meeting in October, the members approved a list of options and elements for preliminary analysis for the Pacific cod fishery, including a number of particulars for a cooperative-based limited access privilege program in the fishery. Within the purpose and need statement, reducing bycatch is identified as one of the goals. The North Pacific Fisheries Association’s members want to see permanent measures to reduce bycatch included in the program, including mechanisms to change the plan if bycatch isn’t reduced, and encouragement to transition to more selective gear types. “We are encouraged that bycatch reduction is a top priority for the Council, and an integral part of the Purpose and Needs Statement for this topic,” wrote NPFA President Malcolm Milne in a letter to the council. “However, we have increasing concerns about the council’s ability to achieve that intent through a program that, despite strategic design, still codifies use of and permanent access rights to gear with high bycatch rates.” Pacific cod is a high-volume fishery, while halibut, on the other hand, is a high-value fishery. To sustain the communities that depend on cod, the high volume needs to come in, wrote Pacific Seafood Processors Association President Chris Barrows in a letter to the council. The processors recognize that something needs to be done to address the race for fish but encouraged the council to consider the investment and dependence on cod of all sectors before moving forward with a cooperative based model for rationalizing the Pacific cod fishery. “All sectors are reliant on a healthy resource, improving bycatch, robust monitoring, and a safely prosecuted fishery,” he wrote. “As we make changes to better accomplish those objectives, we want to encourage inclusion and consideration of all dependent sectors, including shoreside processors and the communities in which we operate.” Both Pacific cod rationalization program and an abundance-based management program — which would allow PSC limits to flex with the biomass assessments in the Bering Sea rather than being fixed — have potential to address the issue, but the particulars are still unclear, said Peggy Parker, the executive director of the Halibut Association of North America. The abundance-based management program is meant to help alleviate the problem of a non-directed fishery still taking Pacific halibut when a directed fishery is shut down or curtailed because of a lack of sufficient fish. “We could have a situation where the directed fishery is shut down, but bycatch is still allowed,” she said. “I really recognize the strong feelings they have not to shut down the flatfish fishery, the pollock fishery, any of that … We don’t want to shut down these really important-to-the-national-economy fisheries, but we also don’t want to lend a hand to what could be severely damaging to the halibut stock.” The bycatch issue in the Bering Sea goes outside its geographic confines, too, she said — halibut migrate extensively from west to east. With heavy fishing pressure on all age groups in the Bering Sea, the question extends to the other regulatory areas whether the Pacific halibut stock can withstand that level of bycatch. In either case, both measures are far to implementation yet. “I don’t know if it’s going to be enough, because we don’t really have a good clear picture yet of what either of those are going to look like,” she said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Marijuana board wrangles with unincorporated area licenses

As more cannabis entrepreneurs seek to open businesses all over Alaska, the Marijuana Control Board is dealing with the question of how to provide adequate process for unincorporated areas. So far, the majority of cannabis businesses are in the urban areas of Anchorage, Wasilla/Palmer, Fairbanks or Juneau. There is a smattering in smaller urban areas like Kenai/Soldotna, Homer, Bethel, Ketchikan, Kodiak and North Pole. But the board has granted a few licenses to businesses in communities that are small, unincorporated and aren’t even represented by a borough government. When applicants are looking at establishing a retail, cultivation or manufacturing facility for cannabis products, there is an extensive publishing process involving running public notices in newspapers or radio stations and providing notice to a local government, which could voice objection to a license and provide a platform for the public to testify about it. In the case of unincorporated and rural communities, there is no local government, and there may or may not be a publication of general circulation to publish a notice in. One aspiring business in Tok has explored these problems throughout the application process. 907 Promos, a holding company, bought land in Tok with the intention of opening a retail shop called “Tokin Up,” but has run into snags that have held it up since February. Because Tok does not have a local government, the owners had to obtain signatures from a majority of the residents within a five-mile radius of the proposed location for a petition to the Marijuana Control Board. Tok is a spread-out community, and the most recent complete census was done nearly 10 years ago, in 2010. Initially, the applicants used data from the Alaska Department of Commerce and Community Development, but that proved to be less than precise. Determining exactly how many people lived within the five-mile radius involved drawing a digital fence on Google Maps and dropping a pin on every single rooftop, according to a letter from Lance Christian Wells, the legal firm representing 907 Promos. “They printed off each grid section to provide a ‘current map’ of Tok,” wrote legal assistant Jessika Smith in a letter to the board. “Applicants drove up and down every street and driveway identified from the ground, satellite, or sky, knocking on doors to gain support and collect signatures.” Smith wrote that the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office, or AMCO, had told them this process had worked in other small communities, but when they presented the map they developed as a household count, it was denied. They switched to using a mathematical model, basing a population estimate on the number of households, but it came up much higher than the census count. When they disregarded outbuildings and abandoned residences, it came up far smaller. So the applicants and AMCO approached the state demographer for help. The Alaska Department of Labor’s demographer, Eric Sandberg, estimated that there were approximately 869 people older than 21 in the area. The applicants also ran into snags with public notice, because Tok doesn’t have its own newspaper, Smith wrote. Radio stations either didn’t offer advertising or wouldn’t advertise for a cannabis facility because of their federal funding. “Seemingly out of options, licensees were able to gain approval from AMCO to provide public notice through unconventional means — by mailing public notice to each and every PO Box in Tok once a week for three weeks,” Smith wrote. “Residents do not use home addresses for mailing or have mailboxes within their community, so this should have covered everyone living in or around Tok.” Throughout the process, residents of Tok who opposed the opening of a retail facility submitted public comment to the board, with comments dating back to April. The applicants managed to gather 617 signatures as of September, with 579 needed, said AMCO Director Erika McConnell during the Marijuana Control Board’s Oct. 22 meeting. However, only 490 of those people were vetted as living within the radius and being older than 21, she said. Johnathan Guest, one of the applicants with 907 Promos, told the board they felt confident in the community support as long as the board decided on a number of signatures they needed. “We absolutely feel we can meet the standard if you allow us to add signatures after the vetted number,” he said. Board member Loren Jones said it seemed unlikely the board would run into this situation again — Tok is a fairly large community for an unincorporated one without a local government. Most unincorporated communities in the unorganized borough tend to be very small, like Naukati Bay in Southeast, where the board previously granted a limited cultivation license. Naukati Bay has a population of about 113. The board voted to postpone the decision on the petition until its November meeting, until AMCO could verify more of the signatories’ addresses. The topic of how to provide adequate voice to neighbors of cannabis establishments in unincorporated areas has come up before at the board. In 2017, Talkeetna’s first retail cannabis shop opened on its Main Street, with approval from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. Some residents of Talkeetna, which is unincorporated, voiced opposition to it, but the borough’s code allowed it. Marijuana Control Board chairman Mark Springer said during the board’s discussion on legislative priorities that in addition to recognizing tribal governments as local governments for the purpose of protesting cannabis licenses, the state could consider nonprofit community associations — essentially, community organizations recognized by the state that represent the interests of unincorporated communities, receive state and federal grants, provide services or enter into contracts or agreements. “If we had that in Tok, we would not be having this issue right now,” he said. Other legislative priorities for the board include evaluating the current cannabis tax structure for possible reform, transporting between license types, indemnification for minors assisting in investigations, prohibiting personal solvent-based manufacturing, clarifying the personal plant cultivation limit, setting possession and transportation limits for concentrates and edibles and requiring a majority of the board to adopt regulations. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Board votes to keep Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage

The tug of war over the location for the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting seems to be over — with Anchorage as the winner. After going back and forth over the location for more than a year, the board members voted 4-3 Oct. 24 at their annual work session to keep the February 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage. They also voted unanimously to drop a policy previously adopted that recommended the board rotate the meeting every three years between the three major communities of the region: Palmer/Wasilla, Anchorage and Kenai/Soldotna. Board members Fritz Johnson, Gerad Godfrey and Marit Carlson-Van Dort voted against the motion to hold the meeting in Anchorage, with members Morisky, Israel Payton, John Jensen and John Wood voting in favor. Board members primarily cited cost and the neutrality of Anchorage as a meeting location for the decision at the work session. The board last met on the central Kenai Peninsula for a full meeting in 1999; it met there for a work session in 2016. At its annual work session in 2017, the board voted to hold the 2020 meeting in Anchorage; in March 2018, the members reconsidered and voted move it to Kenai/Soldtona. The board later revisited the decision in January 2019, but after objections from the stakeholders about a lack of fair notice, the Alaska State Ombudsman investigated and ruled that the board needed to do it again — this time with fair notice. The governments of the cities of Kenai and Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough offered in a joint letter to provide the board with free meeting space, with an eye toward making the decision based on cost easier. The area has enough restaurants, hotel rooms, transportation options and airplane service to meet the needs of the board, the city managers and borough mayor wrote in the joint letter. Multiple other commenters wrote that the cost for stakeholders coming from the Kenai Peninsula is higher than those who live in Anchorage or the Mat-Su, who can stay at home rather than in hotels. The board takes cost into consideration along with a menu of other variables, including internet access, adequate facility space, community relationship with the board and travel time for the board members and Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff, among other factors. However, because many Fish and Game commercial fisheries staff members live on the central Kenai Peninsula and the local governments offered meeting space for free, the cost differentials between the three locations were surprisingly similar, said Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight. Board chairman Reed Morisky said he saw logistical issues with the area, including how spread out the area near the likely meeting space would be. Anchorage has more hotel rooms, restaurants and amenities within walking distance than Kenai/Soldotna does, he said. Johnson argued in favor of holding the meeting in Kenai/Soldotna, saying the board members get a valuable insight from being present in a community they may not when they don’t meet there, given that not all stakeholders have the money to travel to Anchorage for multiple days at a time. “I think over the years the board has been good at acknowledging that it’s important that we travel to the places that these industries are centered,” he said. “I think that by abandoning that notion, we may lose that connection with the stakeholders for whom this industry is their very backyard. And that would be a shame.” Morisky said sportfishermen and subsistence users are stakeholders in the Upper Cook Inlet fishery, too, many of whom live in the Anchorage area. One of the main contentions commenters asking the board to meet on the Kenai Peninsula have asserted is that the majority of people who attend the meetings, even in Anchorage, are from the Kenai Peninsula, and that Anchorage residents don’t attend as much even when the meetings are nearby. Morisky noted that even if people are not actively involved in the deliberations, they may still be following the decisions. “Just because people aren’t necessarily at meetings or don’t own a particular permit, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a common ownership in our resource,” he said. After the vote, ADFG Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said in response to Johnson’s comments that he was aware the board needed to stay connected to the fishing communities. “It’s a careful balancing act between cost and maintaining our (citizen advisory committee) system and maintaining the board structure,” he said. “To me, the clear mechanism that I want to do is make sure we continue a strong AC structure and we can bring those people into our meetings to engage no matter where they are. But I would hate to jeopardize that cost, in terms of our meeting locations.” At the same March 2018 meeting where the members voted to move the meeting to the Kenai Peninsula, the board accepted the policy that recommended rotation of the meetings between the three major communities. Former board member Al Cain, who proposed the idea, said it was meant to take the politics out of choosing the meeting location every three years. At the time, it passed narrowly. Board member Jensen said at the work session Oct. 24 that he didn’t think the rotational policy was fair and supported repealing it. “I don’t think it’s our purview to hold the future boards’ feet to the fire as far as meetings go,” Jensen said. “I’m not really supportive of this policy; I don’t even think we can do it. I don’t think it’s within our authority to tell a board 10 years from now where they’re going to have their meeting.” Board member Payton agreed, noting that he had been the one absent when the policy passed. The policy didn’t tie the board members’ hands — it was only a recommendation — but the public might not see it that way in the future, he said. “It’s what the board decided at the time that was just for all stakeholders, and I think the board should continue to have that flexibility and wisdom to decide what’s just for everyone and decide where we want to hold our meeting,” he said. Johnson reminded the board they had passed this a year ago to avoid some of the conflict and politics from the decision, and member Wood suggested approaching the local governments in the various communities to see if they had suggestions for how to alternate the location for the meeting. Ultimately, the board voted unanimously to discontinue the policy. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Efforts underway to streamline fisheries disaster relief

With an increasing number of fisheries disaster requests coming from all over the United States, members of Congress and the federal government are looking for ways to improve the relief process. Summer 2018 brought disappointing results for many fishermen across Alaska, particularly for sockeye salmon fishermen in the central Gulf of Alaska, but only two fisheries were officially granted federal disaster declarations: the 2018 Chignik sockeye salmon run and the 2018 Pacific cod fishery. While many other fishermen at least got a few fish to fill their wallets, Chignik fishermen had virtually no season, and Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishermen saw their total allowable catch reduced by 80 percent from 2017 because of low abundance. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced a dozen commercial fishery disaster declarations Sept. 25 for the 2018 calendar year. Congress appropriated $165 million for fisheries disaster relief, to be allocated according to the losses in revenue for the selected fisheries. It’s the second time in recent years there have been disastrously poor returns to some fisheries. In 2016, the failed pink salmon run across the Gulf of Alaska left many fishermen holding empty nets, particularly in Kodiak and Prince William Sound, resulting in a disaster declaration in 2017 and eventually $56 million in relief funds for stakeholders. However, because of the long federal application and funding process, fishermen just received those disbursements in July 2019, nearly three years after the disaster. The slow process isn’t unique to Alaska. Senate Bill 2346, introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., in July, seeks to speed up that process, in part by expediting relief funds being disbursed to fishermen. It also seeks to add avenues for relief for non-commercial fishermen, including charter operators. Fisheries disasters can be awarded in a variety of circumstances, including natural disasters, undetermined causes or causes beyond the control of fisheries managers. However, the current process only includes commercial fisheries, said Chris Oliver, the assistant administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “I think the law should provide clarity and direction to us as to whether we could and should include (charter or sport fisheries) revenue losses in the calculation,” he said in a Sept. 25 hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. NMFS is aware of the delay problem and is actively developing regulations for the disaster process that will streamline and improve it, Oliver wrote in his testimony to the committee. He wrote that SB 2346 aligns with many of the federal administration’s priorities for streamlining the process, such as providing deadlines for key steps in the process and clear requirements for what requestors need to submit. Rachel Baker, the deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, wrote in her testimony to the committee that while the process of declaring a disaster is well understood, distributing relief monies is less clear. The delay may make the process seem less useful to stakeholders, she wrote. “Under the current process, there is little to no guidance for requestors or the public describing the steps in the process or the criteria being used by the federal government to evaluate proposed spending plans for disaster relief funds,” she wrote. “This lack of clarity makes it challenging to navigate the process and inform affected fishery participants and the public about the potential outcomes and timelines for evaluation of a proposed spending plan and the distribution of disaster relief funds.” During the hearing, Sen. Dan Sullivan asked Oliver if the bill should provide more guidance to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NMFS on how to determine disaster declarations and funding. “I think part of the point of the bill is that NOAA and, significantly, (the Office of Management and Budget) might have too much discretion under current law and not enough direction when it comes to the fisheries disaster process,” Sullivan said. “(Wicker’s) bill remedies that.” Ron Warren, the director of fish policy for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, wrote in his comments that Washington has seen an increase in both the frequency and severity of fisheries disasters due to natural disasters since 2008, disrupting the state’s significant fishing economy. The delay in relief funding following the 2015 coho disaster was “especially concerning,” he wrote, as the request from Washington had been fast-tracked. “Given that NOAA scientists have noted another marine heatwave occurring off Washington’s coasts since June of this year, which may be comparable to that observed in 2014, our fisheries could face another disastrous year in 2020,” he wrote. “If that occurs, the local businesses within our fishing communities cannot wait another three years for any potential relief. These processes must be streamlined and improved — it’s that simple.” The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife raised a few concerns about the bill in its current form, noting that the bill should ensure fast-tracked disaster relief funding shouldn’t come from other areas of NOAA operations and that fisheries remain a priority, especially when competing with aquaculture operations, Warren wrote. In their comments, multiple senators connect climate change impacts with increasing instability in fisheries. Outside Alaska, multiple Florida fisheries have been impacted for the past four years by increasingly pervasive algal blooms, and the flooding in the Mississippi River basin in 2019 led to freshwater incursion into the delta and Lake Pontchartrain, killing the majority of the oysters in the Mississippi Sound. Washington state has asked for two fisheries disaster declarations in 2018 and 2019, following a sweeping coho salmon disaster declaration from 2015. Warren told the committee that scientists have connected the recent decline in salmon runs to “the Blob,” a persistent ocean temperature anomaly in the Pacific Ocean from 2013-16 that was connected to a number of ecosystem disruptions. Oliver said in answer to a question that NMFS doesn’t have “the specific data” to say whether climate change will definitively increase fisheries disasters, though scientists have generally agreed that warmer ocean waters have contributed to an increase in harmful algal blooms and increased hurricane frequency. “I think that we are seeing movement of fish from one area to another,” Oliver said. “Whether those particular fish patterns of movements as they’re affected by warm water result in disasters would be difficult for me to speculate. Whether those changes result in fisheries disasters or not, we are in a constant pattern of trying to understand that so we can respond.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Providence opens new line of express clinics across Anchorage

Anchorage residents will soon have access to a brand new type of medical service that Providence Health and Services claims will be faster, cheaper and accessible to everyone. The hospital group this month announced the launch of its ExpressCare services, debuting with five sites across the Anchorage bowl and telemedicine services available statewide. Some of the goals, according to program managers and providers, are to create a “front door” for patients who might not otherwise have a connection to primary care and to create another venue of care for patients who may not need a higher level of acuity. By the beginning of next year, Providence Health and Services will have five Express Care clinics: four in Anchorage and one in Eagle River. The first site, located at 1389 Huffman Park Drive in South Anchorage, opened in mid-October and has already begun seeing patients, said ExpressCare clinic manager Cindi Cieslak. Providence Health and Services already operates ExpressCare services in Washington and Oregon, but the Anchorage program originated from a market survey Providence conducted, said Tom Yetman, the chief executive of Providence Medical Group Alaska. “Instead of telling patients what we were going to do for them, we asked them what they wanted,” he said. “(They wanted) quick care, close to home, seven days a week.” ExpressCare is a step down from urgent care. Urgent care clinics typically provide some level of imaging services; the ExpressCare clinics will provide basic diagnostic tests and vaccines, but will escalate services like imaging and more acute conditions to urgent care clinics, primary care or, in some cases, to the emergency room. The broader availability, quick service and low-acuity services of an ExpressCare clinic would be best suited for low-acuity conditions, Cieslak said, such as an ear infection. The overutilization of emergency departments — where patients with conditions that don’t require the services of an emergency room go there anyway — has been recognized as a problem across the country. Emergency departments are some of the most expensive places to get care. Urgent care centers have proliferated in recent years nationally; between 2013 and 2018, the number of urgent care clinics has grown by more than 30 percent, from 6,100 to 8,447, according to the Urgent Care Association. Yetman said Providence thinks of ExpressCare as not competing directly with primary care or urgent care clinics. Instead, they envision the service reaching patients who may not have necessarily had contact with the medical system before, or who may have gone directly to the emergency department before. “It’s a very nice front door to care,” he said. “If you don’t need an ER, it’s the worst place to get care. It drives up costs for everyone … and you end up waiting a lot.” The care is also designed to be affordable. The clinics accept all insurances, and a visit costs $149. One of the ways they keep costs down is by using advanced practice professionals and certified medical assistants, and by opening clinics in areas with less expensive real estate around the Anchorage area. The location of the clinics also better serves many patients’ needs by being closer to their homes, Yetman said. Though the ExpressCare clinics are all in the Anchorage Bowl area, they’re actually accessible statewide — along with the clinic launches, they will see patients via telemedicine on a virtual platform through an online scheduling system. In addition to being faster and more accessible for some patients, they’re also cheaper at $49 per visit, Cieslak said. The availability of cheaper, lower-level care is appealing for multiple partnering organizations involved with ExpressCare, too. Rhonda Prowell-Kitter, chief financial officer for the Public Education Health Trust, said the organization is excited about the availability of ExpressCare as part of a long-term initiative to reduce costs across the board in the health care industry and for its members. The trust represents school district employees from various districts around the states, including thousands in the Anchorage area. Jill Gaskill, a family practice physician with Medical Park Family Care in Anchorage and a collaborating physician for ExpressCare, said she also thought it was a market likely not being tapped right now. Many people in Anchorage briefly or who don’t regularly go to the doctor may not have an established primary care physician, but may not need a full urgent care visit or emergency department service. “The way I would see this is as an extension of what we are able to provide in a family care clinic,” she said. “I do think that from what Providence has talked to us about and what they’ve kind of been promoting this (is) a way to fill in the gaps. A real key component of that is that there is a real communication base. It’s on Epic (electronic medical records system), which almost every provider is able to access as well.” The hours and accessibility are features that may help reduce emergency department use and connect people with the appropriate setting of care for their needs, she said. For example, primary care physicians are often scheduled several weeks to a month out, and urgent care clinics are not always close or open for the hours someone is looking for. She gave the example of flu cases, which often send people to emergency departments. At the same time, she said there will likely be a learning curve for patients to figure out what kinds of problems are acceptable to be treated at a place like ExpressCare. The clinics are connected to the larger Providence system, which allows them access to Providence’s patient health records, but the information still has to be sent to primary care providers in outside clinics. “It really does fall on the patient to try to figure out, ‘How acute is my problem?’ They don’t really know,” Gaskill said. “I think there will be a little bit of a learning curve. They don’t necessarily know… The other way I think express care will really meet a need is it will provide a door into primary care.” ExpressCare has a list of conditions appropriate at the clinics on its web page and is quick to escalate problems to a higher level of care if necessary, Yetman said. There is still a place for patients’ relationships with their primary care physicians, too, who may help them manage chronic conditions or more complex health problems than a smaller, quick clinic can deal with, too, Gaskill said. “We’re approaching this a little bit of an experiment, to see what we can do to make care for patients better in Anchorage,” she said. “Nobody likes to not have any option when they’re sick. The last thing we want them to do is to go to the ER. It’s always been the last step; if you can’t get access in any of the other ways … I think what we’re doing is trying to make that ladder (toward the high end of the acuity scale) a little bit taller.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

North Pacific council votes to hike observer fees in 2021

The costs for on-board fisheries observers will be increasing, and no one in the industry is particularly happy about it. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to adjust the observer fee percentage to 1.65 percent of ex-vessel values. It was previously set at 1.25 percent. The increase is intended to cover additional observer services to reach the target coverage rate set out by the council for the various fisheries across the North Pacific region. Observers are hired through a federal contracting system. On board, the observers document the catches of both target species and bycatch, and take samples from the catch, among other responsibilities. Typically, they have training in biological sciences and fisheries. Federally managed fisheries are designated as either partial or full coverage, with the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, determining where observers need to go based on the necessary data for each year. Fishermen in the partial coverage category pay a 1.25 percent fee on their landings to cover the cost of observing and the deployment of electronic monitoring systems, collected by the processors on behalf of NMFS. After the program was restructured in 2013, NMFS provided about $4.5 million in funding to help cover operations, and the federal government has contributed funds every year since — about 32 percent of total costs, according to documents submitted to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. However, with the likelihood of federal support diminishing and costs increasing, the council has been looking for ways to fund the program through industry fees. The fee change will be delayed until 2021, making the funds available to pay for at-sea coverage by mid-2022, according to a memo from council staff member Diana Evans. “It should be noted that while the scope of this analysis is focused narrowly on the amount of the observer fee, the Council is also pursuing parallel initiatives with the Fishery Monitoring Advisory Committee (FMAC) to evaluate additional ways to improve cost efficiency for the program,” she wrote. Stakeholders were everywhere from fiercely opposed to begrudgingly supportive, but no one seems to be happy about the increase, particularly in the fixed-gear fleet. Most asked the council to cap the cost increase and instead pursue containment measures and efficiencies to avoid overburdening fishermen. Many recognized that the observer program is important enough to have to continue, but were concerned about the long-term trajectory. Partial coverage is more expensive per trip than full-coverage fisheries. In 2018, a single observer day cost $1,380, while full-coverage observer days cost $382 per day. In theory, the observer fee is supposed to be shared between the processors and fishermen, but the fee analysis completed by council staff indicates that the burden may be shifted more toward the harvesters than the processors, as the existence of a tax lowers the dockside price. The North Pacific Fisheries Association, a trade group based in Homer, pointed to this in connection with its opposition to a fee increase. “NPFA appreciates that the Observer Program is operating on a tight budget, but so are our members,” NPFA President Malcolm Milne wrote in a comment to the council. “We’ve put a lot of effort into the development of a workable Electronic Monitoring Program and have consistently participated in NPFMC committees and workgroups including the FMAC and its subgroups. It is imperative that the Observer Program control its costs and demonstrate some efficiencies and effectiveness before we would willing pay more money for it.” The trawl fleet agreed, though the Midwater Trawlers Cooperative “begrudgingly” supported the fee increase to sustain the observer program, said Heather Mann, the group’s executive director. “We need the observer program,” she said in testimony to the council. “We use it to manage fisheries. When I say begrudgingly (support), I also want to see cost containment measures … We can’t just let the program blow up; we need this program. So let’s fix it.” She added that the group supported the motion that raised fees equally across the fishing sectors, rather than varying rates across sectors. One alternative proposed in the fee analysis would have internalized the cost increase of vessels limited by protected species catch limits to those vessels — specifically, the prohibited catch species-limited trawl fleet. The analysis reasoned that PSC catch by trawl vessels imposes costs on other sectors, but Mann argued that it isn’t fair to single out the trawl vessels. Oceana, a national ocean conservation advocacy nonprofit, supported the fee increase to maintain coverage levels but also encouraged the council to pursue cost containment measures. In its comments, the organization advocated for the council to switch all Gulf of Alaska trawl vessels to the full-coverage category, particularly to control bias in sampling because of the presence of an observer and to make costs more efficient for broader coverage. The Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association also opposed the fee increases until the council looks for efficiencies and cost containment measures. Project Coordinator Dan Falvey told the council that the organization favored the continued implementation of electronic monitoring, which has equipment costs but is generally cheaper than a human observer and easier for small vessels. With current costs increases, he said the program is unsustainable. “How would (the council) sharpen your pencil, shave off 10 percent of the program costs while still getting the coverage rate?” he said. Along with passing the 1.65 percent increase, the council passed a set of priorities for the partial coverage category focusing on cost containment. Among the immediate items for work are conversion of pelagic, or midwater, trawl fisheries to electronic monitoring with shoreside sampling, an integrated monitoring plan for fixed gear that combines electronic monitoring, shoreside sampling and at-sea coverage as needed, and optimizing the size and composition of the fixed gear observed and electronic monitoring. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Crabbers face another round of harvest cuts

Bering Sea crabbers started their 2019-20 season this week with a mixed harvest bag and an uncertain future for their fisheries. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which collaboratively manage the state’s crab fisheries, announced the catch limits and overfishing limit for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands and Bristol Bay crab fisheries last week, just in time for the fisheries to open Oct. 15. While the eastern Bering Sea snow crab fishery’s total allowable catch is up, the Bristol Bay red king crab fishery’s is down and there won’t be a Bering Sea Tanner crab fishery at all. The St. Matthew Island blue king crab and Pribilof blue and red king crab fisheries will remain closed due to stock depletion. Most of these were not terribly surprising to many crab fishermen and fishery stakeholders. The exception was in the Tanner crab fishery — also called the bairdi fishery, after the crab’s scientific name, said Jamie Goen, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association. “I would say we were surprised that we’re not having a bairdi fishery,” she said. “It’s discouraging, because our crab stocks in general are declining.” The survey data collected in the Bering Sea District Tanner crab fishery showed the stock didn’t have enough mature crab to justify a fishery, according to survey data provided to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. ADFG announced that there would be no fishery on Oct. 6, citing a lack of mature male crab biomass in the survey data. That means no Tanner crab can be kept in the snow crab fishery, either. The Tanner crab fishery has seesawed since rationalization was implemented there in 2005. The fishery was open through 2010, when it was determined to be overfished and closed. After it reopened in 2013, the total allowable catch, or TAC, climbed until 2016, when the fishery was closed due to a lack of available mature female biomass, according to the survey that year. The fishery west of 166 degrees West longitude reopened in 2017-18 and 2018-19, with TACs of 2.5 million pounds and 2.4 million pounds, respectively; the fishery east of that line has been closed since 2016. The survey data provided to the North Pacific council determined that the Bering Sea Tanner crab stock is not overfished, but biomass of male crabs has been steadily declining. “Since 2014 the trend has been a steady decline, with male biomass currently at its lowest point (28,000 (tons)) since 2000,” the survey states. The Bristol Bay red king crab fishery has been going through a similar decline over time. Though it’s not closed this year, the TAC is set at 3.797 million pounds, about 12 percent less than last year’s TAC. About 3.4 million pounds is allocated to individual fishing quota, or IFQ, holderss and 379,700 pounds to Community Development Quota, or CDQ, groups, according to ADFG. The survey data provided to the council notes that environmental conditions are likely playing a role in the red king crab’s decline, depressing recruitment. Crab stocks in Alaska generally spiked in the 1970s before swinging low again in the 1980s, then high again in the 1990s. “Due to lack of recruitment, mature and legal crab should continue to decline next year,” the survey report states. “Current crab abundance is still low relative to the late 1970s, and without favorable environmental conditions, recovery to the high levels of the late 1970s is unlikely.” The downward trend in the red king crab fishery is particularly concerning for the fleet. Wild Alaska red king crab commands a high market price and is consistently one of the highest-value fisheries in the United States. Ex-vessel prices have nearly doubled in the last 10 years, rising from an average of $5.11 per pound in 2008 to $9.27 per pound in 2018, according to Fish and Game. “It’s our highest-value stock,” Goen said. The Eastern Bering Sea snow crab fishery is a bright spot, though. Recent survey data has shown strong recruitment, and the 2020 TAC is set at just more than 34 million pounds — about 23 percent more than last year — apportioned with about 30.6 million pounds to IFQ fisheries and about 3.4 million pounds to CDQs, according to Fish and Game. The stock was previously declared overfished in 1999 and has steadily increased since, according to survey data provided to the council. After the observed mature male biomass dropped to an all-time low in 2017, it has increased again as a large recruitment moves through the age classes. The boost in the eastern Bering Sea snow crab biomass has helped offset some of the downturns in the fishery, but there’s a lot of uncertainty in the fleet about the future, Goen said. “It’s ocean acidification, it’s the warming ocean conditions, lack of sea ice, and all the data unknowns,” Goen said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty among the fleet. We’re definitely looking to the science. We’re trying to understand better how (the crab) move, and these stocks are moving further north now from where they normally are… I would say it’s too soon to know what the crab fishers are doing.” There are a lot of unknowns about the factors affecting crab life cycles, recruitment and maturity. Goen pointed to an ongoing National Marine Fisheries Service study using saildrones to track tagged red king crab, gathering more information about seasonal movement, habitat use and interactions with groundfish and trawl fisheries, as well as how crab movement is changing amid changing ocean conditions. If the study proves successful, it may be expanded to other crab stocks. Strong demand is pushing prices for crab higher, according to a presentation by the McDowell Group economist Garrett Evridge at the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute’s All Hands meeting in Anchorage this week. However, threats to the market include tariffs overseas — particularly in China, one of Alaska’s three largest trading partners in seafood — and increasing competition. About 70 percent of the world’s supply of red king crab comes from Russia, while only 10 percent to 15 percent comes from Alaska. Similarly, Alaska produces about 10 percent of the world’s snow crab supply, while Canada produces 45 percent, according to the presentation. Hannah Lindoff, the international program director for ASMI, wrote in an email that the tariffs have driven Chinese consumers toward Chilean and Russian king crab and Canadian snow crab. “Traditionally, crab has been one of the most preferred seafood products in both mainland China and Hong Kong and demand outstrips supply for live king crab into Hong Kong,” she said. “Prior to the current trade situation, Alaska snow crab was an especially popular item at hotel restaurant buffets.” However, she added that recent concerns in Hong Kong about high metal levels in European brown crab have driven a shift toward Alaska seafood. Additionally, Evridge wrote in an email that some of the downward trend in red king crab can be replaced by Southeast’s golden king crab fisheries, where the stocks are doing somewhat better. “One thing that’s unique about the current period is that golden king crab volume is higher than red crab—it’s not usually like that,” he wrote. “Some substitution can occur between the two species. But the golden variety is smaller and generally more difficult to handle as it has sharper spines.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Elders & Youth Conference focused on power of language

Language is more than just a communication medium: it’s power. That’s the core message of this year’s Elders and Youth conference Oct. 13-16 hosted by the First Alaskans Institute at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. The conference precedes the upcoming Alaska Federation of Natives convention, set to begin Oct. 17, also in Fairbanks. The Elders and Youth theme, “Language is Our Superpower,” focuses on the preservation and revitalization of Native languages across Alaska. In addition to cultural dance performances, plenary speakers and workshops, the conference highlights keynote speakers from various Tribes across the state: one for the elders and one for the youth. This year, there are two youth speakers — Tusagvik Oliver and Tusagvik Wilson Hoogendorn, brothers from Nome. This isn’t the brothers’ first brush with statewide attention. Earlier this year, they became Alaska celebrities when they were the first two people to summit Denali for the 2019 season, scaling the 20,310-foot peak in 14 days and skiing down in less than two. Both brothers, in their early 20s, are in college; Tusagvik is studying environmental biology at Fort Lewis College in Colorado and Tusagvik is pursuing aeronautical studies at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Tusagvik said the level of excitement about their climb surprised them when they came back down. They’d expected their family to be excited, but they found themselves receiving congratulations from all over the Native community. “It was after that, when people who we knew or that we’d known before in other Native communities … it was like the pride and what they felt about it—that’s when we started to feel pride about it,” he said. Growing up in Nome, he said the only person he could remember speaking fluent Inupiaq in his family was his great-grandmother. He remembers learning to count in Inupiaq, but they weren’t immersed in the language. He said he doesn’t speak it today, though he would like to learn. “It seems like when just one person learns a language and speaks it, or a couple of people, it doesn’t mean too much. But when you really get a lot of people speaking it and everyone’s conversing, I feel like it’s more (meaningful),” he said. “The sense of pride you get from speaking your Native language, that’s really cool.” Though he said he was excited to leave Nome when he first went to Colorado, it’s been harder and harder to go back south each time. Homesickness for him, he said, smells like the tundra and the frosty mornings of the Arctic. But overall, he says he’s glad he’s broadened his experiences. “Just like in biology, without biodiversity, the ecosystem would die,” he said. “If a person stays in the same place their whole life, they live the same routine over and over again. (Leaving) changes your point of view about what’s valuable to you in life. It’s made me appreciate home a lot more … when I left home, I never thought I was going to go back.” To the southwest of Nome, across the windswept Bering Sea, Elder Tugidaam Ayagaa Sally Swetzof has another perspective. She grew up speaking Unangam Tunuu on Atka, one of the larger Aleutian islands between Unalaska and Adak. English is still hard for her, she said; she thinks in Unangam Tunuu first. “I remember being excited to go to school, not realizing I was going to have to speak English, so as my grade school continued, I’m sure I learned it along the way,” she said. “I don’t recall the exact year. It took me forever to learn it.” As she grew up, she assumed she would have to attend high school at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, as her sisters did. But just as she prepared to go, a high school opened on Adak Island, where the military base was. So she was able to stay closer to home; Adak is only one island over. After high school, she returned to Atka, where she worked for the school district. Eventually, she worked her way up to become the lead Unangam Tunuu instructor for K-12 at the Atka Netsvetov School. The language persevered on Atka, perhaps because the island was so remote. Swetzof recalled that her parents and grandparents spoke the language at home, and as soon as they were off school property as children, they spoke Unangam Tunuu. The children today are learning it through immersion programs the community has implemented called Where Are Your Keys, which has worked with several Native communities across the country to support language revitalization. “The difference naturally is thinking naturally in the language itself that you’re learning. If you take out a Unangam word and translate it to English, they’re continuing to think in English … the idea is to have them think in Unangam Tunuu, in the language that they’re learning, so instead of memorizing, they’ll know this in their head, hopefully,” she said. “I’ve always been an advocate for the Unangam Tunuu, and the youth is starting to realize how precious the language is and taking steps to preserve it, so I’m pleased with that.” Alaska officially recognized Native languages in 2014, and in 2018 former Gov. Bill Walker declared an emergency for Native language preservation. Individual Tribes and regions have been working to revitalize their languages through immersion programs, cultural camps and college classes. Swetzof said she thought not enough is being done and pointed to the example of the Anchorage School District, which has only one school — College Gate Elementary — that offers a Native language immersion program, which focuses on Yup’ik. Other world languages are broadly offered, but Native languages are not. Teachers may be scarce, but there are elders and speakers in the communities who could serve as resources for instruction, she said. “Without language, the culture dies,” she said. “You see that time and again. It’s going faster than we would like it to, and it’s important to stress the fact that if there’s resources out there.” The Elders and Youth Conference is scheduled to begin on Oct. 13 with a Warming of the Hands session at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks. The conference continues from Oct. 14-16 with speakers, events, dance performances and music performances. Registration on site begins at noon Oct. 13 and costs $55 for youth, chaperones and other participants; the fee is waived for elders. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

AFN to focus on ‘good government,’ public safety, services

Thousands of Alaskans are about to converge on Fairbanks for annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention, the largest Native-focused event in the country. While the event features artisans, performances, exhibitions and awards, a major focus is also on social and governance issues affecting Native communities. The theme this year, “Good Government, Alaska Driven,” will explore what an effective state government that serves of the needs of the people would look like. Delegates also vote on resolutions at the convention that guide AFN’s policy advocacy for the upcoming year. “The theme sets our convention’s tone and guides the agenda,” said AFN President Julie Kitka in a press release. “AFN is reaching out to all Alaskans to help build an Alaska we all want to live in. That’s going to be a big part of what we discuss this year.” The two halves of the theme tie to the state government’s fiscal challenges. This year, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy and the Legislature wrestled over the state budget for nearly seven months, disagreeing primarily over school funding, the Permanent Fund dividend, funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System and criminal justice system reform. Many of the items cut in his preliminary budget heavily affected rural Native communities, such as the Power Cost Equalization program and Medicaid. The theme seeks to discuss “the basic necessity of sound, fact-based government policy” and “AFN’s position that sensible, long-term and balanced solutions require meaningful Alaskan input through citizen engagement in the democratic process,” according to the press release. “In 2019, the Dunleavy Administration tested the bounds of this principle,” the conference agenda states. “By example, the governor’s budget and vetoes eliminated (or encumbered) the state’s obligation to provide several constitutionally mandated services. #GoodGovernment requires Alaskans—particularly Alaska Natives—to assess the quality of state government in 2020.” Following that theme is the ongoing crisis of public safety in rural Native communities. The issue drew national attention this summer when U.S. Attorney General William Barr made a visit to Alaska to investigate the lack of meaningful law enforcement. In July, he declared a public safety emergency and made $6 million immediately available to address the issue, with another $4.5 million to follow. Barr will return to Alaska for a panel at the convention, scheduled for the afternoon of Oct. 17 at 2:10. He will be joined by Republican Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. The panel will explore options to improve public safety in the villages, according to the agenda. “Despite the best efforts of a number of well-intentioned people, the state has been unable to stand up a sustainable public safety system in rural Alaska,” the agenda states. “This caused U.S. Attorney General William Barr to declare a historic federal law enforcement emergency earlier this summer. To ensure parity between Alaska’s urban and rural public safety systems, the congressional delegation and the state must work with the Native community.” Another discussion will follow the panel with Barr, Murkowski and Sullivan, the second one specifically focused on safety issues for Alaska Native women and children. U.S. Attorney General for the District of Alaska Bryan Schroder will speak, along with a handful of other law enforcement officials. The convention kicks off Thursday, Oct. 17, at 8 a.m. at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks with a performance by the Tagiugmiut Dancers. After welcoming remarks from Interior Alaska leaders and the mayors of the City of Fairbanks, the Fairbanks North Star Borough, North Pole and Anchorage, Dunleavy will address the convention at 9:05 a.m. Following Dunleavy, Speaker of the House Rep. Bryce Edgmon will speak. The keynote speaker this year, Pete Kaiser, doesn’t draw his fame from government. Instead, he drew attention across Alaska for being the first Yup’ik musher to win the Iditarod sled dog race. Kaiser was already known in his hometown of Bethel and in the mushing community as the four-time winner of the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race, but his win in March in Nome brought out celebration among Natives both in Bethel and across the state. Other discussions on Friday and Saturday will focus on fixes for the Alaska economy, public school funding, the Tribal Child Welfare Compact, economic development, infrastructure, redistricting and unresolved land issues, among other discussions. Throughout the convention, there will be music performances, youth literary readings, dance performances and exhibitions, with delegate discussions and resolution voting on Saturday. Find a complete agenda online at the Alaska Federation of Natives’ website. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

House passes landmark cannabis banking legislation

A bill moving through Congress could open up a legal path for financial institutions to offer banking services to cannabis businesses. The Safe and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, HR 1595, passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 25 by an overwhelming and bipartisan vote of 321-103. The bill would prevent federal regulators from punishing financial institutions that choose to do business with cannabis establishments in states that have legalized its use. Specifically, a federal financial regulator wouldn’t be able to terminate or limit the depository or share insurance of a depository institution; prohibit, penalize or discourage financial institutions from providing services to cannabis businesses and would provide protections for ancillary businesses in transactions with cannabis-related businesses, among other protections. Federal financial regulators also wouldn’t be able to take any adverse or corrective action on a supervisory loan simply because it involves a cannabis business, an employee of one or the owner of a business working with one, according to the bill. Rep. Don Young, one of the bill’s sponsors in the House, said in a press release that his constituents highlighted the banking issue in meetings. Young, co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, has consistently held that cannabis legalization should be up to the states, not the federal government. “When cannabis businesses are not permitted to utilize traditional financial institutions, they are forced to operate cash-only businesses, leaving significant amounts of cash out in the open and making these businesses high-profile targets for robbery and other crime,” Young said in a release. “The SAFE Banking Act is as much a public safety bill as it is a cannabis bill, and I am proud to have been an original co-sponsor of this important initiative.” Lack of access to banking is one of the biggest hurdles for the cannabis industry. Since Alaska’s industry came online in 2016, retailers have been forced to operate on a cash basis, and cultivators have had to pay their taxes in cash. In 2018, retailers conducted more than $130.4 million in total transactions, and cultivators paid more than $15.6 million in taxes, according to the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. Having to operate on a cash basis makes businesses more vulnerable to theft, and employees are limited in their ability to deposit paychecks earned from working with cannabis. Other financial services, like loans, are also off-limits, which hamstrings businesses from being able to operate like other retailers or farmers. Earlier this year, a handful of Alaska cannabis businesses got the chance to try a pilot program for banking through Credit Union 1, but it was short-lived. In August, the credit union announced its intentions to cancel the pilot program because a critical insurance program wouldn’t be renewed if the pilot program continued. “The Alaska Marijuana Industry Association and its members are thrilled to see the SAFE Banking Act pass the House with strong bipartisan support, and hope it will move swiftly through the Senate without hurdle,” said Lacy Wilcox, President of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association, in a press release. A similar bill was introduced in the Senate in April with 33 co-sponsors, including Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan. The Alaska delegation has generally agreed to support legislation delegating more cannabis regulation authority to states. The Senate version of the bill has not moved through hearings. Though HR 1595’s language talks about cannabis, it would also affect the hemp industry. Because of its association with cannabis — hemp is a non-THC-bearing part of the cannabis plant — hemp farmers are also not allowed to access banking services under current federal law. Industrial hemp farming itself was legalized nationally in 2018. Because of its murky legal status, hemp industry stakeholders have also reported difficulties accessing banking services. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, introduced the Hemp Farming Act of 2018, in part because of the interest in farming hemp in his home state. McConnell’s office did not return requests for comment on the SAFE Banking Act, but in previous public statements and newsletters has indicated support for banking availability for hemp-related businesses. Because cannabis is legal either recreationally or medicinally to some extent in 33 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, the American Bankers Association is encouraging the federal government to do something. The gap between federal and state law has caused confusion for financial institutions and creates risk for those who choose to provide services to cannabis businesses. “Current proposals in both the Senate and the House that seek to provide greater clarity and bridge the gap between state and federal law provide a solid starting point for discussion,” the ABA wrote in a statement. “We look forward to working with policymakers of both parties to find solutions that provide the legal and regulatory certainty banks need to best serve their communities.” The Senate is currently in recess and will return Oct. 8. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Launch of Goldbelt vessel a hallmark achievement for Homer

The largest vessel to be built in Homer hit the waves this fall in Kachemak Bay for its maiden voyage. The Goldbelt Seawolf, a 74 foot-long catamaran, launched from Homer earlier this month, headed for service in Southeast Alaska. Built by Bay Welding, the vessel is owned by Goldbelt Transportation Inc., a subsidiary of Juneau Alaska Native corporation Goldbelt Inc. The vessel, which took 11 months to build, will be used to transport workers to and from the Kensington Mine, which Goldbelt Transportation provides service to, as well as for other potential lines of business. Notably, though, the partners involved in the project were all Alaskan. Coast Wise Corp. of Anchorage designed the boat and Alaska Crane transported it from the shipyard in Homer to the water. Goldbelt Transportation made a point to choose Alaskan companies to complete the project, said Goldbelt interim president and CEO McHugh Pierre in a press release. “We place a high value on any ability we have to contribute to the local economy through the commissioning of in-state projects wherever possible,” he said. “In the same vein, we value Alaskan employment — every employee of Goldbelt Transportation that works in Alaska, lives in Alaska, and we are very proud of their hard work and continued success.” It’s a milestone for Homer, too. The small community, situated at the end of the road system on the Kenai Peninsula, has been working to build its marine trades industry for decades. Homer has had a robust commercial fishing fleet since the late 1930s and today is home to an extensive tourism and recreational fishing industry in addition to its commercial fishing fleet. All those businesses need boats, and community organizations and business leaders have been working to try to strengthen the industry there to provide them. Bay Welding recently expanded its space, which the Seawolf didn’t quite fit into, said general manager Eric Engebretson. “This boat was just a little bigger than our shop length-wise,” he said. “We had a long debate when we built the shop how big of a boat we wanted to put in there, and we missed it by a few feet. We made it work down to the inches. Which is nothing new for us; we have a history of using every square foot we can, every inch of height.” The business recently expanded its space with the anticipation of building larger boats, but not specifically the Seawolf, though they had heard of the project when they decided to expand. There is a market for bigger boats, Engebretson said, and Bay Welding can provide for that with the space it has now. It’s more expensive to provide shop space in Alaska, in part because competitors in the Lower 48 don’t have to have enclosed, heated shop space to do the same work. However, Bay Welding was able to offer a competitive bid to build the Seawolf and offered local knowledge. On top of that, workers are closer in Homer for future maintenance than Seattle workers would be, Engebretson said. There’s an ethos to doing business locally as well, he said. “Many of our companies are Alaska businesses or Alaska individuals … they appreciate the value of supporting each others’ businesses,” he said. “They identify with the fact that we’re here. There’s a repetitive motion of businesses doing business with each other that is self-perpetuating.” Homer has been positioning itself to be a center for boat work for decades. The Homer Marine Trades Association, an industry group that promotes Homer as a destination for boat work, has been marketing the city’s services and collaborating with the city harbor since 1994, trying to bring projects like the Seawolf to the area. The launch of the Seawolf was an achievement for the region, said Kate Mitchell with the Homer Marine Trades Association. “(Goldbelt is) a Native corporation that chose to keep their dollars in Alaska … they wanted that boat to be a symbol of Alaska manufacturing,” she said. The first cannery came to Homer in 1939, meaning there were boats fishing for salmon before that, Mitchell said. Lower Cook Inlet has had a strong commercial fishing industry for nearly a century, but the professional businesses providing boat services were not as developed. The industry began to grow as the town did, but fishermen long had to go to Seattle for professional services. By the 1970s, there were a handful of individual businesses working in the marine industries in Homer, but there was little collaboration. When Mitchell founded Mitchell’s Marine Canvas in 1978 — which would later become NOMAR — the business owners were still fairly siloed, she said. When she asked whether there was side work she could do on the interior of boats others were working on, she said she was met with confusion. “That’s just how oblique it was, that anybody would care what they were doing collectively,” she said. Slowly, the number of businesses serving both commercial and sportfishing boats in Homer grew. Today, the region features businesses offering services ranging from welding to upholstery to brailer bags. While there are still many seasonal jobs, the jobs in the marine trades tend to be year-round and pay fairly well, which helps to strengthen and diversify the area’s economy, she said. The main bottleneck to the marine trades industry is workforce development, as there’s a lack of interest in trades education among young people, she said. Homer Marine Trades has been working with AVTEC in Seward and with the university system to provide funding and education opportunities for individuals interested in going into the trades in an effort to grow interest. The long history of efforts to grow the business was part of why the industry group was so excited about the launch of the Seawolf. Bay Welding is a Homer-grown business that was able to compete for a large project, showing off the complete spectrum of work available in the area. “We, being these hippies at the end of the road, had the moxie to establish a marine trades association that markets Homer to the world,” Mitchell said. “I’m like a parent — I’m just proud as punch of what we’ve done.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

SBA extends rural outreach program under 2017 tax bill

The U.S. Small Business Administration is strengthening its outreach efforts to business owners and entrepreneurs in Alaska. Last week, representatives from the SBA visited three communities on the Kenai Peninsula as part of the agency’s Rural Strong Initiative. The events were intended to connect existing businesses and interested entrepreneurs to the various services the agency provides in an effort to boost local rural economies. The initiative began as a regional program in the wake of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Job Act and spread to a national one this year, educating entrepreneurs about SBA services and offering fee relief for SBA-backed 7(a) loans up to $150,000 for rural counties. Rural communities often lose population because there aren’t as many economic opportunities for young people, and they leave for more urban areas. Strengthening the business climate in small towns may help keep people there, said Jeremy Field, the regional administrator for the SBA’s Pacific Northwest division. “The SBA is considered one of the best-kept secrets of the federal government,” he said. “The best part is that it’s free.” Businesses in rural areas face different challenges than urban ones do. While they may have less competition, there’s also fewer potential customers locally, less capital available and limitations on infrastructure like broadband internet. However, when it is available, businesses can expand their customer base to reach a variety of new customers without having to move to a central location. The federal government considers the entirety of Alaska outside Anchorage to be rural, but there are scales within the state. While the Kenai Peninsula communities are rural compared to many regions of the Lower 48, they are still far more developed than the villages and communities off the road system in other areas of Alaska. The most limiting factor in the most rural locations in Alaska is broadband availability, Field said. But even that is changing — the federal government is providing funding for private telecommunications providers to specifically expand into unserved and underserved areas to provide internet service. “(Not having internet today) is almost like not having a telephone in your community in the 1950s,” Field said. In addition to counseling services, the SBA acts as a backer for loans if a business owner has gone through advising. Field said those loan amounts can range from a few thousand dollars to more than a million, and a financial institution is more likely to offer a loan with assurance from the SBA. As they’ve gone into rural communities, one industry has jumped out as an opportunity: tourism. While it’s not an unfamiliar sector to much of Alaska, some rural areas have little infrastructure to support tourists and little familiarity with marketing. Since Alaska’s economy began to contract in 2014, the tourism industry has remained a growth area, particularly in communities with access to cruise ship ports. The number of cruise ship visitors in 2019 broke the state records; in 2020, cruise ship passenger visitation is expected to rise again. The Rural Strong Initiative also highlights export opportunities for small businesses. Alaska already has a long history of exporting materials both domestically and internationally, particularly in the seafood and mining industries. However, even smaller businesses are able to engage more in export opportunities, he said. Federal contracting is another opportunity area for rural areas. A percentage of all the federal government’s contracting has to go to small businesses through the 8(a) program, which gives small businesses a leg-up to compete with the larger corporations. It’s complicated and requires a lot of paperwork to account for the contract monies, which makes it a labor-intensive way to do business, Field said, but it can be a good way to get off the ground. Many of Alaska’s communities have an SBA office; Homer, Kenai, Anchorage and Wasilla all have their own offices. But if the local business counselor doesn’t have the specific expertise, he or she can connect clients to the right agency or expert to help them. In the case of farming, a local business counselor could help connect an aspiring farmer to the right U.S. Department of Agriculture agent, Field said. “If we don’t have a service that will help you, we’ll find you someone that does,” he said. The SBA also has specific advising programs, including a center for women-owned businesses and veteran-owned businesses, and a mentorship program for retired business owners to advise incoming entrepreneurs, Field said. The one industry they can’t offer any help on, though, is cannabis. Though the industry is legal in Alaska and still growing, cannabis is still a federally illegal substance and thus not eligible for federal assistance or traditional lines of business loans. That may change in the future if the federal government changes its position on cannabis, but for now, the SBA can’t help cannabis entrepreneurs, Field said. Even though Alaska is still coming out of a recession — oil prices are still far less than what they were five years ago and the unemployment rate is still the highest in the country — entrepreneurs can still take the opportunity to get off the ground. The SBA has historically given more loans in times of economic downturn, Field said, in part because of the attractiveness of the federal government backing the loans. “They feel alone — they don’t know all the things they need to be successful because nobody does,” he said. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

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.


Subscribe to RSS - Elizabeth Earl