Oiled Alaskans may get greased in Sea Hawk appeal

After waiting nearly 20 years, thousands of “oiled” Alaskans are now set to get checks from Exxon before Christmas.

The money, $507 million, comes from damage awards stemming from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. More than 32,000 Alaskans are eligible for settlement checks; 80 percent are fishermen.

Holiday hopes could be dashed, however, unless an appeal by Sea Hawk Seafoods is kicked to the curb this month in an Anchorage courtroom. Sea Hawk, a former Prince William Sound fish processor, has filed a lawsuit to reshuffle the long agreed upon payment amounts and boost its share by $7.6 million.

“That would basically alter the plan of allocation that took almost 10 years to build,” said Andrew Ott, a plaintiffs’ attorney in Kodiak.

The legal wrangling could set back payments to all claimants for years. Ott, along with Oiled Fishermen’s Frank Mullen of Homer, said the court does not appear to be very sympathetic to the case. Early court briefs called Sea Hawk’s motion “at best highly disruptive of ongoing proceedings, and at worst divisive and ill-considered.”

“No one can second guess the judge, but at first blush, it does seem to be the direction the judge is going,” Ott said. “I hope this will just go away and we can move forward (with the distributions) very quickly.”

“My hope is that Sea Hawk pays all expenses associated with their last minute grab,” Mullen added in an e-mail.

Even Exxon lawyers have joined the call for a quick resolution to the case.

“This litigation has gone on long enough, and Sea Hawk should not be permitted to prolong it,” Exxon attorneys told reporters.

If the Sea Hawk case is settled on the Nov. 15 target date, Exxon checks would be distributed before Christmas. By then, oil spill plaintiffs might also know the status of the additional $488 million in interest payments that Exxon has appealed.

“That is now on a briefing schedule with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and they may come out with a ruling by year’s end,” Ott said, “but more likely in early 2009.”

After decades of debate, the National Organic Standards Board has made its final recommendations on what aquaculture products are considered “organic.”

Getting the seal of approval are wild-caught forage fish that are used as feeds for farmed fish and livestock. But wild-caught fish to feed humans did not make the organic grade.

“It defies common sense and logic,” said Kate Troll, executive director of the Alaska Conservation Alliance.

Troll worked for years with the board on behalf of Alaska’s seafood industry as a former fishery specialist with the state Commerce Department.

“When we were dealing with trying to get Alaska salmon into the organic program, the biggest obstacle was ’we don’t know where they feed or what they’re living off of.’ But you can say that same thing of the wild fish they are certifying,” Troll said.

Troll and other critics claim the same standards are not applied to other organic products.

“They certify bees that make honey, and they migrate over thousands of miles. You don’t know where the bees have been. A lot of the rain that falls on organic crops; you don’t know where the rainfall has been either,” Troll said. “Wild fish are held to a higher bar.”

Forage fish, such as sardines, anchovies and menhaden, account for 37 percent of all fish taken from the world’s oceans each year. Nearly all of the fish are ground up and used as oils and feeds for livestock, poultry and farmed fish.

Pigs and chickens eat six times more seafood than U.S. consumers, according to U.N. reports. Critics claim the forage fish industry is “squandering a precious human food resource and disregarding the overfishing crisis in world oceans.”

Meanwhile, Alaska seafood producers will continue touting their popular wild, sustainable and safe messages in the marketplace. Troll said the USDA organic brand does have market clout.

“It assures consumers that it is pure and free of contaminants and healthy to eat. It’s a term they connect with,” Troll said.

The USDA could approve the standards by the end of November.

The Alaska Shellfish Growers Association met in Anchorage last week, and along with bi-valves, they were set to be talking jobs.

There are 26 shellfish farms operating now in Alaska, mostly for oysters. The value of the crop last year was $500,000. Some estimate the industry could be worth $70 million or more, just in Southeast, and provide good jobs in rural regions.

“If we look at what are the opportunities in Alaska for year-round sustainable jobs in Southeast, Prince William Sound, Kenai Peninsula and along the Aleutians, the shellfish industry is one of the best options we have,” said John Sund of the Alaska Oceans Center in Ketchikan. “We need to help the industry grow.”

Rodger Painter of Tenass Pass farms near Juneau said growers have learned to mechanize more parts of their operation, and are using waves and tides to turn their oyster crops.

An offshoot for any coastal region could be seaweed farms - especially kelp, which is a $2 billion industry in Japan. Nori, for example, is a staple food throughout Asia, and is loaded with nutrients. Kelp provides alginin, an edible material widely used in ice cream and cosmetics. The seaweed industry is considered untapped in North America.

Painter said St. Lawrence Islanders were interested in kelp farming but no funds were available to jump start a project. Mariculture programs are faring better elsewhere - a new center in Homer will serve growers at Kachemak Bay, king crab are being grown at the Alutiiq Pride Hatchery in Seward, the new Oceans Center in Ketchikan aims to be a world leader in mariculture, and the state’s largest shellfish nursery at Naukiti on Prince of Wales Island has helped replace timber as a leading industry.

Mariculture jobs could help slow the out-migration from rural Alaska, Painter said.

“It’s very scary. People are fleeing rural Alaska and coastal villages,” he said. “We can’t necessarily solve the problem of high costs of groceries and fuel, but maybe we can provide some jobs.”

11/09/2016 - 12:55pm