Cook Inlet salmon fisheries into full swing after rough 2018

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

Agriculture Division grapples with managing vetoes

Decision makers in the Department of Natural Resources are in the same boat as Alaska farmers when it comes to making sense of what Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s budget vetoes mean for the state’s agriculture development programs. Nobody seems to know. Division of Agriculture Director David Schade referred questions about how the agency will revamp its operations to Deputy DNR Commissioner Brent Goodrum, who oversees Agriculture and other arms of the department. “We’re in a state of flux,” Schade said, presuming the vetoes are not overridden by the Legislature. DNR spokesman Dan Saddler said department officials are working to implement the reductions and would be able to talk about the changes at a later time. Department commissioners and other agency leaders have mostly been excluded from the budgeting process in the Dunleavy administration. Dunleavy cut the Division of Agriculture budget by more than 60 percent, from approximately $5.1 million to $2 million, on June 28 as part of his $444 million of vetoes to enable the state to pay larger Permanent Fund dividends. The governor’s vetoes followed roughly $280 million in operating budget reductions passed by the Legislature. He chose to eliminate “lower priority programs” in the Division of Agriculture including the Marketing, Agricultural Veterinarian, Farm to Institution, Agriculture Inspections, seed production and pest research programs. Budget documents indicate lower priority programs in the North Latitude Plant Material Center in Palmer will also be cut by more than $1.1 million and $319,000 to administer the state’s active Agriculture Revolving Loan Fund was removed as well. DNR officials told the House Resources Committee in February that the state had 55 loans totaling $7 million in the Agriculture Loan Fund. How the state will oversee what many feel could become a highly successful new crop in Alaska, hemp, is also unclear. The governor vetoed $375,000 of receipt authority, or the ability to accept fee revenue, from the division’s budget; he also struck through the state’s ability to accept $559,000 in federal agriculture development grants and matching funds. Office of Management and Budget documents detailing the reductions explain that “The State’s fiscal reality dictates a reduction in expenditures across all agencies.” Former Gov. Bill Walker signed Senate Bill 6 last year, authorizing the state to develop a pilot project for industrial hemp growers. Since, the state has been working to develop regulations and plans to allow farmers to start growing industrial hemp. The receipt authority in the budget was intended to be for fees the department collected from prospective hemp farmers to get approved for the crop. SB 6 was championed by Palmer Republican Sen. Shelley Hughes, who has largely supported the governor’s plan to drastically cut the budget and state services. Alaska Farm Bureau Executive Director Amy Seitz said she is also trying figure out how the state and its growing agriculture industry will adjust while noting that much of the blocked federal money was for pass-thru federal specialty crop block grants the Division of Agriculture accepts on behalf of Alaska farmers and then distributes. The specialty crop grants are available in some form for “almost everything that’s not livestock,” Seitz said, and they are often used to support value-added crop endeavors. There have already been awardees assigned for this year,” she said of the grants. “My understanding is right now they’re saying those grants are going to have to be sent back to the feds so those projects won’t have funding.” Seitz added that the prospect of an industrial hemp industry was of interest to many farmers. She also wondered how the popular Alaska Grown program will be handled as the $1.5 million marketing section of the division’s budget was reduced by approximately 80 percent. Alaska is one of few states to have a growing agriculture industry. As of 2017, Alaska had 990 farms and had added more than 300 in the previous decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture. Alaska’s farm product sales brought in $70 million in 2017 as well, according to USDA figures. In June, the Division of Agriculture hosted its first round of business-to-business international trade meetings between Alaska farmers and local food manufacturers and Canadian brokers in conjunction with the Western U.S. Agriculture Trade Association. The state’s membership in the organization helped connect the Canadian buyers with the Alaska producers, participants said. According to Seitz, it’s also unknown whether the state will continue to provide Good Agriculture Practices and Good Handling Practices audits that are a prerequisite for farmers to get their products into many grocery chains. “Are the grocery stores going to be able to buy local products — or who’s going to take that on?” she wondered. She added that the Northern Latitude Plant Material Center has long been the primary location for a wide range of research, such as what species perform best in Alaska in addition to seed cleaning and other services. “I think it’s going to be harder than people realize,” Seitz said. “I’m really concerned that it’s going to hurt.” ^ Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Valdez protests AK LNG analysis; Mat-Su Borough satisfied

Federal regulators all but confirmed Nikiski should be the terminus of the proposed $43 billion Alaska LNG Project when they released the draft version of its environmental review June 28, but officials hopeful to see the project in two other areas have very divergent views on that conclusion. The City of Valdez filed initial comments July 8 with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on the Alaska LNG environmental impact statement, or EIS, that note just one page of the roughly 3,800-page document is devoted to analyzing a route to Valdez and it “ignores the substantial advantages” that route would provide the project. Previous gasline investigations have determined routing a project to Valdez is the least environmentally damaging option, largely because the pipeline would follow the existing Trans-Alaska Pipeline System route, according to city officials. “Moreover, FERC appears to have taken (Alaska Gasline Development Corp.’s) unsupported assertions regarding the impacts of the Valdez Alternative at face value without conducting the additional research or analysis mandated by (the National Environmental Policy Act),” the comments state. Alaska Gasline Development Corp. leadership has, through multiple management changes, stuck with Nikiski as the chosen locale for the project’s massive LNG plant. Nikiski was selected in 2013 when ExxonMobil was leading early work on the project in a consortium with BP, ConocoPhillips and the state. Former ExxonMobil Alaska LNG Project manager Steve Butt said at the time that the project team studied more than 20 sites across Cook Inlet, Resurrection Bay and Prince William Sound. Nikiski was chosen largely for its flat terrain and the ability to provide natural gas to the state’s four largest population centers along the pipeline route. The draft EIS largely affirms the conclusions of AGDC and the producers. The producer companies solidified their project endpoint by subsequently purchasing nearly 700 acres along tidewater in Nikiski to begin preparing for the eventual LNG plant. Interim AGDC President Joe Dubler said in a statement following the release of the draft EIS that publication of the voluminous document indicates significant progress toward obtaining the key authorization to build the project. The final EIS is expected in March 2020 with a commission decision on the project coming in the following months. The public comment period on the draft EIS closes Oct. 3. Whether or not the State of Alaska, through AGDC, will follow through and build Alaska LNG if it gets authorization from FERC remains to be seen. Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy has directed the state-owned corporation to drastically slow its marketing and contract efforts related to the project and focus on the regulatory issues, which is a marked reduction in the work AGDC was doing under former Gov. Bill Walker’s administration. “The ongoing permitting process incorporates more than 150,000 pages of data and should give Alaskans confidence that the project’s merits and impacts are being rigorously scrutinized,” Dubler said. Valdez officials note that going to Nikiski requires approximately 196 miles of new pipeline right-of-way through currently undeveloped areas as well as a 27-mile subsea crossing of upper Cook Inlet, which is considered critical habitat for the endangered population of Cook Inlet Beluga whales. The comments note their route would also avoid construction in several state game refuges and possibly the edge of Denali National Park; however, whether or not the 42-inch Alaska LNG pipeline would cut through a small portion of the park or skirt around it is unclear at this point. AGDC’s current route plan — primarily developed by the producers — is to generally have the gasline follow the TAPS corridor from the North Slope south to about Livengood north of Fairbanks before splitting off and cutting through the Alaska Range along the Parks Highway. The southern portion of the pipeline route would parallel the Susitna River along its west side until reaching the Cook Inlet crossing to Nikiski. A gasline to Valdez has been studied extensively in the past but AGDC officials contend crossing over Thompson Pass just north of Valdez presents engineering challenges. They also note the different engineering requirements for the oil-carrying TAPS, more than half of which is above ground, and a gasline that would be completely buried. The comments also contend that the draft EIS “unlawfully includes impacts” from a potential spur pipeline from Glennallen to Palmer, which Valdez officials insist is not a reasonable foreseeable impact of routing to Valdez. “By aggregating Palmer Spur and Valdez Alternative data, FERC makes it impossible to discern the environmental impact specifically with (the) Valdez Alternative and the Nikiski Alternative,” the document states. The City of Valdez was granted intervener status on the project, meaning it can request the commission to reconsider its decisions on the Alaska LNG Project and can also appeal FERC actions in federal court. Site analysis FERC officials wrote in the draft EIS that AGDC first looked for plant sites with between 800 and 1,200 available acres with waterfront access for development, but reduced the size requirement to at least 400 acres after additional design work was done for the Nikiski site. They evaluated seven LNG plant site alternatives identified by AGDC, according to the EIS. Anderson Bay is a 464-acre state-owned site adjacent to Valdez and within its city limits that FERC evaluated. The EIS notes that it would not drastically increase the length of the mainline pipe from the 807 miles needed to reach Nikiski and would avoid the construction issues associated with Cook Inlet’s turbid and turbulent waters, but it would require an additional 113 miles of lateral pipelines to reach Anchorage and Fairbanks. The current plan calls for a roughly 30-mile spur pipeline running east from the main gasline to Fairbanks. It would connect to the Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna Borough population centers through the existing gas pipeline network in the region. The Anderson Bay option would impact an additional nearly 1,400 acres of land, much with wetland and forest resources, according to FERC. “Unlike the proposed mainline pipeline, the Anderson Bay mainline pipeline would also cross two federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers; however, minor deviations from the TAPS corridor would avoid the areas within the WSR designations,” the EIS states. FERC officials also largely agreed with AGDC’s assessment of burying the gasline for about five miles through Thompson Pass. It would “likely add significantly to the construction complexity, lengthen the construction schedule and increase environmental impacts,” they wrote. Laden LNG tankers traversing narrows near Valdez and the Hinchinbrook Entrance to Prince William Sound would also cause vessel traffic problems, according to FERC, as those tankers would need a very large safety zone established around them to travel safely. A 968-acre Robe Lake site near Valdez would require moving the Richardson Highway and several residential developments, according to the EIS, along with adding between 4 million and 13 million cubic yards of fill to get the plant above potential tsunami wave heights. The current plan calls for re-routing the Kenai Spur Highway through Nikiski to avoid the LNG plant site, which would require 3.4 miles of new highway, according to AGDC. A Robe Lake LNG plant would also require the loading dock to extend about a mile and need additional dredging to reach the 60-foot water depths large LNG tankers demand. It would also have the same vessel traffic constraints as Anderson Bay and would mean displacing 142 homes instead of the 16 estimated under the Nikiski option, according to FERC. Valdez officials said through their comments to FERC that they will file additional comments further detailing the failures in the draft EIS. “Alaskans deserve a robust comparative analysis of the Nikiski Alternative and the Valdez Alternative to allow a reasoned decision between them and ensure that both environmental impacts and project costs are minimized,” the comments state. Mat-Su satisfied After expressing their displeasure for years over allegedly having their favored LNG plant site unfairly dismissed by AGDC and the producers, Mat-Su Borough officials seem to be satisfied with FERC’s analysis. Mat-Su Borough Manager John Moosey said in a brief interview that borough staff are still reading through the EIS, but he believes it shows the Port MacKenzie site “in a fair and more accurate light, and that’s really what we wanted.” He noted that borough officials simply wanted the federal record to accurately reflect Port MacKenzie — across Knik Arm from Anchorage — whether for the Alaska LNG Project or other potential developments. “If the State of Alaska believes Nikiski is the best place and the project can happen we’re all in favor of that,” Moosey added. “I just think a lot of extra energy got wasted over five years of being ignored and not providing factual information.” They contended over the past several years that ExxonMobil’s initial review of potential LNG plant sites didn’t even consider the correct site. The site evaluated and dismissed by the Alaska LNG consortium is private land about three miles north of Port MacKenzie. It has extensive tide flats that would require a 1.6-mile trestle or a massive dredging operation to access water that is continuously 50 feet deep, which is necessary for the large LNG tankers that would berth at the dock. The EIS states that borough officials asked FERC to analyze a liquefaction site about 2 miles from tidewater that turned out to consist mostly of wetlands. AGDC also said the distance from tidewater would add design and operational challenges. Therefore, FERC did not evaluate it in detail. AGDC officials have said that while ending the pipeline at Port MacKenzie would cut 60 miles off the pipeline it would require demolishing the existing dock and construction of a larger one, which the EIS notes would mean additional dredging during construction. According to the EIS, the shipping channel across Knik Shoal would also have to be dredged to the tune of 700,000 cubic yards per year for the life of the project based on AGDC’s projections. Additional considerations for Port MacKenzie being in some of the most critical Beluga habitat and more challenging winter ice conditions in the upper reaches of Cook Inlet, among others, led FERC to conclude Port MacKenzie would not be a significant improvement over Nikiski. “FERC did what they’re supposed to do and I thought they did a fine job,” Moosey said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Best practices help Juneau absorb leap in tourist traffic

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

FISH FACTOR: ‘Unheard of’ flood of pinks surprises at Alaska Peninsula

The biggest fish story for Alaska’s salmon season so far is the early plug of pinks at the South Alaska Peninsula. By June 28, more than 8 million pink salmon were taken there out of a statewide catch of just more than 8.5 million. Previously, a catch of 2.5 million pinks at the South Peninsula in 2016 was the record for June and last year’s catch was just 1.7 million Managers at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at Sand Point said at this pace, this month’s catch could near 10 million pinks. “It’s unheard of, really,” ADFG’s Elisabeth Fox told KDLG radio. Typically, pink salmon return to the South Pen region in July and managers believe the earlier arrivals are not homing in on local streams. “We don’t know where these pinks are going,” Fox said. No tagging studies have been done on the pinks passing through, but they could be headed farther north to Norton Sound where record numbers also have shown up for the past few years. “There is no known link between South Peninsula pinks and Norton Sound,” Jim Menard, Area Manager for ADFG in Nome, told SeafoodNews.com. You can track Alaska’s daily salmon catches by region and species with ADFG’s Blue Sheet. There are also in-season summaries that graph the weekly progression of commercial salmon harvests and compare it with five-year averages. Pink pressure All those pink salmon could face stiff headwinds from Russia in global markets. Alaska projects a total catch of nearly 138 million pinks this summer, 97 million more than last year, and Russian fleets expect another huge haul. “If Alaska and Russia both realize their forecasts it will be interesting to see how the market reacts,” said economist Garrett Evridge with the McDowell Group. Just how big might Russia’s pink salmon catch be? “Russia is anticipating a harvest in line with last year which was a record. It was over one billion pounds,” Evridge said. “For context, in 2018 Alaska harvested about 150 million pounds.” Speaking of Russia, we’re into the fifth year of an embargo that Russia put on U.S. seafood and other food purchases in 2014 to retaliate for alleged U.S. meddling in Ukraine affairs. That‘s been an annual loss of over $60 million to Alaska, mostly for salmon roe sales to Russia which had grown by 222 percent in 2013, according to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to buy increasing amounts of seafood from Russia, mostly king crab, snow crab and sockeye salmon. Trade data show the US bought $51 million of Russian-caught seafood in 2018. Dunleavy déjà vu On June 28, Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy cut an additional $444 million from Alaska’s operating budget. All the amendments that the legislature had added back into the original ADFG budget were vetoed. There is a gag order on fisheries staff at ADFG and no one is allowed to talk about the budget cuts. All questions are referred to “the governor’s administration.” United Fishermen of Alaska provided this initial breakdown: • $997,000 less for commercial fisheries management • 50 percent reduction in funds for travel across all divisions (including Commercial Fisheries) • $280,000 less for special areas management • Transfer of two director-level positions and associated funding from the Division of Habitat and Division of Subsistence Research to the Office of Management and Budget. (these jobs will no longer be associated with ADFG-related duties) Shuckin’ time One of Alaska’s most exclusive fisheries gets underway on July 1: weathervane scallops. Just two boats take part in the fishery that spans from Yakutat to the Bering Sea. “It’s not something you can get into easily,” said Nat Nichols, area shellfish manager at ADFG in Kodiak. “It takes a fair bit of institutional knowledge and also specialized gear. Lots of people have some Tanner crab pots lying around but not many have a 15-foot New Bedford scallop dredge in their backyards.” The scallop fishery also is very labor intensive as it includes crews of up to 12 people who catch and shuck the catch. “Every Alaska scallop you’ve ever seen was shucked by hand,” Nichols said. This year the two boats will compete for 267,000 pounds of shucked meats, which are the adductor muscle that keeps the shells closed. They are a wildly popular delicacy and can pay fishermen $6 to $10 per pound, depending on size and grade. Scallop boats drop big dredges that make tows along mostly sandy bottoms of strictly defined fishing regions. The fishery is co-managed with the federal government and has 100 percent observer coverage. It takes a scallop around five years to be large enough to retain in the fishery. Weathervane scallops are the largest in the world and their shells can measure 8 to 10 inches across. Get thee to a DMV! A request by United Fishermen of Alaska to postpone a new state title and registration law that requires fishing vessels, tenders, barges and sport fish boats to register at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles was denied by Department of Administration’s Commissioner Kelley Tshibaka. Here’s the breakdown from the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission: Undocumented vessels without a valid certificate of documentation issued by the U.S. coast guard must continue to be registered with the DMV and now must also be titled with the DMV. Documented vessels with a valid certificate of documentation issued by the USCG now must also be registered with the DMV. Federally documented vessels are exempt from the new title requirements but are no longer exempt from the DMV registration requirement. Fish movers Alaskans Cora Campbell and Nicole Kimball have been named to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council by the U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The council oversees over 25 Alaska fisheries from three to 200 miles from shore. Campbell is a former ADFG Commissioner and current CEO of Silver Bay Seafoods, a company started by fishermen in Sitka in 2007 that has grown to become one of Alaska’s largest seafood companies. Kimball served for many years as federal fisheries coordinator for ADFG and is currently vice president of Pacific Seafood Processors Association that has represented Alaska seafood companies since 1914. Both will serve three-year terms that begin on Aug. 11. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

EPA sharply critical of Pebble draft; ‘preemptive veto’ revisited

Environmental Protection Agency headquarters leaders want their Pacific Northwest colleagues to again consider rescinding a proposed restriction for the Pebble mine. At the same time, those regional officials have several questions about the thoroughness of the ongoing environmental review of the project. EPA Region 10 Administrator Chris Hladick signed off on 174 pages of comments July 1 to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Alaska officials overseeing the Pebble environmental impact statement, or EIS, and the closely related Clean Water Act wetlands fill permit. The public comment periods on the draft EIS and the Clean Water Act Section 404 permit application closed July 1. The 115 pages of EIS comments stress a desire from EPA Region 10 leaders to see significantly more analysis regarding possible damage to the environment and subsistence activities, among other things from the proposed mine and its expansive network of support infrastructure. “Given the substantial potential impacts and risks of the proposed project and weaknesses in the (draft EIS), the DEIS likely underestimates adverse impacts to groundwater and surface water flows, water quality, wetlands, fish resources, and air quality. Therefore, conclusions that the project will not violate applicable water quality and air quality standards should be further supported,” Hladick wrote in an accompanying letter to Corps of Engineers Project Manager Shane McCoy, who is in charge of the Pebble EIS. Hladick is a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development under former Gov. Bill Walker and has served as manager to several local governments across Alaska, including the City of Dillingham, a commercial fishing hub in the Bristol Bay region. As currently proposed, the Pebble project would consist of a 608-acre open pit mine with a depth of nearly 2,000 feed accompanied by two large tailings storage facilities, water management ponds and other structures such as the ore mill, a worker camp and a large power plant. The megaproject would also require support infrastructure including 77 miles of new roads from the mine site to tidewater; an ice-breaking ferry across Iliamna Lake to haul metal concentrates; a deepwater port in Kamishak Bay on the west side of Cook Inlet; and a 188-mile cross-Inlet natural gas pipeline from the southern Kenai Peninsula to the mine site to provide feedstock gas for the power plant. The mine site would cumulatively disturb more than 8,000 acres, nearly half of which would be from the tailings storage facilities. The overall project would result in the destruction of approximately 3,500 acres of wetlands and 80 miles of streams, according to Pebble’s wetlands fill permit application. The EPA determined in 2014 — based on the conclusions of its Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment — that any project resulting in the loss of more than 1,100 acres of wetlands and water bodies in the area would be an unacceptable impact. How Pebble will, or can, sufficiently mitigate the wetlands losses is unclear at this point and is an issue Region 10 officials and many groups opposed to the mine have highlighted. EPA’s comments on the draft EIS insist the roughly 1,400-page EIS does not provide sufficient baseline data regarding the ecological functions of the potentially impacted wetlands and other water bodies; therefore, it is difficult to develop a requisite mitigation plan to offset the project’s impacts. Similar work needs to be done in regards to the prospective impacts on fish populations and their habitat, Region 10 officials concluded. “The EPA recommends significant improvements to: (fish) habitat characterization, assessment, quantification, and spatial referencing; assessment of linkages between the loss and/or degradation of habitat and impacts to fish species and life stages [i.e., incubating eggs, spawning fish, and rearing juveniles]; groundwater and surface water flow characterization at a scale that is more relevant to fish and fish habitat; and analysis of the potential population-level effects and effects on genetic diversity in the context of the Bristol Bay salmon portfolio,” the comment document states. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adjudicates wetlands fill permit applications under the Clean Water Act. The EPA has the final authority to veto a permit for projects it deems would result in unacceptable environmental damage. The Democrat-controlled U.S. House of Representatives passed a spending bill June 19 with language — known as the Huffman amendment — prohibiting the Army Corps of Engineers from spending money to finalize the Pebble EIS in the 2020 federal fiscal year. That legislation is now under consideration in the Senate. Region 10 officials also note that Pebble’s draft compensatory mitigation plan “includes only a conceptual discussion” of potential means to offset the project’s substantial impacts to wetlands and water bodies and does not mention specific mitigation work the company could employ. Pebble’s draft compensatory mitigation plan in the EIS notes that restoring wetlands near the project — a common practice for project proponents elsewhere in the U.S. — is impractical because the area is undeveloped. As a result, it states the company will likely focus on fish habitat restoration in adjacent watersheds such as the Kenai, Susitna and Matanuska “through culvert rehabilitation and other fish passage improvements that have the potential to benefit the greater Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet watershed areas.” Pebble Partnership spokesman Mike Heatwole said Pebble plans to develop more specific wetlands mitigation measures as the permitting process continues and the exact permit requirements become more clear, which he said is common for large projects such as the mine. According to the EPA, the draft EIS also lacks up-to-date information regarding subsistence activities in and near the project area. Much of the information it contains regarding subsistence harvests is from a 2004 Alaska Department of Fish and Game analysis and other studies up to 2008; Region 10 officials recommend more recent data be collected or more justification as to why the included subsistence data is sufficient be provided. The EPA also suggests the final EIS should include development alternatives for lining the tailings storage facilities to prevent contaminated water from percolating into the water table. Heatwole contends that lining the tailings storage facilities would be counter to the water management plan the company developed specifically in response to concerns about a potential tailings dam failure. Currently, Pebble plans to allow water to flow through the tailings facilities to prevent additional pressure buildup behind the dams. The water will be treated to meet state and federal water quality standards before it is released into the environment, according to Pebble. Many mine opponents stress the water at the mine site will need to be treated in perpetuity — something they argue can’t be guaranteed. Finally, the Region 10 officials contend the draft EIS should contain more information about the impacts of potential further development of the Pebble copper and gold deposit beyond what the company is currently applying for. They note Pebble’s parent company, Vancouver-based Northern Dynasty Minerals has discussed mining the larger, deeper eastern portion of the deposit as recently as 2017. For that and other reasons, the EIS should consider an expanded mining scenario in more detail or explain why evaluating the impacts of additional mining is unnecessary, according to the EPA. Pebble opponents also emphasize that the current smaller, 20-year mine plan is an attempt by the company to get a mine approved that will undoubtedly grow. According to Pebble’s Clean Water Act wetlands fill permit application, the 20-year plan would recover 6.7 billion pounds of copper, 353 million pounds of molybdenum and 10.7 million ounces of gold, while the overall Pebble deposit is estimated to contain more than 80 billion pounds of copper, 5.5 billion pounds of molybdenum and 107 million ounces of gold at higher average grades than the initial mining area. The latest Northern Dynasty investor presentation dated June 2019 also touts the Pebble deposit as containing precious metal resources equivalent to “1.8 percent of all the gold ever mined” in human history. It also contends the draft EIS is “robust and comprehensive” and is the result of more than $150 million worth of environmental baseline data collected over 10 years. The draft document contains “no substantive data gaps” and “no significant impacts” that cannot be sufficiently mitigated, according to Northern Dynasty. ‘Preemeptive veto’ revisted While EPA Region 10 officials were busy critiquing the draft Pebble EIS, the agency’s headquarters leaders in Washington, D.C. were asking them to also revisit lifting a proposed ban on building the mine. EPA General Counsel Matthew Leopold directed Hladick in a June 26 memo to reconsider the agency’s July 2014 preliminary determination that it should use its Clean Water Act authority to prohibit mine development in the Bristol Bay — commonly referred to as a “preemptive veto” of the mine. Leopold noted that the proposed veto determination is still pending five years after it was reached and has not been finalized either way; it must be lifted as an administrative requirement before the Corps of Engineers can approve Pebble’s 404 wetlands permit application. Former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt in January 2018 unexpectedly chose to keep the Obama administration’s proposed determination in place, at the time citing “serious concerns” the agency had about the impacts of mining activity on the Bristol Bay watershed and the salmon it supports. Pebble sued the agency in 2014 alleging the EPA was biased in its proposed action after improperly colluding with anti-Pebble groups to reach its conclusion. A subsequent 2017 settlement company called for the agency to consider rescinding the proposed veto determination. The current situation has caused confusion about where the agency stands in regards to the project, according to Leopold. “To remove any confusion and uncertainty, Region 10 should lift the ‘suspension’ and withdraw the 2014 proposed determination or leave it in place,” Leopold wrote. According to Region 10 officials, Hladick, as regional administrator, is believed to be the decision-maker on the proposed determination, but that decision will be made in close coordination with headquarters officials. Current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler last year recused himself from all Pebble decisions because he had worked for a law firm that provided services to a client related to Pebble issues. Pruitt had indicated the EPA would hold additional public hearings on the determination if it were ever revisited; however, Leopold wrote that Region 10 should forgo more public input given the several rounds of public comments the EPA and Corps of Engineers have solicited on Pebble in recent years. Leopold also urged Hladick to invoke “elevation procedures” for Pebble under a 1992 EPA-Army Corps agreement that provides for additional scrutiny on projects that could cause “substantial and unacceptable impacts to aquatic resources of national importance.”

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