Utilities’ request for extension to coordinate meets resistance

A request by Alaska Railbelt electric utility leaders to double the time to implement major grid reform legislation has been met with disdain from some key regulators and stakeholders. The general managers and CEOs of the Chugach, Golden Valley, Homer and Matanuska electric associations along with Seward’s utility director wrote to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska in a March 29 letter to ask lawmakers for another year to hash out the regulations needed to stand up a new grid planning organization they’ve dubbed the Railbelt Reliability Council, or RRC. The establishment of such an organization to improve electric generation and transmission coordination amongst the state’s largest power utilities is at the heart of Senate Bill 123 passed last year, which mandated the utilities to work with the RCA on the decades-old issue. Utility leaders noted in a series of subsequent public RCA hearings that most similar legislation comes with a two-year window to complete the accompanying regulations, while lawmakers specifically put a one-year timeline for the complex and often highly technical regulations underpinning SB 123. An audibly frustrated RCA Chairman Bob Pickett responded to the utility’s concerns during an April 7 teleconference that the July 1 deadline for the final RRC regulations has been known since the start of the process. Pickett further said asking the Legislature for such an obscure statutory change at this point in the session is a long shot at best. He also questioned whether the RCA, a sub-agency of the Commerce Department, can make an official request to lawmakers independent of the governor’s office. “At the tail end (of the legislative session) the only way something like this would happen is some kind of lobbyist-driven amendment by the utilities,” Pickett said. Chugach CEO Lee Thibert said the utilities are not trying to stop the process and all backed SB 123 but the regulatory development has taken much longer than expected. “We can’t let this get rushed through and have problems for the next umpteen years. We need to take the time and get it right the first time,” Thibert said.” Matanuska Electric CEO Tony Izzo later told Pickett the utilities would not seek the extension without the commission’s backing, though RCA member Dan Sullivan said he thought the request could be fulfilled if enough weight was behind it. The utilities also contend that early drafts of the regulations maintain too much control over the RRC with the commission and are not in line with the more collaborative intent of SB 123. Renewable Energy Alaska Project Executive Director Chris Rose, who sits on the 12-member RRC Implementation Committee, insists the utilities themselves are having a hard time ceding control over grid infrastructure that under the old system is disjointed, inefficient and intentionally limits third-party investments, namely large renewable energy projects. Rose testified that he and other non-utility committee members have donated countless hours of their time over the past nine months to ultimately improve the region’s electric infrastructure and save ratepayers money. “It was, and still is, stunning to me that the same utilities who like to say that they are working collaboratively with the others on the RRC would submit a letter to you asking to prolong an already too long process for another year without discussing the letter or its implications with the other RRC members,” Rose said. Other RRC committee members said they also believe the utilities want to retain control of the grid and are searching for an opportunity to do so. Suzanne Settle, CIRI Energy Vice President and an RRC committee member, reiterated Rose’s point that the group has put in untold hours in sometimes afternoon-long meetings each week. “Everyone wants to get this right but when you’re trying to do things that are complicated and transformational you’re not going to be perfect, so you just have to do your best and keep improving along the way,” Settle said in an interview. CIRI owns the Fire Island wind project and had plans to expand the project scuttled in 2017 when agreements for tariff rates to transmit the company’s power to Fairbanks couldn’t be reached. It’s those kind of stable-cost deals for renewable power that the RRC should help facilitate, she said. “Regional planning in the long run will reduce electric costs for the bulk of Alaskans, Settle said. “I think it’s 20 years overdue.”

Florida sues Biden administration and CDC to reopen cruise industry

Florida has filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to force the reopening of the state’s cruise industry. The lawsuit, filed April 8 in U.S. District Court in Tampa, names as defendants the CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the agencies’ appointed leaders. It claims the CDC’s COVID-19 prevention guidelines for cruise ships are “arbitrary and capricious,” unconstitutional, and violations of the federal laws governing administrative procedures. The lawsuit deepens a battle between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Biden administration over the wisest course out of the pandemic. DeSantis has lifted most restrictions on businesses in Florida and has repeatedly criticized Biden’s cautious steps. DeSantis last week issued an executive order barring businesses from requiring that customers be vaccinated. He sidestepped a reporter’s question at a news conference April 8 asking whether he would accept a CDC requirement requiring passengers to be vaccinated as a condition for resuming cruises. “We’re not doing vaccine passports in Florida,” the governor interjected. “It’s not necessary. It causes a huge amount of problems, and I think you’re seeing a huge groundswell against these.” Whether DeSantis has any authority over vaccine requirements by cruise lines, which are all registered in overseas countries and operate mostly in international waters, remains to be seen. The governor’s press secretary did not immediately respond to questions, emailed after the announcement, asking if he would accept a vaccination mandate from the CDC and whether he believes he has authority over cruise lines’ vaccination requirements. Attorney Dawn Myers, partner with the government and regulatory team of Miami-based firm Berger Singerman, said DeSantis likely has no authority under interstate law, international law or maritime law to bar cruise lines from requiring vaccinations unless “cruise ships were going from Florida port to Florida port.” Success of the state’s lawsuit against the CDC, Myers said, could depend on which federal judge is assigned to the case, how hard the CDC fights it, and whether the cruise industry decides to join it. The lawsuit seeks to invalidate CDC guidelines for resuming cruises and allow the industry to immediately reopen with reasonable safety protocols. The suit claims that Florida has been damaged by the CDC’s policies by: • Preventing numerous businesses and employees from earning a living. • Contributing to the state’s unemployment rate. • Worsening massive revenue shortfalls experienced by the state’s seaports. • Reducing state and local taxes associated with the cruise industry DeSantis said that tens of thousands of Florida workers who depend on the cruise lines have been unfairly harmed by the ban, which has been in effect since March 2020. Sixty percent of cruises from the U.S. are launched from Florida, generating $8 billion in economic activity annually. “We don’t believe the federal government has the right to mothball a major industry for over a year based on very little evidence and very little data,” he said. “And I think we have a good chance for success.” In recent weeks, the cruise industry has been calling for the CDC to establish new guidelines enabling cruising to resume from U.S. ports by July with vaccinated passengers and crew. Revised guidelines, despite acknowledging the advent of vaccines as a measure to prevent spread of COVID-19 on board cruise ships, were criticized by the industry’s leading trade organization as “unduly burdensome” and “largely unworkable.” Attorney General Ashley Moody, during the news conference, called the CDC’s requirement that cruise lines comply with health and safety guidelines and obtain certification to resume operations from U.S. ports “unlawful.” “If we do not do this, you will see (cruise lines) continue to move these cruises to other countries,” Moody said. “The Biden administration has had numerous opportunities to engage and put America’s businesses first, Florida’s businesses first. And instead he has allowed the playing field to be tilted to the benefit of foreign countries. And Florida will not allow that to happen.” In recent days, the damage has been made worse by decisions by several cruise lines to launch cruises outside the United States, DeSantis said. Those countries will get the money from hotel stays and restaurant visits by cruise travelers who would otherwise be coming to Florida, he said. Royal Caribbean last month said it would base ships in Nassau and Bermuda for a series of summer voyages to the Bahamas and Caribbean. Vaccinations will be required for all adult passengers and crew members. Norwegian Cruise Line on April 5 announced plans to resume cruising from the U.S. on July 4, pending CDC approval of its plan to require vaccinations of all guests and crew members. The cruise line also hedged its bets by announcing newly scheduled cruises from Jamaica and the Dominican Republic beginning in August. Carnival Corp. said last week that it has not yet established a vaccination policy for its customers, nor made a decision about moving U.S.-based ships overseas. But it argued this week that it might be forced to do so to resume operations. Myers, the attorney in Miami, said the suit might have a chance of prevailing in court because it’s not primarily based on an argument that the CDC’s guidelines are unconstitutional but rather that the CDC violated federal procedural rules in creating the regulations. She called the state’s legal argument “interesting and novel.” “The lawsuit says there are constraints on the CDC under the (procedural rules), and the CDC exceeded its authority and was arbitrary and capricious because its original Oct. 30 order didn’t take into account state health protocols that were in place and the likelihood that the science would change (with development of vaccines),” she said. However, the lawsuit might be more effective as a political argument than a legal one by compelling the CDC to issue revised guidelines that provide a clearer path to resumption of cruising, Myers said. Despite industry criticism of the CDC’s revised guidelines, cruise industry representatives declined on April 8 to endorse the state’s lawsuit. “We are aware of the lawsuit and share the sense of urgency of getting Americans back to work,” a Carnival Corp. spokesman said by email. “Our focus is trying to work with the CDC on a plan to resume cruise operations this summer.” A Norwegian Cruise Line spokeswoman said her company does not comment “on third-party litigation” adding, “We look forward to partnering with the CDC to engage in meaningful discussions.” The Cruise Line International Association, a trade group representing all of world’s major cruise lines, said it was “grateful” for DeSantis’ support of the industry, while stressing that members of the “entire cruise community … remain focused on dialogue with the CDC and the administration to pursue a workable path to cruising by the beginning of July.”

Delta to unblock middle seats in May, restart other services

MINNEAPOLIS — Delta Air Lines is unblocking its middle seats in May, marking the end of social distancing on all U.S. carriers and signaling a turning point in pandemic-era travel. The Atlanta-based carrier will begin selling every seat on its airplanes on May 1 and is reintegrating a number of prepandemic features of air travel. The company marketed itself early on in the pandemic as the health-and-safety airline of choice. It was one of the first and longest to block middle seats, as well as disinfecting air craft with electrostatic sprays between flights and prepackaging snacks and beverages. Delta has been the slowest among U.S. airlines to lift restrictions. The litany of announcements signals a turning point in the pandemic as travel is anticipated to increase throughout the spring and summer. And despite consumer confidence growing as the percentage of the vaccinated population expands, chief executive Ed Bastian was measured in his statements regarding the changes. “Don’t confuse these actions with a return to ‘normal.’ We’re still operating in a pandemic, and many of the changes we’ve made over the past year, such as strengthening our cleanliness protocols and eliminating change fees, will be permanent,” Bastian said in a statement. “Today we’re making a number of changes to our service to meet our customers’ needs, increase their confidence in travel and maintain the trust and loyalty that we’ve built throughout the pandemic.” Importantly, he added, masks will remain critical to a reopening of the skies and crews will continue to enforce that requirement. In April, Delta will reintroduce a scaled-back version of its in-flight food and beverage service, with mini-cans of Coca-Cola products and premixed cocktails from Atlanta-based Tip Top Proper Cocktails. The airline said this program was designed in partnership with Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic, which has advised the company throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Its airport lounges will gradually reopen and expand their food and drink options beginning in May through July. “Our internal research has shown that 64 percent of Delta customers anticipate having at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by May 1, increasing to 75 percent by Memorial Day,” Bastian said. “Please continue to take all necessary steps to keep yourself, your family and your community safe and healthy.”

COMMENTARY: Be glad dire predictions about ending mask mandate were way off

Recently, Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged something truly shocking. When asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” why COVID-19 cases in Texas have been steadily declining despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the state’s mask mandate and capacity restrictions on businesses one month ago, Fauci half-heartedly conceded: “I’m not really quite sure.” Texas has been a disappointment in recent weeks to detractors who have all but insisted, and perhaps even hoped, that the state’s complete “reopening” — the result of what President Joe Biden called “Neanderthal thinking” — would culminate in an epic resurgence of COVID-19. It hasn’t. In fact, caseloads have been consistently falling. Tarrant County’s infection rate indicates the virus is in decline. It’s a reality we should all be celebrating — cautiously, if we must. Fauci is correct that it’s too early to be completely certain that this trend will continue, that another surge is possible if a variant takes hold in Texas; that this virus has a “confusing” pattern of delayed case increases and lagging hospitalizations and deaths. It’s also possible that lifting restrictions and returning to some semblance of normalcy simply won’t have the deleterious impact we’ve spent over a year trying to avoid and the catastrophe public health officials are still trying to scare us into believing will befall us all if we dare to live like it’s 2019. There are a lot of reasons for that, beginning with the simplest explanation that many Texans have approached their returned freedoms with caution, prudence and consideration. I’m not sure what people like Fauci were anticipating, but as I pointed out in the days after the reopening took effect, the contention that Texas would become the “Wild West” overnight was completely unfounded. Most businesses still require or recommend masks, and most patrons oblige. The confrontations many envisioned between cantankerous anti-maskers and store clerks haven’t dominated human interactions, either. People now have the option to vote with their feet, and many choose establishments run by those whose masks and distancing requirements align with their own thinking. They can also make their own risk assessments: Have they had the virus? The vaccine? Do they already limit contact? Are they high-risk? And as I observed during my first (and completely delightful) mask-free stroll through the Fort Worth Zoo this week, plenty of people still choose to don a face covering, even outdoors, where the risks are proven to be low, if not non-existent. Some will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. That’s probably futile, but so what? Indeed, even while the CDC’s own data about masks and capacity restrictions show both to have a measurable but surprisingly limited impact on case numbers, people and businesses will continue to do what they believe is safe for them. Have at it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear — given the number of recoveries and increasing statewide vaccination rates — that lots of things are or will soon be “safe” to do. The Star-Telegram reported last week that according to analysis by Dr. Rajesh Nandy of the UNT Health Science Center’s School of Public Health, the combination of infections and vaccinations has North Texas at about 60 percent immunity, close to the minimum 80 percent most public health experts identify as “herd immunity”. Nandy says that should happen around mid-June. And while more contagious, albeit less-deadly variants are plaguing some parts of the country (including many states that are still “closed”), they haven’t run rampant in Texas. If vaccines become as readily available as Biden says they will soon, variants will probably stay at bay. Even after a packed Rangers game. So whether you find it confusing, maddening or refreshing that Texas has defied the most dire predictions for its reopening, it might just be time for us all to breathe deeply and enjoy it. Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Senate Republicans near agreement on emergency powers

Senate Republican leaders have ultimately agreed to renew the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration with an option for the administration to scale it back to only the targeted powers and flexibilities Gov. Mike Dunleavy and public health officials have said are needed. The Senate Republicans’ version of House Bill 76 would actually extend the end date of the official disaster declaration from Sept. 30, which the House approved, to Dec. 31 despite the continued instance by Senate President Peter Micchiche, R-Soldotna, that reviving the declaration when the governor doesn’t want it is largely a political game. Staff for Finance Committee co-chair Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, said during an April 12 hearing when the committee’s changes to disaster legislation were released that the end date was moved back to align with indications from President Joe Biden that the federal emergency declaration will be in place through the end of the year. Aligning the dates allows the Dunleavy administration to accept additional monthly Federal Emergency Management Administration and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funds without requiring subsequent legislative action. Micciche said in an April 9 press briefing that HB 76 will be passed in some form to ensure the state gets the $8 million per month in boosted food assistance and other FEMA funding. “We’re going to take our time on (HB 76),” Micciche said, adding that he doesn’t believe the official declaration is necessary and prior indications from state Health Department leaders that the state needed to extend the declaration by April 1 and April 15 in order to get those funds for this month might have been inaccurate. He said administration officials now believe the state has until April 30 to act. Legislative leaders had previously been at odds over the necessity of a full disaster declaration and the disagreement had hampered the progress of the bill most lawmakers say is needed in some form. “There’ll be a Senate position, a House position and hopefully they align,” Micciche said of the disaster legislation. Multiple Senate Republicans have indicated a desire to extend the declaration while others in the caucus — most vocally Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold — insist it is an unnecessary ceding of power to the administration. House majority coalition members have been firm in their stance that the official declaration is ostensibly an insurance policy against the unknown that gives the administration the ability to respond quickly if the state’s public health system encounters major problems in managing the pandemic over the coming months, echoing the beliefs of the state’s largest health care organizations and providers. Dunleavy has said since it expired in mid-February that he believes renewing the full declaration would send the wrong signal to Alaskans as well as potential visitors regarding the trajectory of the pandemic in the state. His administration wants only limited powers to support COVID-19 vaccine and treatment distribution; allow for expedited procurement processes; and continued telehealth flexibilities in addition to the emergency funding authority. To that end, Senate Republicans added a provision to HB 76 that would give Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum the power to declare a public health emergency to make the state eligible for the additional federal aid as well as continue Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services waivers. Crum could enact a public health emergency after Dunleavy issues a proclamation ending the full disaster declaration — seemingly an attempt to satisfy both House leaders and the governor. “As a department we do not believe the facts and science related to COVID-19 currently support a disaster declaration,” Crum said in the April 12 hearing. The “targeted, prescribed responses” contained in the public health emergency provision are what the administration wants, he said, while adding that additional language regarding vaccine and treatment distribution and procurement requirements would be helpful for DHSS officials. The bill also lifts the existing cap on school district funds that limits districts to holding no more than 10 percent of their annual budgets in reserve, which Micciche has said is important to give districts the time to carefully spend and manage open-ended federal COVID-19 aid over several years. As for dealing with the broader issue of federal pandemic aid, the new iteration of HB 76 ostensibly suspends the revised program legislation, or RPL, process for current and future COVID-19 or economic recovery funds in language prioritized by Finance co-chair Sen. Bert Stedman. Stedman, a Sitka Republican, noted the state is preparing to accept another billion-plus dollars in American Rescue Plan funds and stressed lawmakers’ collective responsibility to manage the money. “The concern is there are a significant number of legislators that don’t want to take their obligation seriously enough and to show up in Juneau. We saw that last summer and last fall,” Stedman said in reference to how the roughly $1.2 billion in CARES Act funding the state received was handled. The RPL process allows the administration to amend the state budget out-of-session 45 days after notifying the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee of a change, as long as the committee doesn’t outright reject the proposal. A lawsuit filed last spring alleging the Legislature had shirked its responsibility to appropriate the large sums of CARES money eventually compelled lawmakers back to Juneau for a day to approve the administration’s RPL requests. While many legislators wanted to call a special session to deal with the federal aid, not enough did in a campaign year to reach the two-thirds majority needed to convene and Dunleavy opted against calling them back as well. According to Stedman, the new language in HB 76 that prohibits the administration from using the RPL process on most any federal aid that comes Alaska’s way this year should provide “ample encouragement for the executive branch to call the Legislature to special session to deal with the billions of dollars that are on the table,” he said. Bethel Sen. Lyman Hoffman, the only Democrat in the Senate majority, urged House lawmakers to pass a provision allowing the Legislature to hold remote meetings as the Senate has done, which he said would help alleviate the issue. Bishop called for further amendments to HB 76 but further hearings on the bill have not been scheduled as of late April 13. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Movers and Shakers for April 18

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced two judicial appointees to the Superior and District courts in Fairbanks. Maria Pia L. Bahr has been appointed to the Fairbanks District Court. Bahr has been an Alaska resident for 5½ years, and has practiced law for 30 years. She graduated from the University of California Los Angeles School of Law in 1990 and is currently the Senior Assistant Attorney General in the Opinions, Appeals &Ethics section in Anchorage. Trisha Haines has been appointed to the Fairbanks Superior Court. Haines has been an Alaska resident for 10 years, and has practiced law for 9 years. She graduated from Temple University Beasley School of Law in 2010, and is currently a staff attorney for the Court of Appeals in Anchorage, and resides in Fairbanks. Drey Antonio, EIT, recently joined R&M Consultants, Inc. as a staff engineer in the firm’s Airport Engineering Group. Drey’s experience includes working as an engineering intern with the Municipality of Anchorage’s Project Management and Engineering Department. In this role, Drey assisted in gathering ramp and sidewalk data for the City’s ADA compliance plan; completing an ArcGIS database catalog of all ADA ramps and sidewalks; inspecting project sites and locations; and surveying waterways and streams for environmental compliance. He is knowledgeable in AutoCAD, Math CAD and Risa3D. Since joining R&M, Drey has been supporting design efforts for the Bethel Airport Main Runway Reconstruction, Chefornak Airport Rehabilitation, Kipnuk Airport Rehabilitation and Antarctica Palmer Station Pier Replacement projects. Drey has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Alaska Anchorage and holds his engineer-in-training certificate. Baird, an employee-owned, international wealth management, asset management, investment banking/capital markets and private equity firm, announced that The Rixse Todd Group has joined the firm’s wealth management office in Anchorage. The Rixse Todd Group is a two-person team that oversees $200 million in assets under management. Baird’s Private Wealth Management business encompasses more than 1,300 financial advisors serving clients from more than 160 locations in 33 states and has client assets of more than $215 billion. The Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. a sovereign endowment that manages over $75 billion on behalf of all current and future generations of Alaskans, has recently added Chirag H. Shah as senior portfolio manager and Nader Sohraby as senior associate to its $13-billion Private Equity and Special Opportunities team. Shah has more than 15 years of industry experience globally, including 10 years leading private equity fund investments and co-investments at DB Private Equity and GE Asset Management. He started his career in investment banking at Citi/Salomon Smith Barney in New York and Singapore. Shah is also actively engaged in the broader PE community, serving as an advisory board member of the Hicks, Muse, Tate &Furst Center for Private Equity Finance at The University of Texas at Austin and involved with SEO’s Alternatives Investments program, which is focused on improving opportunities in the alternatives industry for traditionally underrepresented communities. He holds an MBA and BBA from The University of Texas. Sohraby has five years of investment banking experience, most recently at J.P. Morgan in New York, where he focused on mergers and acquisitions and capital formation across the healthcare industry. Prior to J.P. Morgan, he worked in investment banking at Citi in New York. He began his career at Goldman Sachs in its Global Investment Research division. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska announced that Jillian Lush has accepted the position of CEO after a decade of leading Sprout Family Services in Homer, where the core mission is to promote the healthy development of children in partnership with families and community. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alaska currently serves more than 300 youth throughout Alaska between the ages of 6 to 16, with 200 more on the waiting list. Lush earned a master’s of social work from Washington University in St. Louis, and participated as a fellow in the Parent Infant Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate Program, now housed at University of California Davis. For the past several years, she has helped lead a team of six Homer-area non-profits in building a network committed to leading with a trauma-informed approach.

FISH FACTOR: Union seeking seafaring apprentices

Alaska fishermen displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic are being recruited for seafaring jobs aboard U.S. cargo barges, tankers, towboats, military support vessels, research and cruise ships and more. The Seafarers International Union is searching nationally for 300 apprentice workers on the vessels they are contracted to crew. Recruiters tout Alaskans as being at the top of their list. “The reason for that is people from Alaska come with a work ethic already. They’ve been working since they could stand up. And that’s why they’re so good,” said Bart Rogers, assistant vice president at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Maryland that has trained mariners for the SIU for over 50 years. “It’s very appealing to people who live in Alaska because they can sail in a safe environment, earn a very good wage, get benefits and medical coverage for them and their family, advanced training is guaranteed, then they can go back home and spend the money they make,” said Rich Berkowitz, vice president of Pacific Coast Operations at Seattle’s Transportation Institute, who helps recruit and assess potential mariners, adding that it also includes options for veterans and Native hire. Currently, the call is out to train workers for positions as Able Seafarer Deck (a qualification needed to sail internationally), chief cooks and stewards. The training programs vary from several months to a year, Rogers said, adding that there is no tuition to attend the school but does require some incidental costs. Berkowitz pointed out another lure for Alaskans. After they’ve made it through the training and onto the ships, they can schedule trips that still let them go fishing. “Let’s say they’re in hospitality trades, they can work a good portion of the cruise season and then spend three or four months working in a fishing season,” he said. Ralph Mirsky, director of Ketchikan-based nonprofit Sealink has recruited nearly 600 Alaskans to the maritime trades over 20 years. “And the reason for that is real simple,” he said. “They make a lot of money in a short period of time, and they can still do what they want at home.” Women comprise about 15 percent of the U.S. seagoing workforce, estimated at 14,000. “There’s at least two or three in every class,” Bart Rogers said. “And don’t get me wrong, but the women are smarter and work harder than the men all day long.” Berkowitz added that Alaska gets an economic lift from its residents working in maritime trades. “All the time on planes in Seattle I see oil workers flying back and forth to Alaska from Montana or Texas to work two weeks on and off on the Slope. What we’re doing is the opposite,” he said. “We’re flying Alaskans Outside where they make all their money and then they bring it back. They’re not spending anything while they’re on the vessels. So this is a net contributor to the state’s economy, rather than a drain on it.” Learn more at https://mymaritimecareer.org/about/. Fishing updates It’s hard to believe, but in little more than a month, Alaska’s salmon season will officially get underway when sockeyes and chinook return to the Copper River near Cordova. Meanwhile, there’s lots of fishing action across the state. It’s been slow going at Sitka Sound where about 20 seiners continue to tap on a 67 million pound herring harvest. A herring spawn on kelp fishery also is ongoing at Craig and Klawock with a nearly 38 million-pound harvest, the highest ever. Kodiak’s herring fishery is ongoing with a 16 million pound catch limit. Divers continue going down for more than a half-million pounds of geoduck clams. The sea cucumber fishery closed on March 31 with an allowable harvest of 1.7 million pounds. A ling cod fishery opens in Southeast on May 16 with a 310,700-pound quota. Prince William Sound’s popular pot shrimp fishery opens on April 15 with a 70,000-pound catch limit. The region also just wrapped up a small Tanner crab fishery. Kodiak’s Dungeness fishery opens in one region on May 1 with another opener following in mid-June. Cook Inlet opens for 150 tons of bait herring (300,000 pounds) from April 20 through May, and a smelt fishery opens on May 1 through June for 200 tons (400,000 pounds). In the Bering Sea, crabbers had taken nearly 80 percent of their 40.5 million-pound snow crab harvest, along with 62 percent of a 2.1 million-pound Tanner crab limit and 80 percent of a 6 million-pound golden king crab quota. Fishing continues in the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea for pollock, cod, flounders and many other kinds of fish. Sablefish (black cod) catches were approaching three million pounds out of a 43.4 million pound quota. Sitka was getting the most deliveries and paying nicely in five poundage categories: less than 2, $1; 2 to 3 pounds, $2.10; 3 to 4 pounds, $2.40; 4 to 5 pounds, $2.85; 5 to 7 pounds, $3.65; and 7-ups, $5.35 (h/t to the Fish Ticket by Alaska Boats and Permits). Prices per pound for halibut reached $6 at Homer and $6.15 at Seward, although catches remained sluggish. Landings finally topped 1 million pounds out of a 19 million-pound catch limit with Juneau leading all ports for landings. And after five years of talk, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council could tap the brakes on halibut taken as bycatch by 18 Bering Sea trawl catcher/processors that target flounders, perch and mackerel. The boats are required by federal law to toss all halibut overboard as a “prohibited species” catch. Unlike other commercial, sport and subsistence users whose halibut catches fluctuate each year according to the health of the stock, the Seattle-based trawlers have a fixed bycatch cap of 7.3 million pounds. The council will consider basing that bycatch cap instead according to annual halibut abundance levels. Farewell to Phil Lifelong Alaskan, friend and mentor Phil Smith died peacefully at his Juneau home on March 30, surrounded by his family. He was 78. Phil served on the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission from 1983 to 1991. In 1995 NOAA Fisheries called on him to craft and implement Alaska’s first Individual Fishing Quota program for halibut and sablefish, a model for others to come across the U.S. Under his direction, a Subsistence Halibut Registration Certificate permit was created which enabled subsistence fishing for rural residents and Alaska Natives. Phil was invited to speak at international conferences to discuss that program and served as an expert for the U.N. advising Chile on its fisheries management reforms. His positive impacts on Alaska’s fisheries management, among other things, will last forever. In the words of his son, Crispian, Phil’s unique combination of incisive intelligence, encyclopedic knowledge, and boundless love affected and inspired many. He will be deeply missed. Donations may be made to the Sitka Summer Music Festival or Veterans for Peace Chapter 100 scholarship fund at Juneau. Heatwaves, algal blooms and birds, oh my! The Kodiak archipelago is featured at a virtual Marine Science Symposium set for April 19 to 22. Hosted by Alaska Sea Grant’s Marine Advisory program, it’s the fourth regional gathering that connects the island community to the science and research going on around it. The keynote speaker is Dr. Steve Barbeaux of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center who will describe how unprecedented warming in the Gulf of Alaska caused a cod crash in 2018 and a fishery shut down in 2020, and how the stock might fair in a warming world. Also on the agenda are brief talks on local subsistence harvests, harmful algal blooms, birds and crab. Register for free at www.alaskaseagrant.org. Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

GUEST COMMENTARY: Our village is not a national monument

In March, the Alaska House of Representatives passed a resolution pushing back on President Joe Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR. Alaska House Joint Resolution 12 urges the president to uphold the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that approved ANWR leasing and begin permitting lease holders. The resolution also opposes designation of the refuge as a national monument, a unilateral move the president is considering that would require no congressional approval and would end any possibility of ANWR development, at least for the next four years. HJR 12 has been met with bipartisan support, passing the House 35-3, and is described as a united effort by Alaskans to defend their state’s energy rights against a hostile federal administration. While that may be the intent of the resolution, it represents something far bigger for those of us living inside the refuge: human rights. My village of Kaktovik is the only community in ANWR and is on the coastal plain, where drilling would occur. Naturally, the Kaktovik Iñupiat stand to be affected the most by drilling decisions in our backyard, including on our land. Despite being the primary stakeholders and with the future of our community hanging in the balance, no one seems interested in what we think about oil development in ANWR. No human rights groups are lining up to defend our sovereignty over the land. The truth is, the vast majority of Americans — or even Alaskans, for that matter — may not even know we exist. That’s not a mistake or coincidence. For the past 40 years, the ANWR debate has been largely framed by lawmakers and environmental groups and has centered around the caribou, polar bears, tundra and birds. But what about the people — my people? Aren’t we worth preserving? Don’t we get a say in whether oil can be developed on our land so we can have an economy? Through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp., or KIC, was awarded 92,000 acres in the coastal plain of ANWR, known as the 1002 Area. KIC, the Native village corporation for the community, is the only private land owner in the 19 million acre refuge. This is an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth for the federal government and others who oppose ANWR development, so they pretend we don’t exist. It’s easier to justify locking up the refuge when no one acknowledges that people live here, own land and support responsible development here. The preservation-at-all-cost mentality doesn’t come from residents inside the refuge or even the North Slope. In Alaska, that rhetoric comes primarily from the Gwich’in Steering Committee 400 miles away in Fairbanks, a group that has lobbied relentlessly to keep the refuge closed to development. It comes from countless Lower 48 environmental groups who use our land to raise money from wealthy donors. And, of course, it comes from Washington lawmakers who care more about their legacies and reelection campaigns than the health and future of my Iñupiat people. HJR 12 is a worthwhile resolution that comes at a time when critical decisions on ANWR are being made that will have lasting effects on our state, the Arctic Slope and my community. I applaud the Alaska Legislature for holding the Biden administration accountable by asking it to uphold the law as written; defend the 2020 Record of Decision approving the ANWR leasing program; proceed with oil and gas permitting; and not designate the refuge as a national monument. I also thank our Alaska lawmakers for recognizing Kaktovik as the only Alaska Native community in ANWR; acknowledging KIC’s ownership of private land within the refuge; and asserting the corporation’s sovereign right to direct control, rather than the federal government, over development of its land and resources. Despite the picture often painted by politicians and outside special interests, ANWR is not a desolate wilderness. It never has been. The Kaktovik Iñupiat have lived here for thousands of years, and we refuse to allow our land to be managed by the federal government and unaccountable agencies that are either indifferent, or downright hostile, to the interests of local communities they are supposed to serve. Our village is not a shiny monument for outsiders to gawk at; it is our home. I praise HJR 12 for many reasons, but the most important is its support for the basic human rights we have been promised but denied for so many decades. We support the ANWR leasing program, and have the right to manage our land and resources for the benefit of our people. Matthew Rexford is the tribal administrator for the Village of Kaktovik.

Dunleavy to CDC: ‘Give us a chance’

The State of Alaska is pulling out all the stops in an effort to get cruise ships, and the people they bring, back to Alaska, Gov. Mike Dunleavy said April 9. The governor insisted in a lengthy press conference from a hangar in Juneau that Alaska has handled the COVID-19 pandemic as well or better than all other states — a message he conveyed to both prospective visitors and Centers for Disease Control officials — and actions need to be taken now to facilitate some sort of cruise season yet this year. The million-plus cruise passengers that arrived to Alaska via the Inside Passage accounted for more than half of the total visitors to the state in most pre-pandemic years. The prospect of a second summer without those visitors — and the money they spend — has generated strong words from the state’s politicians but little progress to-date towards a solution. There was broad belief that Alaska’s cruise industry would resume this spring prior to a Feb. 4 announcement that Canadian officials would not be allowing large cruise ships in the country’s ports. However, the Canadian decision upended cruise companies’ plans because the Passenger Vessel Services Act, an 1880s labor-protection law, requires foreign-flagged and built vessels to stop in another country on trips between U.S. ports. Additionally, the CDC has been slow to lift its “No Sail Order” prohibiting large cruise sailings domestically. The public health agency released new guidelines for ship operators and port town authorities in an April 2 update to its Framework for Conditional Sailing Order but has stopped short of lifting the ban currently in place through Nov. 1. Dunleavy said he wants CDC officials to recognize that while COVID-19 continues to persist “we have the tools to deal with it.” Through much of the pandemic Alaska has had among the lowest COVID-19 death rates and highest vaccination rates in the country. “Through proper planning and execution Alaska’s already demonstrated that we can bring people into the state and do it right. We didn’t have to shut down mining; we didn’t have to shut down the oil industry; we didn’t have to shut down fishing and we don’t have to shut down the cruise industry,” Dunleavy said. “My message to the CDC, my message to Congress is: Look at what we’ve done.” Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski said following the April 2 CDC announcement they were encouraged by agency projections that cruising could resume by mid-summer with swift implementation of the phased sailing plan. Alaska’s congressional delegation was highly critical of Canadian officials following their decision to ban cruise ships for another summer but legislation to provide a waiver to the foreign stop requirement has yet to gain traction in Congress despite its implications to many other coastal states. Holland America Vice President Ralph Samuels said during the governor’s briefing that if immediately given the clearance to operate, most cruise companies could be ready to sail by early July as a couple months of lead time is needed to hire and retrain crews and prepare the massive vessels. “You’ve got a lot of hoops to jump through,” Samuels said. Sullivan introduced legislation to revoke the No Sail Order April 13 that would also require the CDC to give mitigation guidance to cruise companies in advance of sailings. Florida Republican Sens. Rick Scott and Marco Rubio signed on as co-sponsors to Sullivan’s bill. Sullivan has had direct conversations with Canadian Transport Minister Omar Alghabra and Canadian Ambassador David MacNaughton about lifting the ban, according to his staff. He has also investigated the prospect of an administrative waiver with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Dunleavy said he believes the CDC should be offering advice to industry but not implementing wholesale restrictions on industry activity. An announcement by the CDC permitting cruise sailings could have provided Congress further impetus to act as well, the governor suggested. “This is an economic death-grapple we’re in with industries. (The CDC) is focused on health, that’s a good thing, but we’ve done this better than almost anywhere else and we should be given the opportunity and the respect that we in Alaska know what to do with this,” Dunleavy said. The state’s efforts to receive clearance from the CDC could include litigation, he added. The most recent CDC order directs cruise companies to discuss, among other things, what they would do in the event of COVID-19 on a cruise ship with port town authorities. “We’ve obviously spent a lot of time on that exact scenario,” Samuels said. Concurrently state tourism officials are working on a nationwide marketing campaign to regain the momentum the industry had prior to 2020, Dunleavy said as well. “There won’t be a person across the country that won’t know about Alaska when we’re done with this,” he said, later adding, “Not only is this the place to come because it’s spectacular and has great people but it’s the safest place in the country.” While the sailing forecast isn’t bright, officials at Alaska’s major airports have reported expectations that summer passenger capacity volumes will quickly rebound to record pre-pandemic levels — and possibly higher — this year. Finally, Dunleavy indicated several times that administration officials are also preparing a tourism-targeted aid package to assist visitor industry businesses, particularly if a second cruise season is lost. The governor is expected to unveil it in the coming week. The state’s broader leisure and hospitality industry lost nearly 15,000 jobs at the normal peak of the summer season last year according to Labor Department data and industry leaders fear another year without large cruise ships could force many businesses that had been temporarily shuttered to close for good, particularly in Southeast. The governments in cruise port towns have taken major revenue hits as well. Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon said each year without cruise ships costs the city roughly $26 million in lost tax revenue and the ancillary activity that’s lost is felt by everyone. “You’d be hard pressed to find a business in town that’s not impacted by cruise tourism,” Weldon said.

ISER: struggling economy needs targeted help

Alaska’s economy isn’t getting worse, but it could also be a long way from substantial improvement. University of Alaska Anchorage Institute for Social and Economic Research economist Mouhcine Guettabi said many of the indicators showing improvements in recent months are more tied to the normal seasonality of the state’s economy and less about a recovery from the forces of the pandemic. “Our losses ballooned over the summer and then shrunk back down in fall and the winter. That doesn’t mean things are getting better; it just means that we’re losing, or had, fewer jobs in the economy,” Guettabi told a virtual audience during a presentation hosted April 9 by the Alaska policy think-tank Commonwealth North. “I’ll summarize with a very technical term and say the labor market is incredibly ugly and really there are no great signs of an organic recovery or things getting back to normal. “That’s kind of the worrisome part.” According to the latest data available from the state Labor Department, Alaska remained down 22,300 jobs in February, or about 7 percent fewer wage and salary jobs than at the start of the pandemic. The situation is worse when looking strictly at the private sector, which had shrunk by 8.6 percent year-over-year as of February. The oil industry has been hardest hit, having lost 3,900 jobs — nearly 40 percent — over the past year. Alaska’s job losses peaked in June when there were roughly 47,000 fewer jobs than a year prior. The state added 7,000 jobs in February, according to preliminary data from the Labor Department, which is very consistent with a longstanding trend of job growth to start the year. Initial unemployment claims have fallen from a peak of 33,312 last April to 2,195 in February, which is in-line with pre-pandemic levels. However, continuing claims have stabilized at approximately 31,000 to 33,000 in recent months, which is still three times greater than pre-pandemic levels, according to the Labor Department. Alaska’s gross product, or GDP, also fell by approximately $4.1 billion, or 7.5 percent, to $50.2 billion last year, according to figures from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. “We are nowhere near a return to normalcy,” Guettabi said of Alaska’s unemployment numbers, later adding “It’s important to remember the economy was not humming before this.” State Labor economist Neal Fried also said in an interview that some economists are predicting the Lower 48 economy will “roar” back in the second half of the year and nearly return to pre-pandemic levels but such a scenario is unlikely here. “How long it takes us to get back to the 2015 (employment) high — that’s so far into the future I refuse to even take a guess,” Fried said, referencing the state’s prior recession that ended with very modest growth in 2019. Despite the job losses in 2020, Alaskans have, on the whole, seen their collective income increase by roughly $1.4 billion over the past year thanks to the federal funds, mostly in the form of direct stimulus payments and greatly expanded unemployment assistance, he noted. “As bad as things are the majority of people have kept their jobs and are in a better financial situation than a year ago,” he said. Guettabi also highlighted that while some individuals receiving the initial federal unemployment boost of $600 per week on top of state benefits saw a several-month increase in their income over their prior wages, approximately a dozen subsequent research papers were unable to identify any broad link between the higher level of unemployment income and job hunting. “Because of the pandemic there is very little association at the aggregate level between the boost of (unemployment) payments and the decision to seek employment,” he said. The contradictory nature of widespread job losses and overall income growth exposes the need for continued aid that is highly targeted in an effort to make it as effective as possible, according to Guettabi. “Dollars that are coming in, when they go to households that don’t need them right now, are not necessarily making it into the economy, so things like boosting unemployment insurance for people that need it or helping local governments or helping local businesses makes more sense when you identify exactly that need,” Guettabi said. “Business failure can cripple a recovery.” By the end of the year he expects Alaska’s economy to grow very slightly versus 2020, with most of the improvement coming in the service sector from the kind of spending many folks have largely given up over the past year. Anchorage Economic Development Corp. forecasted in January that Alaska’s largest city would add approximately 4,000 jobs this year, but that was before Canadian government officials extended their prohibition on large cruise ships in the country’s ports through the coming summer, leaving the foundational element of Alaska’s tourism industry — which reaches Anchorage — in-limbo again. For much of Southeast the prospect of any level of rebound is likely to depend on whether or not large cruise ships sail the Inside Passage at all this year, Guettabi noted. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Disaster extension stalls in Senate

Lawmakers held relatively few hearings around the Easter weekend and instead appear to have manufactured another impasse over time-sensitive legislation that a majority of them feel in some form is critical to running the state. House Bill 76, which would renew the state COVID-19 public health emergency declaration, was pulled from the Senate Finance Committee schedule April 6 and a second Finance hearing for ongoing legislation was canceled as well. As of April 7, lawmakers have gone more than a week without hearing the legislation backed by nearly all of the state’s major business, health care, charitable and seafood industry organizations among others and have roughly a week to hash out disagreements at several layers before the state misses out on $8 million in additional federal food assistance aid. HB 76 had not been scheduled for future hearings as of this writing April 7. It was previously believed the state had to address its lack of an official public health emergency by April 1 to receive the boosted Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, funds from the federal government but Department of Health and Social Services officials have since indicated they can get the money retroactively if it is dealt with by April 15; Senate President Peter Micciche called it the “magic day” in a briefing with reporters on the issue. Finance co-chair Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, called for amendments to HB 76 by April 2, at which point it seemed likely Senate Republicans would introduce the scaled-back version of the bill they have discussed for weeks to address the food assistance, relaxed telehealth requirements, school district reserve limits and select other issues identified by the administration to better manage the pandemic without a true emergency declaration. Bishop did not elaborate as to why it wasn’t heard. Numerous Republicans in both chambers argue a declaration is unnecessary as daily statewide COVID-19 case counts have been relatively stable at lower levels and vaccines are now available to all adults; case levels have increased in recent days but remain low. Declaring a disaster again will just facilitate the continuation of government restrictions that have been overly burdensome for months, they contend. Micciche has maintained his position that the plan for targeted COVID-19 management legislation is the only way to ensure something is enacted. Gov. Mike Dunleavy originally submitted HB 76 to extend the declaration at the start of the session but no longer supports it. Dunleavy has said since it expired in mid-February — when lawmakers also didn’t act despite clear majorities supporting the declaration at the time — he believes his administration can adequately manage public health concerns without a formal declaration. Doing so is a step towards returning to a state of normalcy, according to the governor. House coalition leaders, on the other hand, have emphasized the broad scope of organizations across the state that have stressed the importance of having an active declaration while unemployment remains high and health care and business practices are altered because of the pandemic. Another prolonged impasse at the start of the session over leadership in the House prevented the chamber from taking up the dealing with the emergency declaration when it first expired. While the House and Senate majorities have been at odds for weeks on the details of the bill, HB 76 seemed on track to pass the Senate with Republicans’ changes before it would be settled either via a concurring vote of the House or in conference committee as is traditionally the case in such instances and can be done quickly. The holdup in Senate Finance further squeezes the timeline for lawmakers to at least address the issues they and the administration agree need to be dealt with. As of late March, Alaska and Michigan — the latter where COVID-19 cases have spiked of late, according to CDC data — were the only states to not have some sort of official emergency order in place, according to a spreadsheet from the National Governors Association. Many other states have since extended declarations that were otherwise set to expire March 31. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

FISH FACTOR: Senate delegation battles Coast Guard over masks, administration over Russian seafood

The mask requirement for all persons aboard fishing vessels still stands and Alaska’s U.S. senators are adding their clout to have it removed. A Coast Guard a Marine Safety Information Bulletin issued on March 22 states its authority to restrict vessel access to ports and operations if they fail to follow the rules as defined by the Center for Disease Control. “Vessels that have not implemented the mask requirement may be issued a Captain of the Port order directing the vessel’s movement and operations; repeated failure to impose the mask mandate could result in civil and/or criminal enforcement action,” the bulletin says. The CDC mask requirement has been interpreted by the Coast Guard to apply to “all forms of commercial maritime vessels,” including cargo ships, fishing vessels, research vessels and self-propelled barges.” It requires “all travelers” to wear a mask, including those who have been vaccinated, according to National Fisherman which added, “Why commercial fishing vessels have been included in a requirement written for airplanes, trains, subways, buses, taxis, ride-shares, trolleys, and cable cars has yet to be explained by the Coast Guard.” “Senator Murkowski and I have been pressing this relentlessly on a call with the Coast Guard commandant, a call with the White House guy who’s supposedly in charge of all the CDC issues, we had a meeting with the head of the CDC, we are trying to explain to them how, no offense, but just how stupid this is and how uninformed it is,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said last week at a ComFish forum. “And it could be a safety issue, not with regard to COVID, but with having to wear masks when you’re out on the deck of a ship in 30 foot waves trying to bring in gear or pots. So, we’re going to continue to work on that one.” “The CDC has planted their heels on this one as I understand it,” echoed Doug Vincent-Lang, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “Certainly, from a realistic standpoint, it makes no sense. So we’re on the front side of that conversation.” Vincent-Lang added that he is speaking with members of other coastal states and hopes to garner support to overturn the mask requirement. “I think to the extent that we can form some kind of a unified position on this issue across more states, we stand a better chance of changing it. Because this is a CDC guidance which can be changed depending upon how they get policy direction from the White House. And if they hear from other coastal states in addition to Alaska, they’ll probably be more inclined to do it,” he said. Feedback on the masking rule can be given at [email protected] Trade talk Alaska’s senators also spoke candidly about ongoing trade policies with Russia that hurt the U.S. seafood industry, and expressed hope for change under the new administration. Russia stopped purchasing any foods from the U.S. and other nations that imposed sanctions on Russian individuals and businesses after its illegal land-grab of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Meanwhile, U.S. purchases of seafood from Russia have increased every year. Russian seafood imports to the U.S. in 2020, for example, topped 97.5 million pounds valued at nearly $1 billion, compared to 80.2 million pounds in 2019 valued at nearly $698 million. “I think it was the one area where the Trump administration was kind of weak. I thought we could have done more,” said Sullivan, calling the lack of action “a disappointment.” Sullivan said he raised the issue “front and center” in a recent meeting with new U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai and called her “very impressive.” “I said, look, it’s just ridiculous. Six years! I mean, that embargo started at the end of the Obama administration and the whole Trump administration,” he said. “Meanwhile, most of their fish comes in almost duty free, and they’re taking market share from our fishermen in America. She’s going to look hard at this.” Murkowski added that she intends to raise the trade imbalance with new Secretary of State Antony Blinken and encourage him to include it in diplomatic discussions with Russia. “The fact that this has been in place for as long as it has, the fact that it has caused harm to our fisheries is something that the education needs to continue at different levels,” she said. “You’ve got U.S. trade, but you’ve also got the State Department with regards to the relationship that you have with Russia. This is one thing that I think we all agree we have got to have addressed. It has been going on for far, far too long and quite honestly, it’s untenable.” Both senators also said they spoke with the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor when they recently passed through Anchorage on their way to China and “pressed them hard to work on tariffs that the Chinese have put on our exports.” Murkowski and Sullivan also addressed many more topics at ComFish, including actions they are taking to mitigate climate change. View the full presentation at www.comfishak.com. Hatchery hauls Last year nearly 31 million salmon that got their start in Alaska hatcheries were caught in commercial fisheries, or 27 percent of the statewide harvest. The dockside value of $69 million comprised 23 percent of the state’s total salmon value. That’s according to the annual salmon enhancement report newly released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. There are 30 hatcheries producing salmon in Alaska, of which 26 are operated by private, nonprofits funded primarily from sales of a portion of the returns, called cost recovery. There also are two state-run sport fish hatcheries, one research hatchery operated by NOAA Fisheries, and one hatchery operated by the Metlakatla Indian community. At Prince William Sound, where six hatcheries operate, about 15 million hatchery salmon were harvested in 2020. Those fish accounted for 70 percent of the total commercial catch that was worth nearly $27 million at the docks, or 67 percent of the total value for the region. At Southeast Alaska, 14 hatcheries operate, split between northern and southern regions. Last year, fewer than 4 million hatchery salmon were caught accounting for 45 percent of the total harvest and 52 percent of the value to fishermen at $18 million. Two hatcheries operate at Kodiak where last year nearly 5 million salmon were harvested worth about $5 million, or 11 percent of the total dockside value. Nearly all of the fish were pinks. The three hatcheries at Cook Inlet produced just less than 200,000 salmon valued at $585,000, or 6.9 percent of the region’s total to fishermen. Alaska’s combined hatcheries released 1.7 billion juvenile salmon in 2020 and are projecting a return this year of nearly 66 million fish. Get schooled! A first-ever, field-based Alaskan Aquaculture Semester in Sitka is being offered this fall to a dozen students fromAlaska and across the nation. It’s part of the University of Alaska/Southeast Fisheries Technology Program that has been preparing students for jobs throughout the industry since 2009 with classes focusing on aquaculture and salmon enhancement and fisheries management. The aquaculture semester adds in more direct training on the water. “Students will come here and be able to get 13 credits of instruction with courses in salmon culture and mariculture, and also in cold water survival,” said Angie Bowers, assistant professor with the Fish Tech Program. “And they’re going to learn how to drive boats and fix motors and tie knots and how to be safe. They will also be able to do an internship based on whatever they’re interested in. We’ll tour processors, they will be able to help out at local hatcheries and shadow fishermen.” There are three salmon hatcheries in the region where students will help with egg takes and learn about fish pathology and rearing prior to the tiny salmon heading out to sea. Bowers said students also will be introduced to shellfish and kelp farming. “Because of the timing of the semester, that’s not the typical growing season for kelp, but we will be able to identify species of kelp and make the seed string that gets out-planted on a kelp farm. We will be visiting an oyster farm and we’ll try to incorporate as much of that mariculture experience as we can,” she said. Students also can get certified in SCUBA diving within the University program that trains scientific divers across the entire system. The Fish Tech Program is the university’s only one and two-year, entry level applied fisheries program. There has been a 10-fold growth since it began 12 years ago in Ketchikan and graduates now work for agencies or organizations across Alaska and in the Lower 48, said director Joel Marcus. Part of the program’s success, he said, is that nearly all classes can be taken remotely. But the new Aquaculture semester will focus on being out on the water. Only 12 students will be accepted for the fall semester that starts on Aug. 23 and runs through December. Visit Salmon Culture Semester to learn more or email Angie Bowers at [email protected] Laine Welch lives in Kodiak. Visit www.alaskafishradio.com or contact [email protected] for information.

Constantine drilling again at Palmer, water permit in limbo

Constantine Metal Resources plans to put nearly $9 million into further drilling work at its underground Palmer mine prospect near Haines this summer after the pandemic curtailed work last year. The $8.8 million summer work budget is largely for drilling to further delineate the Palmer project resource base as well as collect geotechnical data for the large underground exploration tunnel the company hopes to dig in the coming years. In total, the leaders of Vancouver-based Constantine hope to conduct roughly 6,000 meters of drilling; the work is being funded by large Japanese mining company Dowa Metals and Mining Ltd. Constantine, which has led exploration at the polymetallic Palmer prospect for years and is continuing as the project operator, will see its ownership share drop to no less than 44 percent, according to a March 30 statement. Constantine CEO Garfield Mac Veigh said in an interview that the company advanced its understanding of the environmental factors at play during the $2.2 million surface work program conducted at Palmer last summer. This year the company hopes to find the “offset” to the prospect’s South Wall deposit with some of its drilling, according to Mac Veigh. An offset is generally a similar geologic formation — in this case likely metal-bearing — that has been displaced and shifted by a fault. “That could have a substantial impact on the economics of the project because that offset should be pretty accessible from our underground exploration,” Mac Veigh said. If developed as currently envisioned, the Palmer project would be an underground mine that would process up to 3,500 metric tonnes of ore per day, or approximately 12.5 million metric tonnes over the life of the mine, based on figures from a 2019 preliminary economic assessment. From that, the mine would produce more than 1 billion pounds of zinc, 196 million pounds of copper, 18 million ounces of silver, 91,000 ounces of gold and nearly 2.9 million tonnes of barite, a common industrial mineral, according to Constantine. The deposit is adjacent to the Alaska-Canada border and near the Haines Highway about 40 miles northwest of Haines along the Klehani River, which flows into the Chilkat River. It is on a mix of federal mining claims surrounded by land owned by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, which is open for development. The mine would cost $278 million to develop and require another $140 million for sustaining capital and reclamation costs for an estimated all-in cost of $418 million, according to the 2019 report. About 1,700 meters of the drilling this summer is dedicated to advancing the company’s knowledge of the geotechnical structures and hydrologic systems in the area of the proposed exploration tunnel, according to Mac Veigh. Constantine was moving towards the major exploratory endeavor to blast a roughly 1.25-mile tunnel that would serve as a space to conduct exploration drilling and collect further geotechnical and hydrologic data in 2019 before a Supreme Court case originating from Maui pushed Department of Environmental Conservation officials to remand and review the wastewater discharge permit for the work and the company to reevaluate its wastewater plan. In the Maui case, the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund and attorneys for the national environmental law firm Earthjustice contend the County of Maui for decades has been polluting near shore ocean waters by injecting millions of gallons of treated sewage water into the groundwater. The groups brought a lawsuit against the County of Maui and in 2014 a federal District Court of Hawaii judge found the wastewater injection well operation violates the Clean Water Act because the wastewater seeping up through the ocean floor can be traced back to the injection wells. The county’s appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was rejected as well. A 6-3 Supreme Court ruling hedged the issue somewhat, contending Maui needed a Clean Water Act National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from the Environmental Protection Agency but also narrowing the scope of when such a permit is required from what the environmental groups were seeking. In Alaska, where the state has taken primacy over wastewater management from the EPA, such permits are handled by DEC. DEC spokeswoman Laura Achee wrote via email that Constantine’s wastewater permit remains valid but the company “is revising their wastewater disposal system engineering plans, and will submit their plans to DEC for review and approval.” There is no timetable for how long that will take. Gershon Cohen, project director for Alaska Clean Water Advocacy, originally petitioned DEC officials to reconsider their 2019 approval of Constantine’s wastewater discharge permit, contending it was wholly inadequate for the amount of groundwater contaminated with hydrocarbons, blasting solids and explosive residue prior studies indicate could be released by the blasting for the exploration tunnel. Constantine’s original plan called for diverting the water into two settling ponds to handle 500 gallons per minute and hold up to 358,500 gallons each for 12 hours to allow solid materials to settle out of the water before it is sent back underground. According to Cohen, that would be enough capacity to handle just two days worth of water flow from the tunnel area and doesn’t account for how the system would operate in winter conditions. “This is going to be a truck traffic-sized opening under a glacier for a mile to reach a deposit,” Cohen said, noting nearby Glacier Creek is a major coho salmon rearing stream and insisting the wastewater would reach the Chilkat, treated or not. “Once it starts leaking it’s never going to stop. If they start digging that tunnel they will be setting in motion something that can’t be reversed.” Constantine has dye water tracing tests ongoing in the area and will likely conduct seismic surveys of the Glacier Creek area to better understand the bedrock and soil makeup and how that could impact water flow as well as establishing infrastructure in the mountainous area, according to Mac Veigh. He said it’s too early to tell how much the new water treatment design will differ from the original plan, but added it probably won’t be finished until late this year after the company has been able to digest all of the data it gathers this year, at the earliest. Constantine is also looking at technologies that would allow it to clean the wastewater before it leaves the tunnel, according to Mac Veigh. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

GUEST COMMENTARY: I’m a candidate for the U.S. Senate because I’m running for Alaska

Many of us remember when Alaska was prosperous and safe, and opportunity abounded. That was when my parents moved here. My dad became a union electrician and my mom helped start up Prudhoe Bay. Life was hard at times; my parents were even homeless and living in a tent for a while. But they instilled Alaska values in me, fought their way to the middle class, and changed the course of our family for generations to come. In the nearly 20 years Lisa Murkowski has been our U.S. senator, our oil and gas jobs have died, our education scores have plummeted, and our crime rates have soared. While Lisa Murkowski has voted with the liberal D.C. insiders, hurting our way of life, we Alaskans have felt forgotten. That is why I am running as a Republican challenger for the U.S. Senate in 2022: I am running for Alaska. I want to be a voice for the forgotten Alaskans who feel like D.C. insiders are not listening to them: for the men and women in oil and gas whose jobs are in jeopardy, for the children who are not getting the education they deserve, and for the women and youth who are victims of sexual abuse and human trafficking. As your next senator, I will rebuild our economy and fight to protect the jobs of the thousands of Alaskans who work in our energy industry. We need a senator who will defend us against the leftists who want to shut down our oil and gas production and destroy our way of life. We must support and rejuvenate our small businesses and give our young people hope that they can find good jobs here at home, instead of leaving to find employment elsewhere. I will be a strong voice in opposition to illegal immigration and, as the proud descendant of Americans who fought in virtually every major American conflict from the Revolutionary War to the Vietnam War, I will be a tireless advocate for our military and our veterans. I will fight to preserve our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms and, as an unapologetically pro-life Alaska Conservative, I will be a voice for the unborn. And I’m for America first, always. We Alaskans have seen what happens when politicians get too comfortable and become part of the D.C. establishment: they forget that the seats they hold belong not to themselves but to the people who elected them. Lisa Murkowski’s father, Frank Murkowski, gave her his Senate seat when he was elected governor. As a result, there has been a Murkowski in the Senate since the first year of the Reagan Administration. It is time to replace Lisa with an Alaskan who is not a D.C. insider politico, and who understands she works for and serves the people of Alaska. Lisa Murkowski has abandoned us, declaring it with every vote and action she has taken against Alaska’s interests. Consider: She enabled President Joe Biden’s radical “green” agenda to end drilling and kill Alaska jobs. She voted to allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country, and she voted against commonsense judges who protect constitutional rights. She voted to keep Obamacare in place, leading to higher costs and fewer health care choices for Alaskans. The last straw for many was her vote to remove President Trump from office, even though his term already had expired. For that particular display of poor judgment, she was censured by Alaska’s Republican Party. Alaskans will never have to wonder where my loyalties and interests are: They are right here. I was born and raised Alaskan. I am not a senator’s daughter. I watched my parents struggle to make their mortgage payments for years, much like how countless Alaskans are struggling today. After graduating from Steller Secondary School in Anchorage, I fought to be first in my family to pursue a college degree and attend law school. Then I went to work exposing fraud and abuse in government, improving outcomes and results, and saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. I am grateful to Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who appointed me commissioner of the Department of Administration, where I served the people of Alaska from January 2019 until I stepped down when I decided to run. And I thank God for my wonderful husband, Niki, and our five beautiful children, who strongly support me in this decision. The coming election presents a unique opportunity to chart a new course for Alaska. We deserve a senator who remembers us, and who believes the Senate seat she holds is of, by, and for the people of Alaska. It is time we had a U.S. Senator who represents Alaska to Washington, D.C., rather than one who represents D.C. insiders to Alaska. Kelly Tshibaka is a Republican candidate for the United States Senate in Alaska.

‘Abuses of every kind’: How a billion-dollar gold racket wrecks the jungle, enriches narcos

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the book ‘Dirty Gold: The Rise and Fall of an International Smuggling Ring’ by Miami Herald journalists Jay Weaver and Nicholas Nehamas and former Herald journalists Jim Wyss and Kyra Gurney, based on a Herald series that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It is now available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc. Juan Pablo Granda stepped into a small office in a middle-class neighborhood in the permanently foggy city of Lima, Perú, on Feb. 18, 2013. The lights were off. He couldn’t see. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, Granda began to make out menacing shapes: two men, short and squat, with handguns strapped to their hips. Behind them, their boss sat at a desk. A single-barreled shotgun leaned against the wall. Granda, a 31-year-old Florida State University graduate with degrees in international business and management, wasn’t there to buy cocaine or weapons, as the room’s bristling tension might suggest. He was there to buy gold, the metal that has mystified, entranced, and led human beings to destroy themselves since the dawn of time. The office belonged to one of the biggest gold exporters in Perú, a developing South American nation where precious-metals brokers sometimes operate more like drug dealers than suit-and-tie commodities traders. Where Africa has its “blood diamonds,” Perú and its neighbors in South America have “dirty gold” — and much of it ends up in jewelry and electronic goods purchased by unsuspecting consumers in the United States. The metal Granda sought is produced by a little known and incredibly destructive criminal economy fueled by the cocaine trade. Under the nose of governments and law enforcement agencies around the world, dirty gold has infiltrated the global precious-metals industry. Deep in Perú’s Amazon rain forest, tens of thousands of struggling wildcat miners use backhoes, pickaxes, and high-powered hoses to rip the metal from pristine jungle riverbanks and toxic mercury to strip it from rock. Violent drug traffickers and other criminal gangs control many of the mines and smuggling routes. Mining camps are overrun by vermin and disease. Women and children are coerced into the sex trade to serve the hard-living miners, who travel from Perú’s mountains and coasts to find some of the most lucrative work available in this country of 32.5 million people. Nearly half of the people who live in Perú’s rural highlands, along its jungle rivers, or on the edges of its subtropical deserts do so in poverty, many without running water, electricity, or basic healthcare. Illegal gold mining is one of the best ways out. The miners have turned an area in Perú’s southeastern rain forest known as La Pampa into one of the hemisphere’s largest illegal gold mines, a giant tear-drop-shaped desert that stretches more than forty-two square miles. In La Pampa, anywhere from thirty thousand to forty thousand men, women, and children dig through the muck day and night in search of the elusive metal. While the rain forests of the surrounding province, Madre de Dios (Mother of God), support some of the richest wildlife found anywhere on Earth, La Pampa has been transformed into a hostile, alien planet. For every ounce of gold the miners extract, researchers estimate that they leave behind nine tons of waste, amid giant craters filled with chemical-tainted water colored in unearthly shades of electric blue and metallic orange. Thanks in part to mines like La Pampa, South America’s old-growth rain forest is being turned into a desolate wasteland. After fossil fuel combustion, deforestation is believed to be the second-leading driver of climate change. In Perú alone, an area bigger than all five boroughs of New York City has been stripped to bare, mottled earth. The story is the same across much of the Amazon. Although loggers and cattle ranchers tear down far more jungle than miners, the mercury used in illicit gold mining can poison the rain forest and local peoples for generations. For Perú’s government, La Pampa became something even more sinister than an environmental catastrophe: a toxic stew of poverty and criminality, where police dared not tread and international and Peruvian laws were mere conjecture. If miners wanted to sleep with underage girls, there was a price for that. If they needed to settle a score, La Pampa’s mining pits were ready-made graves with no undertaker to ask questions. “You can find everything in there … abuses of every kind,” Peruvian defense minister José Huerta Torres said. Although solutions do exist — including less destructive forms of mining that would actually increase gold yields — there is little will to solve the problems as long as the gold keeps flowing. And the rush of gold won’t stop as long as there are men like Granda who come from overseas to buy it. By the time he stepped into that dark Lima office, Granda knew all about the evils of illegal mining — he just didn’t care. His job was to acquire gold for NTR Metals, the Miami subsidiary of Dallas-based Elemetal, one of the largest international gold-trading companies in the United States. As much gold as he could possibly find. For Granda, convincing the Peruvian gold dealer to agree to an exclusive relationship with NTR could jump-start his new career, one that followed jobs in South Florida selling subprime mortgages and classes for an online university. Granda launched into a carefully crafted pitch. NTR had the best prices, Granda told the gold dealer — and could pay faster than any of its competitors. He had seen how rival American firms operating in Perú misweighed and undervalued the gold that suppliers brought in to sell. “You’re getting ripped off,” Granda said. The Peruvian gold dealer was impressed. He was the second in command in his office — which, it turned out, was dark not for purposes of intimidation but because of one of Lima’s frequent power outages. He invited Granda and his fellow NTR salesman, Renato Rodriguez, to join his boss for dinner that evening. Over a meal of ceviche, Perú’s signature citrus-cured raw fish dish, they closed the deal. The rookie trader had won his first client for NTR. The Party Three days after clinching his first gold deal, Granda clutched a toilet in the bathroom of Lima’s trendy beachside restaurant Costa Verde, vomiting uncontrollably. A torrent of bitter stomach acid mixed with pisco sours — Perú’s supersweet, deadly strong national drink — rained down into the porcelain bowl. It had been a hell of a birthday party for his company’s biggest supplier, Pedro David Pérez Miranda, a muscular playboy with a thick mane of curly black hair who had been dubbed “Peter Ferrari” by the local press for his love of European sports cars, tight shirts, and beautiful women. Rumors of his fondness for plastic surgery abounded. Ferrari spared no expense on his fifty-third birthday. A bottle of Johnnie Walker stood on each table. Gold Label, of course. Models and expensively suited men danced to the rhythms of a live salsa band. The room screamed money — and not necessarily the legitimate kind. In Perú, the world’s second-leading producer of cocaine, the flashy Pérez Miranda had been dodging allegations for two decades that he dealt in stronger stuff than gold, allegations that he always denied. Granda was starting his new job traveling Latin America and the Caribbean as a gold buyer for NTR Metals. His boss, Samer Barrage, and the more experienced salesman Renato Rodriguez had brought him to the party on Feb. 21, 2013. The three men had known each other in Miami for nearly a decade before going to work for NTR. Now, twenty-six hundred miles south in Perú, they were embarking on a grand adventure. Granda, short and round-faced with jet-black hair, was the baby of the bunch, a hard-working, hard-partying bachelor from the suburbs south of Miami who had recently earned his MBA. Rodriguez, 40, was a working-class family man born to Ecuadorian immigrants and raised in Brooklyn. He went by “Ronnie.” On his arms, he wore three tattoos: his father’s signature, his daughter’s footprints, and the postmark from the letter that his father had mailed his mother asking her to marry him. He was a big man, 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, sensitive about his weight, and desperate to fit in with Barrage and Granda, both handsome and suave. When the other two called him ” Fat Ronnie,” as they often did, the nickname stung. But Rodriguez didn’t fight back. He yearned to be one of the gang. On their business trips across South America, when Granda and Barrage frequently hired escorts at local hotels, Rodriguez would shed his family-man exterior and join them. Barrage, 36, was the boss, more worldly and sophisticated than his subordinates. Born in London, he spoke with a posh British accent and owned homes in Nicaragua and Spain. His brother worked at a top law firm in Washington, DC. His son went to an elite Miami prep school that produced half the city’s mayors, lawyers, and judges. They were three amigos, alike in their ambition and disregard for following the rules. They hungered for their vision of the American Dream. And Miami, America’s modern-day Casablanca, was the best place to find it. Because of its proximity to Latin America, Miami had become the United States’ gold-import capital, the center of a multi-billion-dollar gold industry that sells metal to hundreds of Fortune 500 companies and central banks. The global supply chain rests on exporters like Pérez Miranda. For a year, Barrage and Rodriguez had cultivated the man better known as Peter Ferrari, finally stealing his business away from a rival Miami gold company in 2012. It was a major coup. Pérez Miranda didn’t own any mines himself; rather, he was a “collector” or “aggregator” of metal that he bought from miners and smaller dealers. These brokers — in Spanish called comercializadoras — feed jungle metal from places like La Pampa, the giant illegal rain forest mine, into our pockets, through our ears, and around our fingers, wrists, and necks. When Granda was finally done throwing up at Peter Ferrari’s birthday party, Barrage and Rodriguez helped him from the bathroom to a couch in the restaurant’s lounge. He took a fifteen-minute nap and then jumped up and started drinking again. There was no time to rest. With Ferrari as a major client, the Americans believed they had bought a lucrative one-way ticket into the narcotics-fueled netherworld of illegal gold trading. Drug traffickers, always seeking ways to launder their money and appear to the outside world as legitimate businessmen, had started investing their cocaine cash in South America’s informal gold-mining industry. It was a perfect cover. Trading gold made financial sense, too. Between 1999 and 2011, the price of a single, fourteen-pound gold bar skyrocketed from $51,000 to $390,000, driven by terrorist attacks, financial insecurity, and a searing hunger for jewelry and electronics in the consumer markets of India, China, and the United States. In America, the boom was helped by gold bugs like then-Fox News host Glenn Beck, who produced fear-mongering advertisements urging listeners to invest in the reliable metal. Most of the world’s gold comes from mines controlled by multi-national conglomerates. Just five countries produce half the world’s annual gold supply: China (roughly 400 tons per year), Australia (300 tons per year), Russia (295 tons per year), the United States (210 tons per year), and Canada (180 tons per year). Those big mines have a host of problems: They destroy mountains, ravage landscapes, and contaminate the air, water, and soil. In countries with weak labor protections where gold is also mined — like Indonesia, South Africa, and Ghana — the big mines are known to exploit workers. But big mines are generally subject to far more regulations, and are more free from the influence of organized crime, than the industry that has come to be known as informal, or “artisanal,” mining. The informal miners work outside the regulated government system. There is nothing artisanal about how the vast majority of them mine; they are not craft cheese makers or country vintners. Rather, they are people desperately trying to earn a living through subsistence mining, with little education or access to financing and safe equipment. Because of their crude methods, the small-scale miners have become the world’s largest source of mercury pollution, releasing an estimated 1,400 tons of the dangerous chemical into the earth’s environment every year. As big mines and traditional sources of gold tap out, the growth in the small-scale mining industry has been tremendous. Twenty-five years ago, an estimated six million people worked in small-scale mines. Today, the World Bank estimates a hundred million artisanal miners worldwide are active in eighty countries, producing 20 percent of the global gold supply. At least a third of them are believed to be women and children. Gold, Pope Francis said on a trip to Perú’s devastated rain forest, is a pernicious and corrupting idol — “a false god that demands human sacrifice.” But Elemetal, NTR’s parent company, saw the small-scale miners as an opportunity. Before the Great Recession caused prices to spike, Elemetal only bought gold domestically, operating a chain of “We Buy Gold” stores across the United States. The storefronts took in metal from pawnshops, antique stores, and people looking to junk their heirlooms and old coins. But in 2012, the company expanded its operations abroad, to Latin America, where the legion of artisanal miners was carving a valuable new supply of gold out of the jungle. Elemetal quickly surpassed its competitors as the largest buyer of South American gold. The rapid expansion brought the American company into contact with unsavory characters like Peter Ferrari, particularly in the major gold-producing nations of Perú, Colombia, and Bolivia, which supply 40 percent of raw gold exports to the United States — and all of its cocaine. Thanks to the three amigos’ aggressive sales tactics and see-no-evil approach, NTR Metals would buy nearly $1 billion worth of Peruvian gold by the end of 2013, or one of every two ounces of Peruvian metal heading for Miami. Granda, Barrage, and Rodriguez were far from the only traders buying dirty gold in Latin America. They were simply the best at it. But unbeknownst to the three Miamians, an unlikely team of U.S. law enforcement officers was forming to combat a problem their government had ignored for decades. The federal agents and prosecutors only half-jokingly called themselves “the Fellowship of the Ring,” after the fractious crew of J. R. R. Tolkien characters tasked with destroying Sauron’s evil golden ring of power. Among the company was a rebellious, bow-tie wearing Miami prosecutor; a hot-headed Cuban-American Homeland Security Investigations agent; a former U.S. Air Force Pararescue trooper and one-time rodeo cowboy who had joined the Drug Enforcement Administration looking for justice and adventure; and a soft-spoken FBI agent and military intelligence veteran determined to make her first big case. Despite their radically different backgrounds and approaches, one mission would ultimately unite them: Bringing down dirty gold.

CDC further revises guidance for cruise industry

The director of the maritime division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said passengers could be boarding cruise ships in U.S. ports as soon as July. It all depends on how many people get vaccinated, how well COVID-19 variants can be kept at bay, and how fast cruise companies can secure agreements with local ports and health authorities in the cities they plan to visit, said CDC’s Martin Cetron in an interview. Passengers have not boarded cruise ships in the U.S. since mid-March 2020, when the industry shut down following COVID-19 outbreaks on multiple ships. In recent weeks the cruise industry has dialed up its pressure on the CDC to allow for cruises to resume, citing July as a target. Cetron doesn’t think cruise companies are that far off, but it’s going to take some work to get there, and a lot of things have to go right, he said. There’s a lot to be hopeful about. More than one-third of U.S. adults has received the COVID-19 vaccine, which so far appears to be effective against more deadly COVID-19 variants. But Cetron cautions that the U.S. is still at the beginning of a vaccine supply and distribution race against known variants and those still being defined. “The caveat is if I’ve learned anything in this pandemic, it’s that it’s hard to predict three weeks in advance — much less three months,” he said. “In an ideal setting where we don’t have an overwhelming fourth wave of variants that are unresponsive to our mitigation strategies, that if all things go well as planned…I think with following the guidance we laid out we can all probably get to a place of partial resumption of sailing in July.” Under the CDC’s “conditional sail order,” cruise company executives must now pen agreements with the highest ranking officials of the ports and health authorities where they plan to visit. Those agreements should include routine processes — such as cruise terminal cleaning procedures — and worst-case scenario evacuation and hospitalization plans. Those agreements must then be submitted to the CDC for its approval before simulated cruises can begin, and then eventually the real thing. But cruise companies would rather skip right to the cruising. In a letter to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky April 5, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings CEO Frank Del Rio said the company’s new vaccination requirement for all passengers and crew, combined with enhanced protocols like tests before boarding and bigger medical teams on board, are sufficient given the CDC’s new guidance that vaccinated people can resume air travel. Still the CDC’s Level 4 warning against cruise travel — the agency’s highest — remains in place. “(Air travel) is a shorter journey compared to spending a week day and night in a hospitality based industry in which the air handling environment isn’t exactly the same,” said Cetron. “It’s meals multiple times a day together, buffets, rooms, mixed crowds between the crew and the passengers, and the types of sleeping arrangements for the crew is very different than it is for passengers. So it’s a different setting, and of course this pandemic has taught us the risk of certain settings is different than others. Each of them has to be considered in the context of those environments.” In most cases, the protocols touted by Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and used by its competitors on cruises in other parts of the world during the pandemic are in line with those outlined by the CDC. Both promote cruising with fewer passengers, eliminating self-serve buffets, and requiring passengers and crew wear masks. But when it comes to testing, the two differ. Norwegian said it will require passengers to provide proof of a negative antigen test before boarding; the CDC said it will require companies to test all passengers and crew using PCR tests on embarkation and debarkation day. Cruise Lines International Association called the CDC’s rules for port agreements “unduly burdensome, largely unworkable” in a statement April 5. Cruises have long resumed in other parts of the world including Singapore, China and Italy, hosting nearly 400,000 passengers since the pandemic began with minimal COVID-19 cases, according to CLIA. More cruise lines will choose to scrap plans to cruise from U.S. ports in favor of the Caribbean ports, CLIA warned. On April 6, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings announced it will operate seven-day Caribbean itineraries from Montego Bay, Jamaica, starting on Aug. 7, 2021 on its Norwegian Joy ship and from La Romana, Dominican Republic, on its Norwegian Gem ship starting Aug. 15, 2021. Royal Caribbean Group and Crystal Cruises already have plans in place to restart cruises from The Bahamas and St. Maarten this summer. Cetron’s advice to U.S. citizens planning to fly to the Caribbean for a summer cruise: “I would say hold on. We’re really getting our best tools in place right now. Getting all Americans vaccinated is a game changer in this pandemic. I know that it’s really hard and I know pandemic fatigue is real; people just want out. We are so close. Give us some time.” More time is difficult to imagine for Torin Ragin, president of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1416, which represents nearly 800 workers at PortMiami. Since the pandemic began, working hours on the cruise ship side of the port have plummeted. Hundreds of longshoremen are at risk of losing their medical insurance coverage in January 2022 unless they can work 700 hours by the end of September, an impossible task without the return of cruising. “It’s the continued uncertainty after uncertainty after uncertainty,” he said. “It’s real. I see the faces; I get the calls; I’m on ground zero of this thing. We’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep people safe.” After the CDC approves cruise company agreements with ports and local health authorities, companies will practice simulated voyages to make sure the health and safety protocols are working. Requirements for the simulated passenger voyages are under development, a spokesperson for the CDC said, and will be published in the next few weeks. After the simulated voyages, companies will be approved to operate during the pandemic. Cetron is confident the agency’s rules will reduce the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks on ships and make cruises safer. “Let’s get these things up and going, let’s beat this virus, and then I think people will really be able to enjoy the things they’ve been missing for the last year,” he said.

Movers and Shakers for April 11

Mark Foster, Steve Minor and Jonathan Thorpe are among the latest additions to Peter Pan Seafood Company LLC. Foster is serving as the company’s chief financial officer. He brings familiarity and momentum to his role as he’s been serving in a consulting position for Peter Pan over the last few months. With a blended background in finance, operations and strategy, Foster’s past experience includes senior roles with Alaska Communications Systems and various consulting roles with other companies looking for new energy and a new direction. Minor will serve as the manager of business development, a role that will include exploring the potential development of new resources, community development and more. Minor came to Alaska as a commercial diver during his college years and decided to build his career. Minor’s background includes marketing and communications, telecommunications regulations, and seafood. Minor is a Benchmark Committee member of the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative, an internationally recognized benchmarking process based on the UN FAO principles. Minor brings extensive Bering Sea knowledge to Peter Pan and his past experience includes Unisea, Golden Harvest Alaska, Ocean2Table, Central Bering Sea Fisherman’s Association and the North Pacific Crab Association. Thorpe is working to increase access to resources through investment, strategically aligned partnerships and direct sourcing in addition to developing downstream products and customers. Thorpe brings a diverse and proven professional track record to Peter Pan that spans more than 30 years from his days fishing to roles as a CFO and chief investment and strategy officer for Central Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association, executive vice president of market development for Blue Harvest Fisheries, and the executive vice president of resource development for Mark Foods. His experience covers a breadth of products including, crab, cod, halibut, pollock, scallops, salmon, swordfish and tuna. He has spent time working in the regulatory environment at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission.

88 Energy hits Nanushuk to the south of advanced prospects

The leaders of a small Australian explorer believe they have continued a trend that is driving two of the largest North Slope prospects in decades. 88 Energy Ltd. has indicated in a series of reports on early test results from the remote Merlin-1 exploration well drilled last month that the company contacted three zones of shallow Nanushuk sands roughly 40 miles south of ConocoPhillips’ Willow prospect. Drilled off of “sparse 2D seismic,” according to 88 Managing Director David Wall, the $12.6 million Merlin well reached a total depth of 5,267 feet and hit potential pay zones between approximately 3,400 feet and 5,100 feet. It is part of the company’s Project Peregrine in the southern portion of the NPR-A adjacent to the legacy Umiat prospect, which 88 Energy also recently acquired. The Nanushuk formation sands encountered by 88 Energy are approximately 500 feet thicker than those hit by ConocoPhillips’ Willow wells, according to the company, and other potential oil and gas-bearing zones were hit as well. Wall said in an April 5 statement that operational challenges prevented the company from collecting hydrocarbon samples in the two most promising Nanushuk zones but the early results already confirm that the Merlin well “has delivered by far the best outcome of any of the five wells drilled by 88 Energy in Alaska over the last six years.” “Particularly encouraging is the apparent presence of oil in a zone that has not previously been targeted in the NPR-A,” Wall said further. “Whilst the potential volumetric size of this zone is not yet known, the formation could be extensive based on initial interpretation.” Other down-hole characteristics show the most prospective sand zones are similar to those found just to the north at the company’s Harrier prospect and will likely be the target for drilling next winter, according to Wall. ConocoPhillips first announced its Nanushuk-based Willow discovery in the northeastern NPR-A in January 2017 based on two wells drilled the previous winter. Italian major Repsol and Denver-based Armstrong Energy partnered to make the initial large Nanushuk find on the North Slope at what is now the Pikka project being advanced by Oil Search Alaska in the years leading up to the Willow discovery. Both Willow and Pikka are multibillion-dollar projects each with the ability to produce more than 100,000 barrels of oil per day, according to the operators, and they have led to other smaller Nanushuk-sourced prospects nearby. Geologist and wildcatter Bill Armstrong has repeatedly said to the Journal that he believes the shallow and long-overlooked Nanushuk plays are prolific across much of the western North Slope, a prediction that appears to be bearing out. 88 Energy holds more approximately 210,000 acres on the North Slope mostly around the edges of other industry activity. The company’s Icewine project is located south of Prudhoe Bay near the Dalton Highway in an area being worked by several other small explorers. Company leaders said in a March 30 statement that 88 Energy has plugged and abandoned two of the legacy Umiat wells for roughly $1 million, thus satisfying the conditions of the purchase made in early January from Malamute Energy Inc. and Renaissance Umiat LLC. The Umiat prospect was first drilled in the mid-1940s and holds a proven and probable resource estimated at roughly 124 million barrels of oil largely in the Nanushuk sandstones, according to 88 Energy. Umiat has never been developed despite being known for many decades because of its remote location and relative small size compared to most other North Slope oil developments. 88 Energy is subsequently undertaking a full field review to determine what market conditions are needed to finally develop the Umiat prospect, according to a company statement. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

Alaska Railroad Corp. took $7.8M loss amid pandemic

The Alaska Railroad felt the brunt of 2020 on multiple fronts, ultimately absorbing its largest loss in decades, according to its annual report published April 2. Sharp reductions in both the state-owned railroad’s passenger and freight businesses led directly to a $7.8 million net loss last year following three years of annual profits in the $20 million range. The railroad’s ridership fell by 94 percent in 2020 to just more than 32,000 passengers after years of consistent growth that put annual ridership at more than 500,000 passengers. Much of the growth in passenger service was the result of cruise companies contracting with the railroad to pull their passenger cars on various tour trains between Seward and Fairbanks; however, pandemic restrictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control last spring prohibited any large cruise sailings last year. Passenger service revenue fell similarly from nearly $40 million in 2019 to just $3.3 million last year. The prospect for this year’s large ship Alaska cruise season also remains muddied as the CDC issued guidance April 2 for the second phase of a gradual, five-step process for large cruise companies to resume domestic sailings. The Canadian government’s continued ban on large cruise ships at its ports this year also indirectly hurt the chances for traditional Pacific Northwest-to-Alaska cruises because of an antiquated U.S. law that requires foreign-built passenger vessels to stop at a foreign port on trips between domestic ports. Despite all that, Alaska Railroad Corp. CEO Bill O’Leary said that he believes the time railroad officials have had to plan this year’s schedule, which is still scaled back from recent norms, will lead to improved operating costs and a schedule that better matches demand compared to 2020. Railroad officials were “scrambling” last year to salvage summer passenger service that did not start summer service until July 1, O’Leary acknowledged; this year the usually popular summer trains will start running in early June. The railroad has also partnered with Alaska Airlines on a promotion to attract passengers with discounted rail and plane tickets. “Demand is not 2019, that’s for sure, but it’s certainly looking better than what we saw last year,” he said in an interview. The 2020 hit to the Alaska Railroad’s flagship freight service came in the form of a roughly 25 percent reduction in tonnage to 2.6 million tons and a 14 percent year-over-year loss in revenue, from $85.3 million to $73.6 million, according to the annual report. It all led to an operating loss of $18.3 million that was partly offset by the railroad’s real estate holdings, which netted $10.4 million last year. The railroad’s total revenue decreased by nearly 27 percent last year to $150.7 million. Railroad leaders expect to generate approximately $4.2 million in revenue from passenger service and $75 million from freight service this year, and the railroad’s overall net financial position is forecast to improve by approximately 0.2 percent, or about $700,000 this year. O’Leary said those budget projections made last fall appear to be holding close to accurate even with all the closely tied and economic and public health uncertainties still clouding the near-term, particularly on the freight side where North Slope oil activity is ramping back up. “Dozens” of capital projects planned for last year were put on-hold when the full severity of the pandemic became clear, according to the report, and much of the capital work this year will be funded with $94 million in federal CARES Act relief the railroad received as a public transportation provider. Alaska Railroad officials also expect to receive some level of funding via the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed by President Joe Biden last month “but it won’t be anything near the $94 million,” O’Leary noted. The 2021 capital plan calls for $66.5 million worth of projects, with CARES grants covering $20.4 million of that, according to the report. The Alaska Railroad ended 2020 with $32 million in cash, down more than $50 million from the end of 2019, but O’Leary said he believes the corporation is still in a solid financial position with $99 million in total current assets at the end of last year. “We came into this thing with a strong balance sheet — very good liquidity. It’s not as strong a balance sheet as we’re heading into the meat of 2021 but we’re comfortable with where we’re at,” he said. All told, he expects the Alaska Railroad to have much smoother 2021 as long as the late spring and plentiful snow across much of the southern half of the state doesn’t lead to widespread flooding and unexpected track repairs. “We’re looking forward to a better 2021 and a lot of that is going to be how the passenger season plays out,” O’Leary said. Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected]

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