Elizabeth Earl

Council considers options for tracking halibut rental boats

A lot of unanswered questions, concern about fishery access and uncertainty about who is responsible remain part of the debate over how to register and track halibut harvested by unguided anglers in rental boats. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council discussed a potential course of action on a registry system for rental boats carrying unguided anglers fishing for halibut. It’s been an issue for the council for several years, springing from a sore spot among the commercial and charter halibut fleets because of the more relaxed bag limits on unguided halibut anglers. Unguided anglers get to keep two fish per day of any size, while guided anglers only get to keep one in Southeast and two with a size limit on the second one in the Central Gulf of Alaska. The charter sector is also subject to a sector harvest limit, while there’s no real tracking on unguided angler halibut harvest. In recent years, both private citizens and guides have been asking the council to do something about businesses renting out boats for unguided halibut fishing, particularly in Southeast. The intent of the higher bag limits was to protect access to the fishery for Alaskans, but some operations have begun commercializing it to bypass the charter sector. Potential solutions, though, are difficult to pin down. Council member and charter business owner Andy Mezirow introduced a motion with three suggested alternatives for how to keep a closer track on unguided anglers in rental boats, including doing nothing, requiring registration for non-guided rental sportfishing vessels, and aligning the bag limits in the charter and non-guided sector. Mezirow said this will be necessary given the growth in participation among nonguided anglers. “Defining all of these entities as one sector, requiring registration and applying the same bag limits is a necessary action to understand and then manage this fleet,” he said. The total sportfishing harvest of halibut in regulation areas 2C and 3A — Southeast Alaska and the Central Gulf of Alaska, respectively — actually declined between 2003 and 2016, but the proportions of who was harvesting them changed. In 2011, the harvest by unguided anglers surpassed the harvest of the charter fleet in Southeast, which may account for why people say the unguided sector is growing while the overall harvest numbers have stayed relatively flat, said Steve MacLean, the protected species coordinator for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. In the raw data, though, fish being caught on private boats by individual Alaskans are indistinguishable from fish coming off rental boats being hired by tourists, MacLean said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have data on the number of fish caught by rental boats,” he said. “We don’t have any way of understanding the number of halibut coming off these rental boats like other private boats.” Council staff researched the registration methods available and concluded that the Alaska Division of Motor Vehicles registry is likely close to accurate, though it’s hard to separate vessels specifically registered to rent for unguided halibut angling from other pleasure craft, he said. “We did identify at least one company that is known to offer boats to rent for anglers for halibut that does not have any registered rental boats, but does have registered pleasure boats,” he said. “We had to look up the business owner and look up their address, and then search for boats identified or registered to that owner or that address, and we did find that there were a number of boats registered to multiple people at that address, pleasure boats. “We also do know that there are several companies that do have a boat that is registered as a rental boat but they do not offer fishing services. There are a number of venture companies that offer zodiacs for (activities like) wildlife viewing, glacier access. Those are all counted as rental boats.” While staff members were building the discussion paper, they also investigated which would be the best agency to implement registration or logbook requirements. The National Marine Fisheries Service, which works with the council and the International Pacific Halibut Commission to regulate halibut harvest, has one type of registration established but does not collect logbooks. While the Alaska Department of Fish and Game does collect sportfishing guide logbooks and conduct a private angler statewide harvest survey, the agency indicated that a separate logbook just for private halibut anglers would be burdensome, MacLean said. Several residents of Southeast Alaska testified that they’ve seen operations like fishing lodges take advantage of the more liberal unguided bag limit by offering a day or two of guided fishing followed by a rental boat for unguided fishing or the establishment of “fishing clubs.” Linda Behnken, the executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, urged the council to move forward with registration requirements. Though it looks like harvest is flat, the council has to account for the fact that overall halibut abundance in the Gulf of Alaska has been declining, she said. “You’ve seen a drop in abundance, and you’ve seen the same level of removals,” she said. “That’s only happening because there’s an increased effort.” There’s a delicate line for the council to walk: protecting private resident access to the fishery and controlling business use of it. The motion isn’t intended to impinge upon private Alaskans’ ability to fish for halibut, especially as food, as citizen access to resources is provided for in the Alaska Constitution, Mezirow said. However, that’s something Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten said he’s concerned about in this motion. “There’s a strong level of support from the commercial halibut industry for the direction this will take, and it sounds like there’s a strong level of support from the charter industry … but there’s really no lobby for the resident angler,” he said. “When you look at the definition that’s been used here … resident anglers are going to be impacted differently based on their own economic situation, perhaps.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Researchers tackle data gaps in ocean acidification impacts

SEWARD — Increasingly acidic oceans are expected to affect marine species on which fishermen of all stripes rely. One of the things that’s not known is how it’s exactly going to affect each individual species, particularly in Alaska. A group of researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks is looking into the effect of ocean acidification on three clam species — littleneck and razor clams and cockles — that are important for subsistence and sport harvest in the state. Entrenched in their research is a desire to know more generally about how ocean acidification is going to play out in the state. “Our goal is really to define what those sensitivities are in the hope of managing these species,” said Amanda Kelley, an assistant professor of marine biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “What we can say is that okay, if our data supports what is happening with these species, we know that (a specific species) is more sensitive to climate change effects.” Kelley and two of her graduate students are working on research specific to how more acidic oceans will affect shellfish. For Marina Washburn, who is working toward a master’s degree in marine biology, there’s a personal connection, too: she grew up harvesting the once-plentiful razor clams on the beaches of Ninilchik and Clam Gulch. Due to depressed populations, that fishery has been closed for four straight seasons. Washburn successfully hatched razor clams this summer at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward, the first time it’s ever been done in a lab. Her project involves continuously bubbling a set amount of carbon dioxide into seawater, patterned after what scientists expect ocean conditions to be like by 2100. The project can be done all year because it’s done in a closed lab, she said. The collapse of the razor clam fishery on the east side of Cook Inlet likely isn’t solely due to ocean acidification — the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has cited harvest pressure, poor survival, storm damage and unfavorable environmental conditions among the possible causes — but it could be playing a role. Even if it isn’t now, it could in the future, Washburn said. “That sad truth about mollusks in in Alaska is that (the information available) is shockingly low,” Washburn said. “There is very little research. I think Alaska has a problem with not appreciating our resources like shellfish and fish until there is a problem.” Researchers worldwide have been tracking a gradual increase in the acidity of the ocean, linked to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Essentially, the ocean absorbs more of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and breaks it down, absorbing the carbon molecules and creating carbonic acid. Some of that carbonic acid breaks down, though, freeing hydrogen molecules and increasing the pH of the water, making it more acidic and raising a host of issues for marine animals adapted specifically to a less acidic ocean. Shellfish are on the front lines of those risks. More acidic oceans can dissolve the calcium carbonate-based shells mollusks build to protect their soft bodies, exposing them to predation. Mollusks are important in the marine food chain — everything from fish to otters to sea stars predate on shellfish. Many Alaskans also depend on shellfish for subsistence. Ashley Rossin, a marine biology Ph.D. student working with Kelley, is studying the impact of ocean acidification on littleneck clams and cockles, both of which have been traditional subsistence foods. Out in remote coastal communities, where imported groceries are not as common and are more expensive, rural residents have relied on abundant shellfish for generations. That’s changed in the last decade or so, as populations of clams around the state have reportedly been in decline, Rossin said. “(In research, rural populations have) said they don’t even know what to do, and the clam and chiton populations are so small but they need to continue to fish there because that’s what available to them, but they don’t want to fish them because they know it may not be good for them,” she said. Her project includes looking at the water in beaches where littlenecks and cockles settle — called pore water — to see if the conditions there are different than the surrounding ocean and how that may affect them. The two species occupy the exact same habitats but have opposite life history strategies, Rossin said — littlenecks grow slowly while cockles grow quickly. “(Kelley) wanted to see what the difference in their responses would be,” Rossin said. “We’re going to see basically which one is the winner or the loser in this situation. The conditions that are there are kind of unknown … some people have hypothesized that the water in that sediment is actually more acidic.” One of the frustrations all three mentioned was a lack of overall existing data both about existing shellfish populations and about the effect of ocean acidification on Alaskan species overall. Kelley said there have been about six studies so far about ocean acidification’s effect on Alaskan marine animal species in Alaska. The work they’re doing on shellfish is the first of its kind in the state, she said. “We are only measuring one variable in the lab,” Kelley said. “But what you start to do is develop a series of mounting evidence. The only thing we can do is accumulate evidence … Alaska is behind the curveball for research on climate change. Funding is definitely a big part of it. I have to submit grants (for research) and when I submit a grant, I have to compete with everyone else who wants to study seabirds.” Rossin’s project includes a citizen science aspect using the Local Environmental Observation, or LEO, network and Epi Collect 5, asking individuals to record their observations about shellfish and shellfish harvests all over Alaska. Alaska SeaGrant is supporting both projects, in part because of the importance of the clam species to harvest by the subsistence, sport and commercial sectors alike. There is some baseline information being gathered around the state, though. In a back room at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, shellfish biologist Jacqueline Ramsay is testing water samples from all across the Gulf of Alaska coast for their baseline water conditions to help track localized changes. At first glance, it looks like she’s storing shelves and shelves of six-packs of beer. But those are actually the sample containers: she has citizen scientists gather water samples in cleaned, recycled beer bottles and mail them to her at the hatchery. She then plugs them into a machine known as the Burke-o-lator — named for its creator, Burke Hales of Oregon State University — to continuously test them for water quality measures. “What this machine does is it just constantly sips on (the water sample) and measures salinity and pH (among other metrics),” she said. Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, the only shellfish hatchery in Alaska, is an operation of Chugach Regional Resources Commission. Ramsay receives samples from many of the corporation’s member villages, from Seldovia to Eyak, with about three years of data on hand. She’s working with several other researchers through to build baseline data on existing conditions in Alaska using these longterm data sets. Longterm data is important for gauging changes, establishing baseline conditions to work with on different species and locations. “I think we alread know that pollock and crab and clams all react differently,” Ramsay said. “That’s why this is so important.” Alaska is especially vulnerable to ocean acidification in the future, as colder water holds more gas and is more susceptible to changing pH. With Alaska’s dependency on healthy marine ecosystems for healthy fisheries and subsistence, being able to look forward and estimate impacts will be important, Washburn said. “We’re kind of getting hit on both sides,” she said. “As terrible as it is, Alaska is a great place to study ocean acidification, because we are going to feel the effects of it.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

GCI objects to 26% cut in Rural Health Care payments

Alaska internet service providers are getting millions of dollars to provide lower-price service to rural health care centers, but not as much as they asked to cover their costs. The Federal Communications Commission provides cost assistance through its Rural Health Care program, intended to help rural medical clinics afford internet connections to facilitate telemedicine services without breaking the bank. By law, internet service providers have to serve rural health care clinics at the same cost they give to urban health care clinics, and to make up the difference, they can apply for funding through the RHC program. The catch is that they have to justify the rates they’re charging for rural connections. After an investigation, the FCC found that two non-Alaska carriers were inflating their rural rates to increase their payments from the program in 2017 and fined the companies about $40 million. The agency then requested more information from the participating companies to justify the rural rates they charged. That proved to be an issue for Alaska telecom providers, where internet connections are notoriously expensive and limited outside urban centers. The FCC announced Oct. 10 that GCI, one of the two largest internet providers in the state, would receive $77.8 million in funding through the program. That’s about $28 million less than the company requested in its cost estimates. “Among the carriers that received an information request was one of the largest carriers in Alaska, GCI Communications Corp.,” the release states. “As a result of this particular inquiry, the (FCC’s Wireline Competition) Bureau has determined that GCI has now provided sufficient information to justify $77.8 million in RHC funding for FY 2017, a 26 percent reduction from the $105 million originally sought.” GCI objected, saying in an Oct. 12 press release that the reduction from the funding request essentially forces the company to swallow $28 million in services that had already been provided. “GCI strongly disagrees with the Bureau’s decision,” said GCI President and Chief Operating Officer Greg Chapados in the release. “The decision ignores the fact that our services are competitively bid in a competitive market. It also fails to provide any compelling explanation of the methodology behind the reduction in support payments. It does not even set forth the specifics of the methodology.” The company challenges the Wireline Competition Bureau’s authority and “intends to pursue all available remedies,” according to the release. GCI Director of Corporate Communications Heather Handyside said in an email the company didn’t have any more to add to the press release at present. In its press release, the FCC emphasized the “fiscal responsibility” of the decision to reduce the funding to GCI. “Critically, this fiscally responsible determination will not require participating rural health care providers in Alaska to pay more for their telecommunications services or risk losing those services,” the release states. “By law, telecommunications carriers cannot cut off or deny service to existing rural health care provider customers for failure to pay a rate higher than the urban rate. Moreover, the methodology outlined in the Bureau’s approval letter will provide additional regulatory certainty and thus support continued investment in technologies that support telemedicine in communities across Alaska.” GCI stated that it has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into building out infrastructure for its network in rural Alaska and that the decision does not hold with industry practice, economics, policy or prior audits conducted back to 1997, in the earliest days of the RHC program. Alaska Communications, the other major internet provider in the state, previously outlined to the Journal the difficulties in meeting the information request specifications for the FCC to approve its rural rates. As of Oct. 16, most of the requests from the providers the company served in 2017 had been approved, but a handful had not yet been approved and therefore not funded, wrote Alaska Communications Director of External Affairs and Corporate Communications Heather Cavanaugh in an email. The RHC program has grown significantly in recent years, with growing concern from providers as requests for funding outstripped the funding provided. In June 2018, the FCC increased the available funding from $400 million to $571 million, which has since been scaled to $581 million for inflation, according to FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield in an email. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Native rights pioneer, next generation take Elders & Youth stage

The two speakers at the 35th First Alaskans Institute Elders and Youth Conference bring two different geographic perspectives, two different eras and two different cultures, but a similar energy to be active on behalf of their ancestral communities. The First Alaskans Institute, which organizes the annual Elders and Youth Convention that precedes the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage, has chosen Inupiaq elder Ugiqtaq Wesley Aiken as the Elder keynote and Kaltag resident Tristan Yaadoh Jovan Madros as its Youth keynote speaker. Aiken is scheduled to speak at 9:30 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 15, and Madros is scheduled to speak at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, according to a draft schedule. The conference’s theme is “Our Ancestors, Our Fire,” acknowledging the connection to ancestors and elders among Natives today and exploring the question: “What will we add to this fire to keep it burning brightly?” A leader from Utqiagvik Aiken is a longtime hand in Alaska and Native politics since long before statehood in 1959. Born in the North Slope town of Barrow, now called Utqiagvik, in 1926, Aiken herded reindeer in the area to provide for his family as a teenager before serving in the Alaska Territorial Guard from 1944–59, staying involved with the guard until 1973, according to a press release from the First Alaskans Institute. Aiken took up the banner of Native rights in the 1960s, participating in the civil disobedience movement in Barrow against federal restrictions on spring duck hunting that was later dubbed “the Barrow Duck-in” in 1961, when Inupiaq duck hunters presented signed statements of their duck hunting against federal rules en masse to game wardens. From there, he was heavily involved in the work to pass the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act that was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1973. He worked on the formation of the Alaska Federation of Natives, the North Slope Borough and the Arctic Slope Regional Corp., retiring from the latter in 1992. He was among the Ukpeagvik Inupiat Corp.’s first three employees upon its formation in 1973, holding the role of land chief, according to the corporation’s website. Throughout his life, he’s held onto a strong faith. He’s frequently invited to deliver prayers in Utqiagvik, whether over captured whales or community gatherings, said his daughter Martha Stackhouse. People often approach him to offer the latest news in town, such as which whales are going by or to ask for advice, she said. “Almost all the time he’s asked to pray for different entities, different things that are happening … they often ask for advice on what to do when a certain situation and the first answer is always that you will find the answer in prayer,” she said. Aiken identified his work on ANCSA and on a commercial whaling moratorium as his most important steps in Native politics, Stackhouse said. Both were hinged around subsistence rights — Aiken says that preserving access to traditional hunting and gathering foods is critically important to the isolated communities of the North Slope. Looking to the future, Aiken says erosion is one of the biggest issues facing Arctic communities. The community east of Utqiagvik that he grew up in, Isuk, has lost between two and four miles of coastline to erosion in recent years, Stackhouse said. Utqiagvik itself has lost a large amount of coastline, largely due to melting permafrost and warming temperatures. Looking to the theme of “Our Ancestors, Our Fire,” he said he looked to his ancestors for foresight and instruction in the past. “Those ancestors as he was growing up, as he was very young, those people use to talk about the things that were going to happen,” Stackhouse said. “They are happening. So the ancestors predicted this and they are happening.” Learning from elders Tristan Madros grew up spending time and learning from elders in Kaltag. Madros, who was adopted traditionally by his grandparents in the western Alaska village, is of Koyukon Athabascan descent. He learned the traditional way of life there, making birch sleds, hunting, trapping and fishing. At 20, he has already spent several terms on the board of Denakkanaaga, an organization representing Native elders in the Doyon and Tanana Chiefs Conference areas of the Interior and currently serves on the Kaltag Village Council as the Second Chief, in the Kaltag dance group, the Tanana Chiefs Conference Youth Advisory Emerging Leader’s Council, and Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission board, according to a press release from the First Alaskans Institute. In 2017, Doyon Ltd. named him as the Shareholder of the Year for the Chief Andrew Isaac Leadership Award. In a release accompanying the award, the corporation noted Madros’ work with elders and efforts to give back to the community. The 35th Elders and Youth Conference is scheduled to begin with the Warming of the Hands pre-conference session on Sunday, Oct. 14, at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage, and the Tyonek peoples will host a welcome potlatch at the Alaska Pacific University sports center. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Kenaitze Wellness Court graduates pair in model for recovery

KENAI — Eighteen months ago, Eli Darien walked out of Wildwood Correctional Complex in Kenai for the last time. He’d been in and out of the prison every few months for years, largely on drug offenses, beginning with marijuana and eventually progressing to heroin. Each time he got out, he’d violate probation or reoffend, winding up back in front of the judges and back in a jail cell. There were times, too, in the depth of addiction to drugs, he’d offend on purpose, he said. “For two years I was going to jail twice a month,” he said. “They finally gave up on me.” That changed when he entered the Henu’ Wellness Court. On Oct. 6 he marked 18 months of complete sobriety. The program, a joint-jurisdiction wellness court between the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and the state, offers an intensive course of justice and wellness to participants. Most of those involved have a substance abuse problem, regardless of whether the particular crime was for driving under the influence or theft. Darien was one of the court’s first participants. It officially began in 2016, and now Darien and Dale Vaughn will graduate by the second week of October, the program’s first graduates. “I was standing before (Kenai Superior Court Judge Anna Moran) when I was 50, and she said, ‘What do you want to do, Eli?’” Darien said. “I said, ‘Well, when I’m 55, I’m going to be an elder in my Tribe, and I don’t want to be like this.” Moran, who has since retired from the court, was the one who recommended him to the Henu’ program. Kenaitze Indian Tribe Chief Judge Susan Wells said watching the transformations in participants like Darien has been a remarkable part of the program. She was part of the original team of people who drafted the idea for the wellness court in Kenai. The idea came from the example of a joint-jurisdiction court in Minnesota, led by Cass/Itasca County Judge John P. Smith and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribe Court Judge Korey Wahwassuck. Frustrated by recidivism rates in his court, Smith approached Wahwassuck and the two worked out a joint-jurisdiction wellness court intended to produce better outcomes for participants, particularly children and families in the child welfare system. The state has a number of wellness courts, but the Henu’ Wellness Court is the first Tribal-state joint-jurisdiction court in Alaska. It’s thought of as a state court with a Tribal track, but the Tribe wants it to be recognized as a Tribal court with a state track, Wells said. “(At first) we didn’t really know what to do with it,” Wells said. “There’s lots of learning on things we could or should do better … I think we’ve been very successful.” Participants like Darien are referred to the court based on the type of conviction and history they have, including substance abuse or domestic violence. There are certain types of cases Henu’ won’t take, depending on the offense, Wells said. Court takes place in a square room on the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s campus in Old Town Kenai, where participants sit less than two feet across a long table from the judges and talk about their cases and their progress. It’s very different than state court, where the judges sit far from and above defendants on a podium, Darien said. The attorneys still participate with each hearing; the state District Attorney in Kenai attends hearings as well. “I think it’s profound to have that interaction (directly) with a judge,” Wells said. Based on a series of Kenaitze Indian Tribe values, the participants move through four phases on their way to graduation. They submit to urine analysis every day, meet with probation officers, attend court once a week and go to substance abuse and recovery groups. It’s an intensive program that lasts a minimum of 18 months, Wells said. The Tribal court building is about 100 feet from the Tribe’s massive health care complex, the Dena’ina Wellness Center, which makes it easier for the participants to walk over and get care in connection with the court, Wells said. It hasn’t always been easy for participants like Darien, but the effect of being sober is noticeable. He says he wouldn’t go back now. “I thought it would be (hard to stay clean) but it wasn’t,” he said. “With the support I had here at the court … everyone wants to see me succeed.” Vaughn, who was the first participant in the court, agreed. People notice when you’re sober, he said. He and Darien agreed that anyone going through addiction has to be ready to quit; the program helps, but they have to be ready. “Everybody cares,” Vaughn said. “When you’re using and drinking, nobody cares.” The word “henu’” translates from the Dena’ina language as “hard work,” Wells said. The court administrators pair it with the word “un’ina,” which means “those who come to us.” Much of the work of recovery is incumbent on the participants themselves as they progress through the court. People can drop out if they fail to meet the benchmarks, but so far, watching the transformation in people like Darien has been heartening, Wells said. Beth Freeman recently entered the program. She said coming to Henu’ Wellness Court after going through the state court offers a sense of turning a corner. “I don’t think I can really control (the emotions),” she said. “I’m just overwhelmed with gratitude every time I come in here.” Wells said the tribe is working a grant for a peer support program so graduates like Darien and Vaughn can continue to provide support as more than volunteers for the people still working their way through the program. That kind of support is key to the nature of the program, she said. “It’s really like we’re wrapping our arms around someone,” she said. During a Kenaitze Indian Tribe general meeting Oct. 6, Darien spoke with the Tribal council and members attending about the court. Wells said he’s already been invited to speak at another Tribe about sobriety, and he’s working through his classes to become a substance abuse counselor at the Dena’ina Wellness Center. Having lived all his life in Kenai, he knew virtually every person in the room — “this is a room full of cousins,” he said — and many of them knew what he had been through. As he walked back to his seat, a number of people stood and applauded enthusiastically, offering him high-fives or emotional hugs as congratulations on how far he’d come. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Davidson tapped as AFN keynote for broadening health care

In the four years since she took the helm at the state’s health agency, Valerie Nurr’araaluk Davidson has wasted no time at finding and inventing ways to broaden health care access for all Alaskans. Scarcely was she confirmed by the Legislature as the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services before she began the work to implement an expanded Medicaid program, authorized by Gov. Bill Walker against the Legislature’s wishes and later affirmed by the Alaska Supreme Court in 2015. Today, that expansion covers about 44,000 Alaskans, many of them Natives. It was a continuation of the work she did in her leadership roles at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., and the step she identifies as the most significant for Native health in her time as commissioner so far. “Medicaid Expansion ensures our friends, neighbors, and loved ones get the care they need to live healthy, productive lives,” she wrote in emailed responses to questions. “Medicaid Expansion has brought over $1 billion into our state — most of which are federal dollars. This has been a major boost to our economy and created hundreds of health care jobs throughout Alaska. We know that a healthier Alaska is a safer Alaska, and Medicaid Expansion has played a significant role in solving our state’s opioid epidemic. “Since 2015, Medicaid expansion has paid for over $80 million in behavioral health services — including treatment for addiction.” Davidson will deliver the keynote address on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 9:20 a.m. at this year’s Alaska Federation of Natives Convention at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. AFN President Julie Kitka said in a press release that Davidson’s work exemplifies the conference’s theme of “Innovation in the Past, Present, Future.” “We are honored to welcome such an accomplished and forward-thinking Alaska Native leader to set the tone for our annual convention,” Kitka said. “Commissioner Davidson’s work and contributions are themselves great examples of the kind of innovative thinking that inspired this year’s convention theme—Innovation in the Past, Present and Future—and we all look forward to her insights.” A Yup’ik and enrollee of the Orutsararmiut Native Council, Davidson was born in Bethel. She earned a juris doctorate degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law in 1998 and returned to Alaska to work, first advising Calista Corp. in Anchorage before returning to Bethel to work with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. She focused on health care from then on in, leading Medicaid demonstration projects and establishing infrastructure for telehealth clinics to improve care delivery in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta before moving on to work statewide with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. Cooperation on health care — from the federal government to families — is a major component in its success, she said. One lesson she said she’s learned in her time as commissioner is that no single group has all the answers. “We all have a role to play in improving the health and wellness of our families and communities. It is so important that we work together as a state to improve the health outcomes of all Alaskans,” she wrote. “(A second lession) is that people will do the most amazing things under the most impossible circumstances for the right reasons — and protecting children and families is always the right reason.” In her role as commissioner, she’s continued to work on collaborative projects between the state and tribal governments. The DHSS includes nine different divisions, including senior services and family services. At the 2017 AFN Convention, Davidson, Walker and the leaders of a number of Tribes signed a joint child welfare compact that transfers some responsibilities for the child welfare system in the state to tribal government oversight, with the intent of improving outcomes for Alaska Native children in the state foster system. A year ago, the DHSS held its first department-wide Tribal Consultation, with another scheduled this month, Davidson said. “These consultations provide an opportunity for interactive engagement between all DHSS divisions and Tribes to identify barriers, break down solos, and make recommendations to the department,” she wrote. “We are also working with our Tribal partners to develop a consultation policy for the department so there is a clear framework to extend these partnerships going forward. There are so many ways the state and Tribes can work together to better serve Alaskans. By increasing communication and collaboration with our Tribal partners, we can improve the health and wellbeing for all Alaskans.” That Tribal, federal and state collaboration will be a player in the future, she said. The department has already undergone significant cuts amid the state budget crisis — about $91 million since 2015, with 137 jobs deleted, she said — and state budgets continue to tighten, with members of the Legislature specifically targeting the Medicaid program for future budget cuts. Attempts at significant Medicaid changes are coming from the federal administration as well, with multiple attempts from Congress in the past two years. As more changes are proposed from the federal government, the department will work with the governor and Alaska’s congressional delegation to identify impacts and try to find ways to innovate to streamline services at home, Davidson said. “We are no longer doing more with less — we are now doing less with less,” she said. “As we transition into a time of leaner state budgets in the future, finding innovative ways to deliver health and social service programs will be absolutely critical. This includes working with our Tribal and federal partners to streamline our work, relying on one another’s expertise to avoid duplicating efforts, and stretching our public dollars as far as possible. While leaner budgets are a challenge, they also provide the opportunity to build new partnerships to better serve Alaskans and their families.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Hatchery production back on Board of Fisheries agenda

KENAI — The Board of Fisheries will once again have to tangle with the issue of hatchery pink salmon production at its upcoming work session Oct. 15-19 in Anchorage. Two of the agenda change requests, or ACRs, filed for the work session address concerns about hatchery production. One references an issue from the early 2000s, with concerns about the impact of salmon releases in Southeast Alaska, while the other is a revival of an emergency petition about a Valdez-area hatchery the board considered and voted down in July. Both are linked to overall concerns about the number of hatchery pink salmon being released into the Gulf of Alaska each year. The first, from Fairbanks Advisory Committee chair Virgil Umphenour of North Pole, asks the board to reduce overall hatchery production to 75 percent of what it was in 2000. He states in the proposal that the state and hatcheries agreed to cap production in 2000. He referenced the second request, filed by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. KRSA’s ACR asks the board to block the release of salmon resulting from an egg take increase at Valdez Fishery Development Association’s Solomon Gulch Hatchery this summer and permanently cap the hatchery’s egg take capacity. It’s virtually identical to an emergency petition the board previously turned down, saying it didn’t meet the criteria for an emergency. At the time, the emergency petition was backed by a broad coalition of sportfishing groups from around Southcentral Alaska, objecting to the increase because of the risk of Prince William Sound hatchery pink salmon straying into other streams. They cited data from a Lower Cook Inlet salmon otolith analysis in 2016 and 2017, showing that Prince William Sound hatcher-origin pinks outnumbered local stocks in a number of streams. Ricky Gease, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the organization chose to refile the request as an ACR because the board said they would take it up later, just not as an emergency petition. “They said we’d discuss it in a meeting in October,” he said. “Well, this is October, and there wasn’t a place for it on the agenda.” The board has a similarly stringent set of criteria for accepting ACRs, one of which is a requirement that an effect of a regulation threatens the conservation of a fishery. In its request, KRSA noted that a number of scientific papers have connected increased pink salmon numbers in the Gulf of Alaska is decreased king and sockeye salmon survival. Increased returns and the risk of straying create a conservation risk, the request notes. Gease noted the concern for impacts to sockeye and king salmon stocks, which are important to commercial, recreational and subsistence fisheries around the state, particularly king salmon on rivers like the Kuskokwim and the Yukon, where the Alaska Native people have long depended on them for winter stores. The board turned down the petition in July in part because there had been a public process for the egg take increase, through the Regional Planning Teams and the Alaska Department of Fish Game, over several years. Scientists from the state’s various hatcheries presented a packet of information to the board at the time reviewing a number of the studies connecting pink salmon to decreased survival of sockeye and kings, stating that several of the studies cited have flaws. The hatchery managers say they are interested in research about the impact of pink salmon releases into the North Pacific — that’s why they’re paying into the 11-year study coordinated by Fish and Game and the Prince William Sound Science Center to examine hatchery-wild salmon interaction. The question of the impact of pink salmon on the entire North Pacific ecosystem is a complicated one, said Mike Wells, the executive director of the Valdez Fisheries Development Association. He noted ongoing research work through the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission on the same subject. “The carrying capacity question is a big, big question,” he said. “I think what’s important to recognize is it’s an international question.” Casey Campbell, the executive director of the Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation, cited data that only about 15 percent of the pink salmon in the North Pacific Ocean are hatchery-origin. He also pointed to the hatchery-wild study as a major piece of the puzzle to understand the dynamics of pink salmon in the Gulf of Alaska, with some preliminary data expected in December. Wells said the hatchery managers are watching the board’s decision at the upcoming meeting to determine a future direction for its involvement hatchery management. Until now, the board’s function has been primarily allocative, leaving hatchery management decisions primarily to ADFG. “I think what’s important with this upcoming meeting in October is that there will be a forum and a discussion,” Wells said. “The public will have an opportunity to come and discuss their concerns with the board. That’s a good venue to come and get concerns out but at the end of the day what has been practiced for 40 years in hatchery production is that it has been centered around science.” Wells, Campbell and Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin all wrote op-eds for newspapers in various regions of the state in recent months, presenting an argument for hatcheries as supporting local communities and jobs in the seafood industry. Wells said that connects with the research about the effects of hatcheries on wild stocks. “The hatchery operators around the state recognize that there is a need to educate the public about what we do,” he said. “That would include the types of salmon species that we raise, for the user groups that we benefit, and about the science work that’s being done.” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Guides honored for catch-and-release program

SOLDOTNA — Like many efforts involving Cook Inlet salmon, Fish for the Future started with frustration. Unlike many of those, it didn’t end there. The brainchild of two Soldotna-area residents, Fish for the Future is both amorphous and very clear. The goal hasn’t changed in its three years of operation: make sure more Kenai River king salmon make it onto the spawning beds, primarily through encouraging sport fishermen to release the king salmon they catch. What it exactly is isn’t as defined. Co-founders Greg Brush and Mark Wackler essentially run a contest that awards prizes for the best photos and videos of people releasing the Kenai and Kasilof river king salmon they caught. Virtually everything happens on Facebook, and both carefully keep their names off the page. Brush said that was a conscious choice because of the negativity long associated with the salmon fisheries on the Kenai River. He and Wackler both work as guides, but they wanted Fish for the Future to stand on its own and not carry the connotation of being a “guide” project. “We’re just two concerned residents,” he said. After three seasons of increasing growth, though, with photos submitted almost every day during the three-month fishery, their work is getting some attention. The Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, a regional land conservation trust based in Homer, awarded Fish for the Future its annual “Kingmaker” award, intended to recognize individual or group contributions to conserving salmon, Executive Director Marie McCarty and Communications and Development Director Denise Jantz noted in a letter accompanying the award. “By creating the simple, non-allocative, education-based Fish for the Future program, you have ensured that more king salmon will make it to their spawning grounds upstream and will be in our rivers far into the future,” the letter states. “As the Fish for the Future website states, this important catch and release program allows anglers opportunity while minimizing impact.” When Brush and Wackler conceived the idea three years ago, it was based on frustration that while Kenai king runs kept coming back weaker, smaller and later, people continued to proudly post pictures of huge fish they caught. Both had converted their guide businesses to catch-and-release only for kings years before, explaining to each prospective client that Kenai kings are special but in trouble and they’d release each one. Both expected that the conversion would cost them business, but they say it hasn’t set them back; some clients would choose not to come if they couldn’t keep fish, while others understand. They modeled Fish for the Future after other catch-and-release programs, offering prizes for photographs of released fish — not necessarily the biggest fish, just the best photo. The first year, they got a few donated prizes from various companies, including plane tickets and fishing gear. By the second year, they had people coming to them, including fishing gear giant Rappala, to donate giveaway items. “We had thousands of dollars worth of donations, and we were like, ‘How do we get these in the hands of people?’” he said. Kenai king salmon runs have been declining in recent years, most markedly beginning in 2008. The shortages, reaching a trough in 2012 when an extremely weak run forced commercial and sport fishing closures, have intensified longstanding tensions between user groups in the region. There are two words Brush says no one will find in any of the Fish for the Future posts: “commercial” and “allocation.” They make a point to stay positive and encouraging of catch-and-release rather than combative about those who don’t release their fish. Catch-and-release has helped other sport fisheries around the world come back from population declines. Michigan fisheries managers began using catch-and-release as a conservation mechanism for rainbow trout in the 1950s, and the United Kingdom has required catch-and-release for threatened Atlantic salmon stocks for years. In the Bristol Bay area, anglers are required to release all the rainbow trout they catch. Brush cited the example of the increasing use of catch-and-release in marlin sportfishing — with millions of dollars hinged upon catching the specific fish, catch-and-release has helped preserve the populations and thus the economies that depend on them. “It takes a culture change to go from (holding up a fish) as your advertisement to where you’re down in the water, release is your advertisement,” Wackler said. “It might be a different group of clientele or whatever, but it works. I think it’s been proven that works all over the world.” Catch-and-release remains controversial among some fishermen because of the potential mortality to the fish, but Brush said the way he sees it, there’s a better chance of survival for a released fish than a retained one. The evidence they’ve seen, both in data and anecdotally, indicates that a major percentage of the released fish survive, he said. “Part of Fish for the Future is educational in nature — if you’re worried about seven out of a hundred dying, I understand that,” he said. “It’s not perfect. Seven out of a hundred is a shame. But it’s seven out of a hundred. It’s not fifty out of a hundred or a hundred out of a hundred.” Right now, Fish for the Future exists as a Facebook page and nothing more — Wackler and Brush don’t even accept the donated prizes, they just connect the prizewinner with the donor. In the future, they’re considering new avenues to keep it going, they said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Cook Inlet fishermen blame rigid management for season losses

KENAI — Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen feel that mandated closures played a part in them missing the boat on many of the salmon they could have harvested this season. At a meeting in Kenai on Sept. 28, Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen grilled Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten and Gov. Bill Walker with questions about regulation of the fishery and policy changes to support it in the future. Some of the concern is about inflexible management. A number of the questions Cotten fielded were about why Kasilof area setnetters were closed, allowing sockeye to go past for the sake of the Kenai River escapement, while the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery remained open. By the end of the season, the Kasilof River sockeye escapement goal had been exceeded, with the Kenai in the middle of its goal range. Toward the end of the season, drift gillnet fishermen also target the silver and chum salmon on the west side of the Inlet. Georgie Heverly, who moderated the discussion, asked about the delay in openings on the west side of Cook Inlet in August, when chum and silver salmon were returning. “Specifically for the drift fleet, we sat around for weeks waiting for Chinitna to open, waiting for an aerial survey,” she said. “It was really unfortunate — a lot of us, the younger generation who don’t own a boat, we have boat payments. We hang on to scrape up what we can from that silver run in August, and that was a huge financial burden for us, to sit around for three weeks, waiting for (ADFG) to get data on Chinitna.” Cotten said he hadn’t heard of that issue particularly, but said weather and flight scheduling can delay aerial surveys. The department relies on aerial surveys when there are no weirs or sonars on stream systems but they need to estimate run sizes for a fishery. In this case, the fishermen said that had the fishery opened earlier, they could have salvaged their season on the silvers and chums after a dismal sockeye run, but they missed them as they passed up the Inlet. That resulted in a great catch for the setnetters in the northern district, said Dave Martin, a longtime drift fisherman in Upper Cook Inlet. The indices at the test fishery in Anchor Point showed high numbers of silver salmon, which are not enumerated by sonar or weir in any Kenai Peninsula stream system, were high this year, but the drift fishermen were closed and missed them, he said. “We could’ve salvaged a halfway decent season on the other species, the chums, the pinks and the silvers, and then it came out in the middle of August that the silvers in the test fishery were the largest we’ve ever had,” he said. “That’s the first we heard about it.” Those closures required under the management plan have long been a sticking point for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen, who say the lack of flexibility makes the fishery ineffective and allows too many fish to escape into the stream systems. Martin said the fishery managers need to have the flexibility to go outside the management plans to prosecute an effective fishery. Dates play a major role in the management, and this year, when more than half the Kenai River sockeye run arrived in August — the first time in Fish and Game’s records — much of the fleet was shifted away from the Kenai or out of the water by Aug. 15 by regulation, with more sockeye still coming in. Cotten said the department has some flexibility to go outside the plans but cannot completely bypass them. He said in answer to concerns about the scientific accuracy of established escapement goals, the department would make a “very, very” serious effort to have public meetings on escapement goals in the Cook Inlet. “The problem is it’s very difficult to just completely ignore the Board of Fisheries,” he said. “I find it very, very difficult to ignore the management plans they’ve laid out.” Walker said he’s made a point not to be involved in fisheries management decisions during his administration, deferring to Cotten and ADFG. “I have absolutely stayed to my word, I don’t tell them how to run the department,” he said. “I just don’t have those credentials.” Walker, who is up for reelection in November, recently hired Ephraim Frohlich as a fisheries advisor in his office. He added that he hopes the Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force he appointed, intended to bring together user groups from around Cook Inlet to discuss the allocation and issues facing Cook Inlet fisheries. Early in the process, saying the task force was aimless, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association withdrew from the process, though other stakeholder groups have stayed involved. The task force’s first meeting, pending appointment of members, is scheduled for Oct. 12 in Anchorage. “We have been meeting about this a lot, and we have been talking about it a lot,” he said. “I’m really hopeful that what we’re trying to do on this task force, something is going to come of that.” Walker has found controversy in his board nominations as well. In 2015 he told former chair Karl Johnstone, who represented recreational fishermen on the board, that he would not be replaced and when Johnstone resigned in response Walker named UCIDA Executive Director Roland Maw to replace him. That nomination was scuttled when Maw faced charges for applying for resident hunting and fishing privileges in both Montana and Alaska as well as illegally receiving Permanent Fund dividends. KRSA opposed Kenai area biologist Robert Ruffner, Walker’s next choice, and he was narrowly defeated in the Legislature before Walker nominated him again the following year and he was approved. Encouraging young fishermen Part of the meeting’s tone was also about how to encourage young fishermen to enter and stay in the Cook Inlet fishery. But with increasing cost, relatively low earnings and unpredictable openings, Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen are concerned about the future of the fishery with fewer young people attracted to making a career of it. In 2017, the average Cook Inlet drift gillnet permit holder brought home just about $28,000, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. That’s about two-thirds of the average permit price that year of $42,400. Over the past three decades, average gross earnings for the drift fleet have fluctuated wildly from year to year — from a high of more than $133,000 in 1988 to a low of $7,947 in 2001 — and 2017 is far from the lowest amount they’ve earned in a season. The east side set gillnet fishery is a little better off, where the average permit holder earned $23,991 in 2017, about $8,000 more than the 2017 permit value of $15,600. Like the drifters, their average earnings per season fluctuate, varying from a high of $91,099 in 1989 to a low of $5,551 in 2012, according to the CFEC. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Heavy nets, and wallets, for Bristol Bay and Norton Sound fishermen

Despite poor salmon runs dominating the news across the Gulf of Alaska, fishermen in Bristol Bay and western Alaska brought home heavy nets and wallets this year. Salmon runs in Bristol Bay and Norton Sound arrived in force and smashed records — again. It’s the second year in a row that runs have come in exceptionally large in the two areas. Bristol Bay measured an inshore run of 62.3 million sockeye, the largest run since 1893 and more than 69 percent greater than the 20-year average run of 36.9 million. It’s the fourth year in a row that Bristol Bay inshore runs have topped 50 million, and this year came in far above the preseason forecast of 51.3 million fish. Set and drift gillnet fishermen brought in a total harvest of 41.3 million, the second-highest harvest on record, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s year-end season summary for the area. On top of that, prices stayed significantly higher than usual as the supply flooded the market, bringing in a record ex-vessel value for the area as well— more than double what fishermen have made in the history of the fishery. The preliminary ex-vessel value of $281 million is more than 242 percent above the 20-year average of $116 million, and 39 percent above the previous record of $202 million, set in 1990. Though the run was much larger than usual, the processors were able to keep up, in part because the sockeye didn’t all arrive at the same time. The east side runs to Egegik and Ugashik were about 10 days later than the average, while the run to the Nushagak and Togiak areas were only two or three days late, said Nushagak/Togiak area management biologist Tim Sands. “It really worked out well for the processors here because there was such disparity in the run timing in Nushagak and the east side that there was never any limits or suspensions because of capacity issues,” he said. “The east side didn’t really hit until after it was starting to slow down on the west side, and that made it so they were never plugged. We had at least one processor buying in the Nushagak district that wasn’t traditionally in the Nushagak district. I think many of the processors would have liked to have more fish.” Usually, as more fish flood the market throughout the summer, sockeye salmon prices begin to drop. However, this year they didn’t. That may be in part due to poor harvests across the Gulf of Alaska from Kodiak to Southeast, though fishermen in Bristol Bay are also taking steps to improve the quality of their product on their own, said Division of Commercial Fisheries Deputy Director Forrest Bowers. “Their ex-vessel price has been ticking up the past few years anyway,” he said. “They’ve been doing a good job on their own, but they definitely got a little help this year.” Up north, it was less sockeye salmon and more chums, silvers and pinks flooding the rivers. Norton Sound’s commercial fishermen smashed their 1978 all-time harvest record of $3.5 million in ex-vessel value with a $4 million season, mixed between chum and silver salmon. It was a peak season in many ways. In addition to a new record of 260,000 silver salmon harvested and the second-highest chum harvest in the area’s history, the number of licenses fished reached a high of 155, the highest since 1987, said area management biologist Jim Menard. “This is the all-time greatest year we’ve had,” he said. “We went from a low of 12 (permits fished) in 2002, and now we’re up to 155.” Norton Sound has struggled with keeping processors in the area to buy fish. Several years passed in the mid-2000s with no processor available at all, so no fishing was available. However, Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. stepped in with a fish processing plant in Unalakleet and fishing has opened up again. This year presented a challenge because of the sheer number of fish being harvested but the plant was able to handle it, Menard said. One species that smashed a record but didn’t contribute much to the harvest was pink salmon, though. In the Nome River, ADFG counted 3.2 million of them, obliterating the previous record of 1.6 million, he said. “Luckily for us, this year, the water was higher,” Menard said. “I remember actually (pink salmon) were both about 1.2 million in 2008 and 2016 both, but in 2008 had just a touch lower water and those rivers just reeked.” However, there isn’t much of a market for pink salmon in the area, so there hasn’t been much interest in harvesting them, he said. The same is true for the herring in Norton Sound, which NSEDC is studying as a potential market expansion. The pink salmon burst in Norton Sound is fairly unique among salmon fisheries in Alaska this year. In addition to underwhelming king and sockeye runs across the Gulf of Alaska, pink salmon harvest fell behind expectations, with the total coming in about half of what the department had projected. That includes Bristol Bay, where the pink salmon harvest came in about 55 percent the 20-year average, according to the year-end summary. That isn’t a huge deal for the fishermen, though, as pink salmon don’t typically constitute a huge percentage of the annual harvest, Sands said. “We don’t have a very big pink run compared to Cook Inlet or Prince William Sound,” he said. “It has been better in the past, and it was lower than we would expect in an even year.” Bristol Bay, like other areas, has been experiencing later runs than historical trends in recent years, Sands said. This year followed that trend. The large run led to some rivers overescaping ADFG management goals, and the department will watch what happens about four or five years from now when this year’s offspring will return as adults to see how the large escapements affect production, he said. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Council to review state of rules for unguided halibut anglers

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council may consider more registration requirements for motorized rental boats for halibut fishing, though a staff report concluded it will put more burden on either the federal or state government to do so. At its upcoming meeting from Oct. 1-9 in Anchorage, the council is set to review a discussion paper on further registration requirements for boats available for rental to unguided halibut anglers in Southcentral and Southeast Alaska, known by the International Pacific Halibut Commission as regulation areas 3A and 2C, respectively. In recent years, some have raised concerns that as guided fishermen are restricted to one halibut per day, some turn to self-guided rentals for fishing, where fishermen are allowed to keep two halibut of any size per day. In December 2017, the council members requested further analysis of possible registration for motorized rental halibut fishing boats. That paper, scheduled for the upcoming meeting, notes that there are already multiple registration programs in place for vessels. “The Council’s request included a purpose and need statement that proposed that differences in harvest regulations between guided and unguided anglers, and the presumed growth of the rental boat segment of the unguided sector, may negatively impact other halibut fishing sectors,” the paper states. The state requires vessel registration through the Division of Motor Vehicles for all motorized boats used in state waters, and the U.S. Coast Guard requires it for vessels greater than five net tons. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has an additional registration requirement for sportfish guiding vessels, denoted by an oval sticker on the vessels each year. Specifically for halibut, the National Marine Fisheries Service requires all halibut charter vessels fishing in areas 3A and 2C to have a valid Charter Halibut Permit, or CHP, the paper states. Despite the concerns from the charter sector about unguided harvest increasing, records show that sport halibut harvest has remained flat or declined in both areas in the past decade. Harvest in all sectors began falling in 2006 until about 2014, when it began to rise slightly, according to the International Pacific Halibut Commission. Total harvest in 2017 was slightly up from 2016, with about 42.8 million pounds total landed, 7.9 million of which were harvested by recreational fishermen. However, the portion of those fish being harvested by guided anglers dropped, with more of the harvest going to unguided anglers, according to the discussion paper. “In area 2C, the guided harvest declined while the unguided harvest, although variable, remained near 1 million pounds from 2003-2016,” the paper states. “In 2011, the proportion of halibut caught by unguided anglers in area 2C exceeded the proportion caught by guided anglers for the first time. This may explain the perception that unguided catch is increasing despite the overall stability shown in catch data.” Catches by both guided and unguided anglers fell in area 3A from 2003-2016, with the majority of the fish — about 60 percent — still going to guided anglers, according to the paper. The state DMV has 249 rental vessels registered by 47 businesses in Southcentral and Southeast, which council staff feels is fairly accurate, according to the paper. Any further registration requirement would likely create more work for the state and National Marine Fisheries Service as well as require state cooperation, the paper states. The recent decline in halibut stocks has led to additional restrictions on both the commercial and charter fleets, with charter fishermen losing additional fishing days and experiencing more size restrictions over the years. The looser limits on unguided fishermen have led to strain among user groups. In a comment submitted to the council, Kent Huff —a member of the council’s Halibut Management Committee and owner of Gustavus-based Glacier Bay Eagle’s Nest Lodge — noted that a single limit for unguided and guided halibut fishermen would equalize harvest pressure. “The future of halibut fishing in Alaska is moving to the self-guided sector as more and more fishermen choose the option to catch two fish of any size verses one fish in a reverse slot limit,” he noted in his comment. “This will only continue to increase the number of self-guided operations and the overall number of halibut harvested each year. I believe that the only way to reduce the increasing pressure on the resource is to have the same limit for all halibut fishermen (charter and boat rental) in Alaska.” The council will meet at the Hilton Hotel in Anchorage from Oct. 1-9. Comments are open until Sept. 28 at noon. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Growing pains: License delays, enforcement issues irritating marijuana businesses

KENAI — Two years after the state’s first cannabis entrepreneurs received their licenses, business owners are still wrestling with hangups in the regulatory system. Long waits for licenses, complex enforcement questions and expensive requirements are common in Alaska’s cannabis business, frustrating some entrepreneurs. For some, it boils down to what they consider unreasonable obstacles to commerce, and wasn’t what they pictured when Proposition 2 passed in 2014 to legalize recreational cannabis. As of Aug. 15, about 80 would-be licensees were waiting on review through the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office. Though state statutes says they should be granted in about 90 days, most of them will likely be waiting for three to five months to even be reviewed, according to a director’s report from AMCO Director Erika McConnell to the Marijuana Control Board for its upcoming Oct. 16 meeting. For Dollynda Phelps of Nikiski, who co-owns limited cultivation business Peace Frog Botanicals, that time is money. She’s been waiting on a standard cultivation license for six months now, and every one of those months, she has been paying rent on a facility for the standard cultivation business, which she’s required to prove she has as part of a complete application. “I put in my application in March and I’m still waiting, and the whole time I’m paying rent and insurance on a building I’m not using,” she said. “There are hundreds of us now, waiting.” The license wait is unacceptable, she said. After the first round of licenses were approved in June 2016, the wait time has steadily increased, occasionally topping a year. Some of that comes down to manpower. Both McConnell and her predecessor, former AMCO director Cynthia Franklin, have cited heavy workloads on a limited staff contributing to wait times. AMCO agrees that the wait is too long. In her director’s report, McConnell wrote that license examiners are spending “an inordinate amount of time” going back and forth with licensees to hammer out pieces of applications that are missing or incomplete. “This can mean that an examiner and an applicant go back and forth on their application documents multiple times,” she wrote. “Sometimes an applicant is resistant to the advice from the examiner, although the examiner is only trying to help the applicant be successful, as the examiners pay attention to what the board comments on in applications.” Staffing has been an issue since the very beginning for the marijuana licensing office, which was born out of the office and staff that previously only managed alcohol licenses and enforcement. A separate board was created, but the director and the staff remained the same with promises of future staff additions. Those staff members haven’t yet materialized, leaving the existing staff with double the work they had before, said Cary Carrigan, the executive director of the industry group the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association. Securing more staff for the office has been one of the association’s goals for a while, he said. Though the industry is raking in money and the program is supposed to cover the office and board’s expenses, the approximately $12.8 million in tax revenue collected from cultivators by the state goes to the general fund and has to be appropriated by the Legislature to the individual departments, so it doesn’t go specifically to AMCO for administering the marijuana program. So frustration mounts on both sides, with unreasonable workloads for the staff and compounding expenses for businesses still waiting on licenses, he said. “It’s my opinion and the opinion of the AMIA board that the (licensing wait time) is an undue burden,” he said. “But what’s the fix?” Licensing isn’t the only thing keeping AMCO busy, though. With the proliferation of businesses and activity, the enforcement side — which covers both alcohol and marijuana licensees — has been busy, too. At an industry meeting among Kenai Peninsula cannabis business owners and employees, many commented that current regulations are unclear, and enforcement agents award notices of violation for items the owners or employees may not have known were against the rules. Obtaining too many violations can result in penalty actions from the board or issues with renewing licenses in the future. The majority of inspections don’t result in a notice of violation, according to a report from AMCO Enforcement Supervisor James Hoelscher to the Marijuana Control Board for the Oct. 16 meeting. The number of them is declining as more business owners learn the rules and the board process, but the amount is still concerning, Carrigan said — if the federal government looks at those numbers and considers them a sign of an unruly cannabis industry, it could jeopardize the state’s control, he said. Cannabis has only been legal for recreational use in the state for a little less than four years, so public opinions are still changing, industry participants are still learning to trust regulators and enforcement officers after being illegal operators for decades, and regulators are still feeling out the best practices for monitoring the industry, Carrigan said. “(The industry members) just need to be sure we’re being heard with one voice,” he said. “A dozen people yelling form the rafters is just a cacophony … We’re trying to move incrementally forward.” The Kenai Peninsula operators have a small laundry list of other issues as well, including increased retention time for security footage, enforcement opposing the exchange of seeds — which cultivators want to use to expand their grow operations and diversify their strains — and plan to request a review of the board’s recently passed requirement for testing on all cannabis trim. The change increases costs for operators by requiring an additional testing fee. Most trim is reprocessed into another product that will also be tested for quality and safety, so the operators feel it’s unnecessary. Phelps said the burden will affect limited cultivation operations significantly, as they don’t have the economy of scale to absorb the cost. And when they can’t swallow the cost, they go under or pass the cost to consumers, which pushes prices up and may encourage them to go back toward the black market for cannabis, where it is not tested or tracked. The Marijuana Control Board will meet Oct. 16-17 in Kenai at 145 Main Street Loop. ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Stakeholders seek solutions for imminent threats from erosion

HOMER — For most communities with waterfront, erosion is not a future problem. It’s a daily issue for planners, businesses and residents with approaches differing by community. In Homer, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has used riprap barriers on the seaward side of the Homer Spit near town to prevent the road from washing out. However, the riprap doesn’t go all the way down, and recent high tides and strong winds have eaten away at the coast beneath a number of buildings, threatening to tip them into the water. The riprap is an engineered solution to a natural problem, or what coastal management experts call “grey infrastructure.” To save expense, look toward sustainability and preserve communities, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting training on the effectiveness of green infrastructure. It can also be called natural infrastructure, based on what a community is comfortable with, said Lauren Long with NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management. “Natural, nature-based solutions … it doesn’t really matter which term to use, just use the terms that resonate most with your stakeholders,” she told a group of residents, nonprofit workers and municipal, state and federal agency workers at a workshop in Homer on Sept. 11. The office recently hosted a round of workshops on using green infrastructure to reduce coastal erosion in Alaska, with stops in Homer, Soldotna and Anchorage. Beyond the basic instruction, the course brought together local planners and experts to talk about ongoing projects. As a broad definition, green infrastructure includes structures based on natural systems like wetlands and forestry to provide services such as flood control and heat abatement. They can include a wide variety of project sizes, from landscape level to individual sites, and don’t necessarily entirely exclude grey infrastructure, Long said. “Both approaches are about bringing the natural and built environments together,” she said. “…Green infrastructure isn’t going to be the end-all-be-all. It’s going to be a combination of green and grey.” Many parts of Alaska are less built up along the coasts than on the East Coast, where millions of people live in areas potentially subject to ocean storm surge submersion. Attention to coastal infrastructure mounted in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the entire eastern seaboard in 2012, leaving behind $70 billion in damage and leading to the deaths of an estimated 233 people. However, a study published in August 2017 on the damaged communities and their infrastructure later showed that areas with intact coastal wetlands were spared about $625 million in damage because the marshes helped with flood control. John Rozum with the NOAA Office of Coastal Management, who conducted the workshop in Homer with Long, cited the flood mitigation wetlands as example of an ecosystem service. They’re specific to certain areas, and what may work in Massachusetts may not work in Anchorage. “You have to be able to look at these practices … (and say) if this area was undeveloped, what would happen?” Rozum said. He pointed to cities that have installed areas of permeable pavement, which allows water to seep through and be absorbed by the ground beneath rather than concentrate into runoff and cause flooding issues, or the addition of trees on buildings or streets to help offset city heat island effects. Alaska’s communities already have more natural areas along their coasts than many areas of the country, he said, and preserving some of those structures — like dunes and coastal wetlands — will help buffer communities from damage and erosion. Some communities in the state have tackled green infrastructure practices already, impacting erosion in areas inland as well as on the coasts. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game guides landowners who want to restore riverbanks toward practices using rootwad, spruce saplings and other natural vegetation as opposed to seawalls or riprap, in part to protect fish habitat. The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation awards grants for projects designed to clean up bodies of water, and some of the funded projects have included green infrastructure projects, said Jeanne Swartz, a water quality specialist with DEC in Anchorage, at the workshop in Homer. With largely clean waterways, much of the water pollution in Alaska is called non-point-source, such as road runoff. At the same time, some areas may erode whether land owners and managers try to mitigate it or not. On the Arctic coast and in Western Alaska, some Alaska Native villages are looking at relocating entire communities because their coasts and rivers have eroded enough to leave buildings tumbling into the water. On the Kenai Peninsula, retreating bluffs in Homer and Kenai have left cities with the puzzle of how to react, with residents and millions of dollars of property value getting closer and closer to the cliff edge every year. Rozum said in response to a question that bluffs are a type of landscape that’s hard to use green infrastructure to help. “That’s the hard part of living on the shore — (bluffs) were designed to erode,” he said. The Matanuska River is another creeping landscape that has left some neighbors with few options other than to simply move. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough has obtained federal funding to buy out some Matanuska River property owners who opt in to the program, with the recognition that the geography of the braided river system makes it likely to move. The borough began asking property owners about a buyout and applying for federal funds in 2014, officially receiving notice of the funds in March 2018. About 75 percent of it will come from the federal government and 25 percent from the state. The borough started with 15 properties, but one house became ineligible when it fell into the river in 2017, said Mat-Su Borough Floodplain Administrator Taunnie Boothby. The funds are scheduled to expire in September 2019, giving the borough about a year to reach agreements. “This is a 100 percent voluntary project,” she said. “There is no condemnation (for properties) or eminent domain.” The borough is not actively approaching landowners about the future danger to properties along the Matanuska River, but Boothby said she discusses possibilities with landowners on a case-by-case basis and is watching the success of several river bank revetment projects elsewhere in the borough. There aren’t any such projects on the Matanuska River at present, but landowners could undertake demonstration projects in the future and Fish and Game is actively recruiting for riverbank revetment grantees in the Mat-Su Valley, she said. Some people ask why the borough isn’t looking at solving the erosion problem on the river, but that’s beyond the borough’s power in both expense and authority, she said. The borough does have two flood service areas in which residents tax themselves for flood service and protection. “The challenge with that is what they’re taxing themselves is not sufficient for maintenance of the dikes,” Boothby said. “We have a whole Matanuska River management plan that outlines what activities are acceptable and reasonable … but (fixing the river erosion problem) is not necessarily something the borough wants to tackle.” ^ Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

As costs rise, Walker signs bill to increase fishing loan limits

Alaska fishermen now have a little more leeway to borrow money from the state to pay for new permits, boats, licenses and other equipment. House Bill 56, primarily sponsored by Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan, rewrites sections of the state’s Commercial Fisheries Revolving Loan Program to change the cap on allowable amounts of certain types of loans. Fishermen who want to buy individual fishing quotas, or IFQ, limited entry permits or gear can now borrow up to $400,000, an increase from $300,000. Gov. Bill Walker signed the bill into law Aug. 31. Ortiz — who represents a district with a high proportion of commercial fishing and seafood processing jobs — said in a release from the Alaska House Majority Coalition that the bill helps resident fishermen get over the cost hurdle to enter commercial fisheries. “By clearing away bureaucratic and economic hurdles, this bill moves us one step closer towards the goal of helping Alaskans reap the benefits of our sustainable commercial fisheries,” Ortiz said. The House passed the bill in 2017, but it sat in the Senate Finance Committee for the remainder of the contentious and lengthy session before the Senate passed it in May 2018. Ortiz credited Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, with pushing the bill through the Senate this year, despite most of the Legislature’s attention being focused on fiscal issues. The Commercial Fisheries Revolving Loan Fund is coordinated through the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development and is only available to people who have lived in Alaska for at least two years. Fishermen can take out low-interest loans for up to 15-year terms to finance fishing-related expenses like vessel upgrades, gear purchases or permit purchases. The $300,000 amount was set in 1982, Ortiz wrote in a sponsor’s statement to the Legislature. Adjusting for inflation in the 36 years since, that would be about $746,000 today. Alaska fishermen have been facing steeper and steeper thresholds to entry in commercial fisheries over the years. Because of concerns about stock sustainability and overharvesting, Alaska established the limited entry system in 1972 for state-regulated fisheries. The value of permits goes up and down depending on the value of the fishery, but can cost as much as $190,800 for a set gillnet permit in Prince William Sound or as little as $3,300 for a set gillnet permit for salmon in the Upper Yukon River, according to the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. That’s not counting boats, gear and fuel. In 1992, federal regulators implemented a quota system for halibut that created IFQ for a similar reason — to preserve the stocks and slow down the fishery while still allowing harvest opportunity. The season now lasts from March until November compared to the “race for fish” in the past when the total harvest could be taken in just days. However, the market-based value of those quota shares has increased so much that small, rural Alaskan fishermen have been pushed out by the cost of purchasing quota, causing significant disruption in those rural fishing communities even two decades later. IFQs have been implemented in a variety of fisheries in Alaska including Bering Sea crab and pollock to achieve the goal of sustainability through limited entry. While that may work for some fisheries, it has shown negative consequences for smaller ones, according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in August. Courtney Carothers, a University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences professor who co-authored the study, said in a news release from the university that the study was meant to question whether a broadly applied fishery management tool like the IFQ system, also known as ITQ (individual transferable quotas) works for all fisheries. “Social scientists have been frustrated by the assumption that ITQs are a simple solution for fisheries management across the world,” Carothers said. “We were excited to come together and evaluate some examples of where ITQs work, why sometimes they don’t work, and who is being impacted when an ITQ isn’t the right option for a fishery.” She cited the halibut fishery in Alaska as an example, where some quota shares can cost up to $70 per pound. The paper suggests developing an “institutional diagnostics toolkit” to help fisheries regulators and officials gauge the impact of a measure before implementing it, based on the context of the fishery. “Toolkits like this could be used in many governance settings to challenge users’ understandings of a policy’s impacts and help them develop solutions better tailored to their particular context. They would not replace the more comprehensive approaches found in the literature but would rather be an intermediate step away from the problem of panaceas,” the paper states. The Legislature was considering another bill, HB 188, to address the same entry-cost problem. HB 188, sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tompkins, D-Sitka, would allow up to three regions in Alaska to establish commercial fisheries trusts which would hold permits and temporarily transfer those permits to fishermen, essentially providing a middle step between being a deckhand and laying out a small fortune to buy an entry permit. Introduced in 2017, the bill was last heard in February 2018 and referred to the House Labor and Commerce Committee. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Biologists, fishermen puzzle over late Kenai sockeye run

First they were underweight, with underwhelming numbers. Then they weren’t there at all. Then they were coming in late, showing up as Upper Cook Inlet fishermen were packing up their gear for the season. The unpredictable and significantly smaller Kenai River sockeye run frustrated a lot of fishermen this year. As of the last day of sonar counts on Aug. 28, about 1.03 million sockeye had entered the river. More than half of them arrived after Aug. 1, leading to a stop-and-start fishery that included significant time and area cuts for commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet and a complete sockeye salmon sport angling closure on the Kenai River from Aug. 4–23. That resulted in a total catch of 813,932 sockeye, less than half of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s preseason forecast commercial harvest of 1.9 million sockeye. Even the late fish arrival wasn’t much of a boon to the area’s commercial fishermen. Per the management plans, the East Side setnet fishermen are largely out of the water by Aug. 15, and the drift gillnet fleet is moved mostly to the west side of Cook Inlet to focus on silver salmon. On Aug. 23, in response to late incoming fish passing the Kenai River sonar, The Alaska Department of Fish and Game opened Drift Area 1 — a broad fishing area between the Anchor Point Light and Kalgin Island in the middle of the inlet — to drifting. Despite the opening and the numbers of sockeye passing the sonar in the river, fishermen only picked up 209 sockeye in that opening. By comparison, they picked up 1,105 silvers, which have reportedly been running well in Cook Inlet this year, despite the poor numbers of sockeye, king and pink salmon. The managers were expecting the sockeye catch to be better, said Brian Marston, the area management biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Soldotna. “We were hoping to get at some of those late fish,” he said. “We couldn’t open it up in Area 2 (closer to the mouth of the Kenai) … we just missed them.” The silver run has been a little better than usual this year, providing a small extra buffer for fishermen. Most Kenai River sportfishermen have been switching from sockeye to silvers as well, with guides grateful that the silver run has been strong enough to support angler effort with a weak or closed sockeye fishery. Biologists have been puzzling over what happened with the Gulf of Alaska sockeye this year. Weak king salmon runs weren’t uniform across the gulf, and since 2008, Alaskans have been adjusting to a reality with fewer king salmon in it. But sockeye are normally plentiful, and this year presented some firsts. Chignik’s commercial fishermen, for example, never opened, earning a disaster declaration from Gov. Bill Walker before the summer was even over. The poor runs of sockeye have happened in some rivers before, but the complete closure is a first for Chignik, said Bill Templin, the chief fisheries scientist for Fish and Game’s division of commercial fisheries. Other fisheries have been seeing a late burst, like the Kenai, and the commercial fishermen have been able to take some advantage, such as the Copper River and in Kodiak. Those fisheries have been seeing a sharp underperformance in pink salmon fisheries, too, though, as they did in 2016 when a federal disaster was declared and for which $56 million was appropriated by Congress for impacted stakeholders. So far, indications seem to point to ocean conditions unfavorable for survival. Research through the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative for the last five years has provided good tracking and life history data on ocean survival for king salmon, but the department hasn’t been doing the same kind of research for sockeye salmon, Templin said. But even then, there are some mysterious snags — while one sockeye stock may have come back poorly this year, a neighboring stream would do just fine. Next door to the Kenai River, the Kasilof River’s sockeye run handily made its escapement goal this year with harvest and increased bag limits. “Generally the freshwater conditions are pretty good, pretty consistent,” he said. “Ocean conditions seem to be driving a lot of it.” In the case of the Kasilof, that may be because the main cohort for that river is largely four-year-old fish as opposed to five-year-old fish being the norm on the Kenai, Marston said. The department staff will do more analysis after the season about the run, but so far it looks like the fish caught were for the most part smaller than usual. The Kasilof River escapement goal for sockeye was exceeded in part because of concerns for the Kenai run that restricted the commercial fleet. More fish escaped into the Kasilof, so even though the run itself wasn’t that large, more fish made it into the river, Marston said. Some fishermen have still been out harvesting silvers, but in a fishery that depends almost entirely on sockeye for the majority of its value, this season was a hard one for Upper Cook Inlet fishermen. “It’s hard to make (that sockeye catch) up,” Marston said.

Tariffs throw wrench into seafood supply chain

KENAI — Many seafood processors, fishermen and support businesses have been watching with increasing dismay as the trade war between U.S. and China heats up and impacts billions of dollars in trade. In March, President Donald Trump’s administration announced its intention to levy tariffs against China in connection with “unfair” trade practices, including theft of intellectual property. When the first round of tariffs on Chinese products were announced, the seafood industry hoped to escape the list of impacted items. That hope faded when a host of seafood products were included on the list of proposed retaliatory tariffs from the Chinese government. Then Office of the U.S. Trade Representative proposed another set of tariffs, including seafood products, at 10 percent in July. Then that number was upped to 25 percent in August. In a hearing hosted by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative Aug. 20–24, Bob DeHaan of the National Fisheries Institute said the tariffs will effectively punish American fishermen for Chinese intellectual property theft, which has nothing to do with them. Of the $2.7 billion in proposed tariffs on seafood, more than $95 million came from Alaskan fishermen. “In many cases such as the iconic Bristol Bay salmon run that just concluded this year, the fishermen are family-owned enterprises who sell their catch to seafood companies for processing, distribution and sale around the world,” he said. “How punishing these harvesters and these businesses for in effect buying American will convince China to respect its obligations regarding intellectual property rights and technology transfers is difficult to fathom.” Taking advantage of a growing consumer market and the country’s geographic position between Alaska and Europe, many seafood companies have been working to establish trade relations of their own with China. A number of seafood companies, including Copper River Seafoods, went along on a recent trade mission headed by Gov. Bill Walker to build relationships with Chinese businesses and government. The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute has been working to expand its international markets for the last 20 years, with a branch office in Shanghai, said Hannah Lindoff, the director of ASMI’s international marketing program. The marketing agency, which promotes Alaska’s wild seafood as a brand worldwide, has been following the tariff developments and providing regular updates with concerns about the far-reaching impacts of tariffs on the international supply chain. A major part of that is because much of Alaska’s seafood that is shipped to China is eventually re-shipped elsewhere — in that case, the only thing that happens in China is reprocessing. “Europe is still a major market for us,” she said. “It makes a lot of sense to go through where processors are already established.” A lot of processing still happens in Alaska. However, the reprocessing side in China and other international markets makes sense because of the better access to markets with frozen fillets — demand for fillets has replaced the demand for canned salmon over the years, Lindoff said. ASMI and other organizations have been working on building the domestic consumption market is China, as opposed to just re-exporting seafood from there, Lindoff said. In America, price is still king, and in Europe, people are more used to eating salmon and paying more for it, but in China the consumers are still getting used to eating salmon. Wild Alaska seafood is only a drop in the bucket of the international salmon supply — roughly 2 percent — and so ASMI markets it as a luxury, healthy alternative to farmed salmon, which commands a higher price. The tariffs on the U.S. side with product coming back from China after reprocessing would hit American consumers, pushing up prices. However, it would also lead to interruptions in the supply chain, which could also push up costs as companies reshuffle. DeHaan explained in his testimony that the tariffs could destabilize the year-round supply chain and cost jobs in the middle and tail ends of the supply chain. “Forced to abandon China sourcing, these companies in many instances will have no choice but to drop that product line or select a third country substitute, which itself will require significant cost and expense and time,” he said. “The existing supply chains in seafood as in any other sector can take many years to build, refine and perfect. Modifying them is neither simple nor inexpensive.” Sen. Dan Sullivan testified to the committee against the seafood tariffs as well, asking the administration to remove the seafood items. “The vast, vast, vast, vast majority of this product is American,” he said. “It is an American product. And yet we’re going to penalize this with almost a billion dollars of value of tariffs on our own products by our own people. I don’t think that’s what the president or his team has intended.” Lindoff said ASMI intends to continue its international operations for now, assessing the situation as it evolves. Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

After year in DC, Oliver reflects on fisheries progress

SOLDOTNA — Chris Oliver has had a busy year since he made the leap from Anchorage to Washington, D.C. to take the lead job at the National Marine Fisheries Service. As soon as he arrived, there was an annual priorities document to review, he said at a recent roundtable discussion event hosted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association in Soldotna. The document is both internally-facing and public to help guide NMFS’ decisions. There were three goals listed in that document, the first of which was to ensure the sustainability of fisheries and fishing communities. He changed it to read “maximize fishing opportunities while ensuring the sustainability of fisheries and fishing communities.” “There are a number of fisheries around the country where we’re not fully utilizing the available harvest whether it’s choke species or bycatch constraints or outdated regulations,” he said. “We’ve been approaching that pretty aggressively in that form. There’s not a huge amount of headroom in our wild stock harvest fisheries, but there’s some.” The second was to manage protected species, including those under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Under that, he added language to manage those species while supporting responsible fishing and resource development. NOAA encounters a variety of resource conflicts with endangered species, be they migrating salmon species impacting agriculture or fishermen wanting to harvest king salmon that whales feed on or, more recently in Alaska, fishermen concerned about the number of sea otters impacting the shellfish fisheries in Southeast. “I think that’s another reflection of the priorities of this administration, approaching things in a more business-minded manner while not disregarding the basic science mandate of our mission,” Oliver said. “Balancing that mandate of our mission to protect and conserve those protected resources with the administration’s focus on supporting energy and infrastructure development is a very delicate balancing act. And it’s really taken a lot of my focus and a lot of my time, but it’s an important balancing act.” The third goal he revised was to improve agency excellence, adding “regulatory efficiency,” in line with President Donald Trump’s administration’s goal to reduce regulatory burden on business. He said NMFS has “aggressively” moved that direction as fisheries managers move many more regulations than other agencies. Oliver spent 27 years in Alaska with much of that time as the executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council — one of eight such regional councils established under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act — and said he brought much of the experience he gained working with the council to the job in Washington. He’s now getting a better look into what other fisheries around the country are dealing with. His moves toward streamlining regulations and promoting simultaneous uses with fisheries align with another initiative the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is advancing known as the Blue Economy Initiative. Included in that is maximizing both recreational and commercial fishery opportunities and boosting the opportunities for aquaculture in the country. NOAA Acting Administrator Rear Adm. Timothy Gallaudet said at a July 24 hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Science and Transportation the fact that U.S. aquaculture production is ranked 17th in the world despite its large Exclusive Economic Zone “unacceptable.” “We are changing that by executing a strategy to use existing authorities to expand aquaculture in federal waters,” he said. Aquaculture is a particularly hot-button topic in Alaska. Aquaculture is allowed in a variety of types: operations in Southeast and Kachemak Bay produce clams, mussels, oysters and kelp. In 2015, the state permitted 65 farms, though only 22 reported production, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. For finfish, it’s limited to the hatchery operations that dot Southeast, Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Kodiak; net-pen farming in the style that other countries and states like Washington allow is illegal in Alaska. Even hatcheries have recently come under fire from fishermen and environmentalists with concerns about the impact of increasing pink salmon hatchery numbers on the food web of the Gulf of Alaska and their interference with wild stocks by straying into nearby streams. Oliver said the initiative will include a set of incentives to invest, making it easier for potential aquaculture operations to make it through the permitting hoops and get going. “As I mentioned before, we don’t have a lot of headroom in our wild capture fisheries,” Oliver said. “but with the growing population of the world, and the amount of coastline that we have, promoting marine aquaculture is a huge initiative of this administration. I know in Alaska that’s not always a welcome prospect … nobody’s going to be forcing anybody to take on anything, but we want to make it (easier to permit).” Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected]

Report says 6 percent of patients account for $148M in ER spending

About 6,600 people in the state accounted for $148 million in hospital emergency department spending in 2016, or about 6 percent of total patients that year. This group, called superutilizers, visited hospital emergency rooms numerous times in 2016, according to a report from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Division of Public Health. Among all patients, 1,216 visited 10 or more times each, and 6,651 visited five or more times. Eight patients visited emergency departments 50 times or more in a single year, and 95 of them had 25 or more visits, according to the report. That includes both private insurance companies and patients on public insurance such as Medicare or Medicaid. The statistics are based on the total charges reported by the hospitals to the state through the Health Facilities Data Reporting program. Emergency room visits are notoriously expensive and vary widely based on the condition treated. In total, hospitals charged approximately $621.6 million for 204,880 visits in 2016, coming out to an average charge of $3,033.85 per visit. However, the vast majority of those charges went to less than 10 percent of the users. “Individuals who use the ED frequently contribute disproportionately to total charges,” the report states. The state only has two years of data, for 2015 and 2016, as 2015 was the first mandatory year for reporting, so it’s hard to track long-term trends so far, said DHSS spokesman Clinton Bennett in an email. The state didn’t have any specific goals in compiling the data, he said. “This analysis was produced for general informational purposes, to better understand who most uses Emergency Department services and why,” he said. “Any interested entity could then possibly make informed changes in their process.” The most frequent diagnoses for the top 1.1 percent of emergency department visitors were alcohol-related disorders, abdominal and pelvic pain, pain in the throat and chest, back pain, unclassified pain, joint disorders, nausea and vomiting and anxiety disorders, according to the report. Medicaid was by far the most dominant type of insurance among the most common users, with about 53.9 percent of the top 1.1 percent of users on Medicaid. Medicare was the next highest at 18.4 percent, according to the report. Anchorage is the most frequent location for both general emergency visits and for superutilizers, correlated to Anchorage being the population center for the state as well as having the largest hospitals. However, a data error may have led to a slight undercounting, according to the report. “Because one major facility in the Mat-Su region did not report a unique patient identifier, repeat visits cannot be identified and superutilizers from this region are likely undercounted,” the report states. The trend of superutilization has received attention nationally after the term was coined in the early 2010s to refer to patients to utilize significantly more health care dollars than the average. In 2012, about 5 percent of patients accounted for 50 percent of Medicaid spending nationally, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Multiple other states have instituted programs to try to coordinate emergency department data to reduce usage and improve treatment, such as the University of Florida Health, which saw a 25 percent reduction in superutilizer hospitalizations after instituting a specialized clinic to treat them. Alaska’s hospitals are starting to link together and coordinate information to do the same. The Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association launched a collaborate project with the Alaska chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians in 2017 to coordinate care better both to reduce overutilization and to help track prescriptions amid the ongoing opioid crisis in the state. Most of the hospitals on the railbelt are already signed onto the system, which connects emergency department data between hospitals to keep both primary care physcians and emergency room physicians better informed about a patient’s background, said Becky Hultberg, the executive director of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. All the hospitals on the Kenai Peninsula are online with the project, she said. “Emergency room physicians feel very strongly about the need for this project because it is improves quality of care — it gives them better information,” she said. “The goal is really better patient care.” Emergency room physicians can feel like they are treating patients in a vacuum — when people come in, the physicians may not have any idea what medications they are taking at home or what their medical histories may be. It’s often the case with patients who live off the road system and come into Fairbanks or Anchorage to use hospitals, Hultberg said. The idea is to connect primary care physicians and emergency department doctors so they have more complete pictures of patients to improve care, she said. “The states of Washington and Oregon are also live on this system and it is really becoming a regional if not a national network,” she said. One of the challenges to quantifying how successful the project is, though, is in isolating its effect from other projects going on. The coordinators haven’t established any clear success metrics yet, Hultberg said. “It’s a little bit difficult to identify the data,” she said. “There are also a number of other projects that are using the reducing of utilization of ED as their metric.” ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Forecast predicts another below-average sockeye year

Next year’s sockeye salmon forecast for Upper Cook Inlet looks only slightly rosier than this year’s forecast. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its 2018 forecast for the sockeye salmon return to Upper Cook Inlet on Nov. 21, predicting about 4.6 million total sockeye to return to all the stream systems in the area. About 2 million would go to meet escapement goals, about 1.9 million would go to the commercial fishermen and about 700,000 to other user groups, according to the forecast. The prediction is about 1.3 million below the recent 20-year average of about 5.9 million fish returning to Upper Cook Inlet, but slightly higher than the 2017 forecast of 4 million sockeye returning to all systems. The actual 2017 return was slightly higher than the forecast, in part because the Kenai River’s late run of sockeye was larger than forecast. The 2018 forecast still leaves the commercial harvest lower than 20-year average as well. “The forecast commercial harvest in 2018 is 0.9 million less than the 20-year average harvest,” the forecast states. The Kenai River is forecast to see 2.5 million sockeye return, about 1.1 million fewer than the 20-year average of about 3.6 million. The Kasilof River is forecast at about 866,000 sockeye, the Susitna River at 329,000 and Fish Creek at 211,000 with all other unmonitored systems in Upper Cook Inlet accounting for the remaining 665,000 fish. If the forecast proves true, it will be the third below-average harvest year in a row for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen. Commercial fishermen brought in about 2.6 million sockeye during the 2015 season, substantially below the 20-year-average, and though the preseason forecast for 2016 was promising, the run did not live up to expectations and commercial fishermen had another poor year, bringing in about 3.3 million sockeye rather than the 5.3 million predicted. The 2017 season was predicted to be below average and actually exceeded expectations, with a later and larger run than predicted. However, commercial fishermen ended their season with about 1.8 million sockeye, the smallest sockeye harvest in the last decade. The forecast of 2.5 million places Kenai River late-run sockeye salmon management into the middle tier for management, changing some of the restrictions on commercial fishermen, including giving drift gillnet fishermen the option of one inlet-wide fishing period in July. The managers watch the run throughout the summer and update the forecast by about the third week of July and adjust management strategies accordingly. Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet are forecast to harvest about 7,400 king salmon, 389,000 pink salmon, 177,000 chum and 203,000 coho in 2018, though those numbers are based on harvests in the last five years and not on enumeration data. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Judge orders council to get to work on Cook Inlet salmon plan

KENAI — The United Cook Inlet Drift Association’s lawsuit against the federal government has finally reached its conclusion, though its repercussions are far from over. Alaska U.S. District Judge Timothy Burgess signed an order Aug. 3 stipulating the next steps for UCIDA and the National Marine Fisheries Service. A panel of three federal judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of UCIDA in September 2016, saying the North Pacific Fishery Management Council had been wrong to remove Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Alaska Peninsula salmon fisheries from federal oversight. The order requires the National Marine Fisheries Service to file a report with the district court three times per year, keep the public involved in the council process of determining a proper rule and ensure that the National Marine Fisheries Service finalize a rule within a year of the council passing one. It also provides measures if the council doesn’t produce an amendment and the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, has to produce a secretarial amendment. It also gives UCIDA a right to ask the court to set a deadline for a new fishery management plan for Cook Inlet salmon if the council doesn’t form a stakeholder group that includes UCIDA. Both sides would still have the right to brief the court on their beliefs about a reasonable deadline date, according to the judgment. When the fishery management plan was discussed at the council’s meeting in April, the testifiers asked for some type of stakeholder group to be formed so the users could have a voice in the amendment process. The council passed a resolution solidifying the preliminary purpose and need for the FMP amendment, a number of alternatives and forming a stakeholder workgroup, which would decide its scope and agenda at future meetings. UCIDA isn’t the only stakeholder group involved, either. When Cook Inlet was removed from the federal FMP in 2011 upon the council’s passage of Amendment 12 to the FMP, an area of Prince William Sound near Cordova and an area near the Alaska Peninsula were as well. Both those groups testified at the meeting in April that they wanted to be left under state management as much as possible. Under an FMP, the management of the fishery would have to comply with federal sustainable fisheries criteria under the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Other fisheries that do use tools like annual catch limits and acceptable biological catches as compared to the state’s escapement goal-based management system for salmon. The Aug. 3 judgment only requires an FMP to address Cook Inlet. However, it doesn’t mean that the Alaska Peninsula and Prince William Sound fishermen will be left out of the discussion in the future. UCIDA Vice President Erik Huebsch said the court settlement was specifically applied to UCIDA and so didn’t address the other two groups. However, at the meeting in April, the council members asked if they could separate the three areas and address the FMPs individually. “At some point, they’ll probably have to deal with (the other areas),” Huebsch said. “But … this whole FMP for Cook Inlet isn’t necessarily going to be what they end up with. One size doesn’t fit all in these things.” There’s also still the matter of the state of Alaska asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, leaving the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision up in the air. The state, which filed to become an intervener in the case in 2013, asked the Supreme Court in February to overturn the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision on the grounds that the lower court didn’t understand the issue and that reverting to federal fisheries management could risk overfishing. The Supreme Court, which is currently on break for the summer, is scheduled to consider the case during a conference Sept. 25. UCIDA filed its opposition in June. ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Elizabeth Earl