Elizabeth Earl

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]

Stakeholders voice preferred changes to federal fisheries act

SOLDOTNA — Sportfishing groups and advocates want to see the federal government separate the management of sport and commercial fishing in the upcoming renewal of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The act, originally passed in 1976 and co-sponsored by the late Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, establishes the management system for federal and state fisheries in marine waters. Under the law, the state has authority over waters from the mean high tide line out to three nautical miles offshore, and federal government has authority over waters from 3–200 nautical miles offshore, known as the Exclusive Economic Zone. The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, oversees the fisheries in federal waters. Last reauthorized in 2006, the act is up for renewal and potential amendment. Sen. Dan Sullivan, who chairs the Senate Oceans, Atmospher, Fisheries and Coast Guard subcommittee, chaired a field hearing for the act at Kenai Peninsula College on Wednesday, hearing from more than a dozen witnesses on three panels and discussing potential changes to the act. The hearing on the Kenai Peninsula was the first of the field hearings on the reauthorization. Panelists with interests in the sportfishing industry repeatedly emphasized that commercial fishing and recreational fishing are two distinct activities and asked for recreational fishing to be considered in management decisions. “The recreational and commercial fishing are simply two fundamentally different activities needing distinctively different management tools,” said Ben Speciale, the president of Yamaha Marine Group, in testimony at the hearing. Liz Ogilvie, the director of the Keep America Fishing initiative for the American Sportfishing Association, echoed Speciale’s point and noted that a group of senators had introduced a bill addressing some of the sportfishing industry’s concerns. The bill, formally entitled The Modernizing Recreational Fisheries Management Act of 2017, was introduced this summer. “Fairly or unfairly, the general perception among anglers is that NOAA Fisheries only understands and cares about commercial fishing,” she said. Some of the provisions included in the act include mandatory periodic review of allocations among various fisheries, setting up alternative management approaches for recreational fishing, amending limited access privilege programs for mixed-use fisheries, amending the timelines for rebuilding fishery stocks considered depleted and setting up data collection systems that include recreational fishery considerations, among other provisions. Some of those with commercial fisheries interests on the panel disagreed that commercial and recreational fisheries diverge enough to merit separate management methods. Shannon Carroll, the deputy director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council, said the two were not so different. “We may agree that they have different objectives, but the end result of both sectors is really the same — it’s the harvesting of a public resource,” he said. “I would urge this committee to ensure that sound science and individual accountability are the foundation of any new proposal.” Some of the speakers with commercial fisheries interests said they thought the act was largely working and should stay the course, though others raised their own issues. Duncan Fields of the Gulf of Alaska Coastal Communities Coalition, who completed nine years on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in 2016, urged Sullivan to amend the act to mitigate the impacts of limited access programs on coastal communities. Limited access programs, which issue quota shares to fishermen, have raised the cost of participation so young people in small coastal communities have not been able to enter the fisheries, contributing to what has become known as “the graying of the fleet.” “I have a real sense of urgency relative to the rural communities in the Gulf of Alaska,” Fields said. “This isn’t abstract to me. Changing the community provisions in Magnuson will affect real people that I know, families and communities that I’m engaged with.” However, both sides had some common ground. Both identified the need for greater flexibility for the eight regional councils created under the act, which locally set harvest limits and other regulations on their fisheries. Dan Hull, the current chair of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, testified at the hearing that the council largely supports the current act’s structure for fishery management, though some flexibility could help. “We also recognize the potential benefits of increased flexibility in some circumstances to allow regional councils the opportunity to optimize their management programs with the appropriate precautionary notes,” he said. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, who also sits on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, said at the hearing that the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act should address the issue of recusals during council votes. Because of the entangled interests on the council by the stakeholders, some have had to recuse themselves from votes when it may not be totally necessary, so the rules could use some revision, he said. He also mentioned the state’s concern over the recent court decision that Cook Inlet’s salmon fisheries must be managed under a federal Fishery Management Plan, which is under the purview of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council only jumped into the process this April and it will likely take years to develop a plan, and the state has also appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Cotten said the decision could have heavy implications in jointly managed state and federal fisheries around the country. “Cook Inlet salmon management is fairly complicated, always controversial, difficult to satisfy all 10 or 12 different interest groups in those fish,” he said. “To have the United States government as a player on that scene I do not think would be helpful or a positive addition.” One common note among many of the panelists was additional funding for scientific research. Accurate stock assessment data is a major component in modern fisheries management, and without data, the only option is for management to be more conservative and reduce harvest opportunities. Though scientific funding for NOAA is separate from the Magnuson-Stevens Act, many of the testifiers took the opportunity to ask Sullivan to pressure for it. Sullivan said he has long been committed to securing full funding for NOAA and fisheries management research and would push for it in Washington, D.C. Sullivan said he hoped to use the hearing to gain a variety of perspectives. The Magnuson-Stevens Act places conservation first, and after that comes the charge to maximize opportunity for both recreational and commercial fisheries, he said. “That is the greatest responsibility that Congress has assigned to our fishery managers through the MSA,” he said. “This requirement is often a strained balancing act and it forces tough choices between competing interests, but again, what I think we’re trying to do here is look at ways to achieve consensus.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

North Pacific council director takes top federal fish job

Chris Oliver, the former executive director of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, has moved up the ladder to lead the agency overseeing the all the federally managed fisheries in the U.S. Oliver, who has lived in Alaska since 1990 and been the executive director of the council since 2001, officially took the post of assistant administrator at the National Marine Fisheries Service effective June 19. The move places him in the top job at the federal agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that regulates and enforces fisheries occurring in federal waters, which are between 3 and 200 miles off U.S. coasts. As administrator, he will oversee NMFS’ 3,200 employees, five regional offices, six science centers and 24 labs and fish stations. NMFS works with the eight regional fisheries councils across the country to develop recreational and commercial fisheries policies, providing research and recommendations for conservation and management. “I look forward to leading NOAA Fisheries and working with our partners to rebuild U.S. fisheries and conserve and recover protected resources where necessary, promote domestic marine aquaculture production where appropriate, maintain our reputation for world-renowned science and analysis, and do so while maximizing fishing opportunities for the benefit of recreational and commercial fishermen, processors, and the coastal communities which depend on them for generations to come,” Oliver said in a NOAA news release. Oliver has a reputation for practicality and being politically neutral. His new position is a political appointment, which he told the Journal in February could be “a bit of a misfit” because he was able to stay out of the notoriously heated politics of fisheries as the executive director of the council. Seafood companies with interests in Alaska backed Oliver’s nomination in large numbers, having worked with him first as a biologist and deputy director before he became executive director for the council. He replaces former administrator Eileen Sobeck, who left as President Donald Trump’s administration began. When he was first tapped for the position in the spring, he said he didn’t know if he’d accept the position were it to be offered. At the last council meeting in Juneau in early June, the members took time to say farewell. Oliver thanked the council members and said he’d likely be back to visit. “I want to say what an honor and a privilege it’s been again to work for this council. It’s because of this council that I’m having this opportunity,” he said. “…It’s been a wonderful ride and I’m going to miss all of you.” North Pacific Fishery Management Council Deputy Director David Witherell will serve as interim executive director until a new one is hired. ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Copper River outlook improves

Things are looking better than expected for Copper River kings. Sportfishermen, personal-use dipnetters, subsistence fishermen and commercial fishermen are all out now on the Copper River drainage. When the season began May 18, the forecast estimated that only about 29,000 kings would return to the river system, leaving about 5,000 for total harvestable surplus. But early indicators from the commercial fishery showed larger takes, despite more conservative management measures such as restricting hours and closing certain areas. The low forecast also led the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to announce a preseason sportfishing closure for king salmon on the Copper River drainage and a two-fish king salmon limit for subsistence fishermen. On June 3, though, the managers reevaluated the king run based on commercial takes and limited inriver information, and opened up the sportfisheries and rescinded the subsistence restriction. As of the June 12 commercial fisheries opener, Copper River District fishermen had taken about 11,960 king salmon, according to ADFG’s inseason harvest summary. The managers are getting toward the end of the king salmon run and so far have been relatively relieved that the sockeye return hasn’t been exceptionally large, said Jeremy Botz, the assistant area management biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Cordova. “We’ll start to remove some restrictions here over the next couple of weeks as the chinook salmon run winds down and we’ll be focusing more on our delta wild sockeye and later-timed upriver sockeye salmon,” he said. “The schedule might become a little more liberal here in the next few weeks.” In the past several years, the managers have been dealing with exceptionally large sockeye returns on the Copper River, significantly surpassing the river system’s escapement goal. However, this year, the sockeye run was projected to be weaker than usual, and so far it looks like the run is coming in closer to the forecast than the kings. As of June 13, about 351,360 sockeye had passed Fish and Game’s sonar at Miles Lake, and Copper River District commercial fishermen had taken a total of 328,996 sockeye, according to ADFG data. The preseason forecast was for a run of about 1.5 million sockeye. The sockeye salmon escapement upriver is slightly ahead of what it usually is this time of year, according to the commercial fishing recorded announcement for the Copper River District. “I think the sockeye salmon escapement in the river is the really conservative fishing restrictions we’ve been prosecuting this year,” Botz said. “It just happens that that’s what this sockeye run can sustain anyway. It just ended up pairing fairly well.” Because there is little inseason data available on king salmon, ADFG biologists will gather data from the commercial fishery and from a mark-recapture project near Eyak and perform a post-season assessment of the king salmon run to determine the final escapement.

UFA president’s home pack ticket caught up in Copper River controversy

Four commercial fishermen, including the president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, have been cited for failing to record retention of commercially caught salmon for personal use on an Alaska Department of Fish and Game fish ticket. On May 18, the opening day of the Copper River salmon season, Alaska State Troopers cited Peter Breckert, 58, John Thomas, 75, Michael Glasen, 69, and Jerry McCune, 68, all of Cordova. The offense, a misdemeanor, requires a court appearance and comes with a fine. McCune is also the president of the Cordova Fishermen District United, which represents the approximately 900 commercial fishermen in Area E, and of the United Fishermen of Alaska, the largest commercial fishing organization in the state. Reached Wednesday, McCune said he didn’t want to comment on the ticket but that he pled no contest and paid the $110 fine. Commercial fishermen are legally allowed to retain salmon from their catches for personal-use as long as they account for it on their harvest tickets. The trooper dispatch did not specify the type of salmon, but under their Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits, Cordova district fishermen are legally allowed to retain all five types of Pacific salmon. The four fishermen received their tickets amid a fury of controversy over the management of the Copper River fishery this year. Before the season began, biologists forecast a run of approximately 29,000 king salmon to return to the river, only about 5,000 over the minimum escapement of 24,000 king salmon for the river system. In response, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed all the sportfisheries for king salmon on the Upper Copper River drainage for the entire season and restricted the subsistence fishery to only two king salmon between June 1 and July 15, according to a March 6 news release. However, the commercial fisheries were allowed to continue to operate, albeit under tighter restrictions. Commercial fishermen have been shut out of an inside area designated for king salmon conservation and restricted to nine hours instead of their usual 12 for the last few periods in an attempt to protect king salmon. But they still harvested more than the predicted entire harvestable surplus. As of Wednesday, they had harvested 6,899 kings, with another period scheduled for Thursday. Commercial fishermen and managers have said this is a sign the run is larger than the forecast. McCune did say the commercial fishermen understand the frustration of the upriver fishermen who are completely shut out of fishing for king salmon while the commercial fishermen still get some periods. “I don’t blame them for being mad,” he said. When ADFG managers announced the closure of the Copper River sportfishery but that the commercial fishery would operate, the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee requested the Board of Fisheries place additional restrictions on the commercial fishery to protect king salmon. One of the actions requested by the Fairbanks AC was for the board to prohibit so-called “home pack” retention of king salmon by commercial fishermen. The board decided against taking up the emergency petition, saying the managers had enough tools to conserve king salmon. As the run progresses, the commercial fishing managers and the upstream sportfisheries managers are working together to evaluate the run and see if there will be any potential for some sportfishing opportunity, said Mark Somerville, the Upper Copper River area management biologist for the Division of Sportfish. ADFG has limited tools to evaluate the run in the Copper River inseason, in part relying on mark-recapture studies, but there are a lot of variables for inseason data to consider, he said. “We’re definitely going to be on the cautious side,” he said. “We’re in discussions every day, which is pretty new for something like this. All the divisions are working together to see if there is some sort of harvestable surplus that all the different user groups can take advantage of.” The managers are watching all the data they can get, both from the commercial fishery and from the subsistence fishery set to start Thursday, Somerville said. “It’s either going to show up things are doing clearly better than expected, or not,” he said. “If they’re somewhere in between, we’re going to be between a rock and hard space.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

After season closure, board revises Tanner crab strategy

Bering Sea Tanner crab fishermen have a new harvest strategy in place, though it likely won’t be the last time the plan gets revised. The Board of Fisheries held a special meeting in Anchorage May 17 and 18 to deal with just the harvest strategy. Crab fishermen raised concerns about the value of the harvest strategy and survey methods after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided to close the 2016-17 season because surveys showed that the biomass of female crabs in the Bering Sea survey area fell below a required threshold for the fishery to open. Fishermen, however, said they were seeing large numbers of females in their catch. The board unanimously voted to adopt a new harvest strategy at the recommendation of ADFG staff that will revise a number of standards for calculating how the fishery will open. Major changes include transitioning how female maturity is assessed, including the females west of the 173 degrees West latitude line in the calculation and changing the year range used to estimate long-term Tanner crab female biomass. Fishermen raised several issues with the previous strategy’s assessment method and worked with ADFG to hash them out. The harvest strategy the board passed included a number of industry-supported suggestions but didn’t go entirely along with their recommendations. Ben Daly, the commercial fisheries biologist who presented the staff report on the Tanner crab fishery to the board on May 17, said the department collaboratively manages the fishery with the National Marine Fisheries Service through the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. The council, through its Scientific and Statistical Committee, sets the overfishing limit and the acceptable biological catch limit, and ADFG sets the total allowable catch, or TAC, and manages the fishery in accordance with the plan approved by the board. The managers have a middle amount of information about the Tanner crab fishery — more than some and less than others, Daly said. The old harvest strategy had more conservative measures programmed in when data was lacking, he said. “The general philosophy of the department is when uncertainty is high, precautionary measures are appropriate,” he said. Tanner crab populations have also been in decline, with a sharp change in the late 1970s in an event that biologists call a regime shift. At that time, a number of unclear factors led to a decline in crab production and an increase in fish production, Daly said. To account for that and not skew the numbers too high for a threshold beyond what the fishery can reasonably produce, ADFG recommended adjusting the long-term data accounting from 1982–2016. ADFG will start including female crabs west of the 173 degrees West latitude line in their calculations for female biomass, whereas in the past, only females east of the line have been included. Under the new harvest strategy, females will also be assessed for maturity based on their abdominal flaps, known as observed maturity. The female threshold functions like an on-off switch for the fishery, which can leave fishermen completely without recourse if the survey turns out below that level. ADFG is considering alternatives to the threshold tool, creating a scale instead, which Daly referred to as the “conservation band,” essentially providing a range of actions based on the assessment. It’s not ready for implementation yet, but the department will continue to work on it, he said. “What we’re doing here is essentially creating a band that defines points of conservation concern,” he said. “…It would essentially turn the on-off switch into a dimmer.” Multiple stakeholders said they favored the conservation band approach. If the fishery were not controlled by a strict threshold, fishermen who depend on the income could depend on it more year after year, said Wes Jones, the fishery development director for the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp., in public testimony to the board. “Fisheries that have this on-off switch are not good for continual year after year employment,” he said. “We’re not talking these people need three months’ employment … one month works really well, it fits into their lifestyles really good.” The Tanner crab fishery has grown significantly in the past several years with successful marketing strategies, said Tyson Fick, the executive director of the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers Association. The closure marked a sharp halt to a fishery that had grown equally sharply. The previous year’s Tanner crab harvest was 19.7 million pounds, an increase over the 15.1 million pounds in 2014-15, and was worth $45.3 million. International demand has always been strong, but domestic demand has grown as well with restaurants like Joe’s Crab Shack and Red Lobster featuring Alaska bairdi Tanner crab in advertisements. The industry has an interest in working with ADFG toward a consistent but sustainable harvest strategy, he said. “With worldwide recognition that we are continually looking to look out for the resources and improve how we assess that resource, how we can have an industry and have a industry and protect that resource?” he said. The board retained one part of the harvest strategy despite industry requests for it to be eliminated, known as the half-TAC penalty, which halves the total harvest if the fishery was closed the year before. ADFG staff said the rule won’t apply to next year’s fishery because the harvest strategy changed, but recommended the board retain the rule until a better conservation tool is developed, Daly said. However, it would only come into play when the entire threshold calculation is below the confidence interval in the calculation, which isn’t likely to happen in most years, he said. “It’s there; we think it’s a reasonable conservation measure,” he said. “The probability of it being enacted it certainly lower. If it’s enacted, we think we have bigger concerns. It’s still there.” Multiple board members praised the collaboration between the department and the stakeholder groups, who provided recommendations through an ad-hoc committee, on coming up with solutions for the Tanner crab fishery strategy. Some of the other issues can be addressed at the upcoming regular cycle meeting in March 2018. For now, the strategy seems like a reasonable approach, said board member Sue Jeffrey. “This allows more flexibility and consistency, we’ve heard a lot from … the harvesters and processors want consistency, as do the markets,” she said. “I really think that this answers a lot of those concerns. There was that short-term loss, losing a crab season is painful for everyone involved. I think through this exercise, we are on solid ground for more stability.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Copper River managers proceed cautiously after large king harvests

Commercial fishing managers in Prince William Sound are planning to continue opening the fishery, despite concerns about low king salmon returns to the Copper River system. In the first two commercial fishing periods of the season on May 18 and May 22, salmon fishermen brought in about 3,600 king salmon, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game in-season harvest summaries. The first wild-caught king salmon of the season, the fish garnered a record-breaking $50 per pound in the Lower 48, where they arrived late last week. However, the low preseason forecast led to a complete closure of sportfisheries on the Copper River drainage for king salmon and led to a restriction on retention in the subsistence fisheries. The Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee petitioned the Board of Fisheries to find the situation as an emergency and take action to restrict the commercial fishery to conserve kings. However, the board declined to take up the petition on May 17, saying the commercial fishing managers had enough tools to manage for the low run. The harvest of kings so far is above what the managers expected, indicating that the preseason forecast of 29,000 kings — only about 4,000 fish above the 25,000 minimum escapement goal — could have been low, according to the Wednesday fishing update from the Cordova office. Salmon gillnet fishery area management biologist Jeremy Botz said the managers plan to maintain a conservative approach to openings. The next commercial fishing period is set for Thursday, May 25. The 4,000 harvestable king salmon above the escapement goal isn’t a hard and fast number for the managers; the high harvest in the first two periods, despite additional time and area restrictions, may mean that the run is larger than forecast, he said. “That’s the forecast, so there’s no sort of predetermined harvest limit, that’s just what we anticipate,” Botz said. “…We don’t have enough information there whether to say whether it’s necessarily larger or not. So far, the commercial harvest has been larger than expected.” Commercial fishing managers need to provide openings for fishermen to harvest sockeye salmon, the primary target species in the area. In the first two periods, commercial drift gillnetters harvested nearly 88,000 sockeye, according to Fish and Game data. However, the king salmon run will peak soon, and a set of low tides will make the fish more vulnerable to harvest, so the managers will account for that in their decisions on how to prosecute the commercial fishing periods, Botz said. “We’re also approaching peak run timing for Chinook, and also some additional peak tides that are going to move some extra fish into the river,” he said. The managers cut back the hours for the Thursday period from 12 hours to nine hours, lasting from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and kept the inside king salmon conservation area closed. The delay in the morning time will be to account for the low tide that makes fish more vulnerable to harvest, Botz said. Subsistence harvest is open in concurrent areas and times with the commercial fishing areas, according to the commercial fishing announcement. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Board denies emergency petition on Copper River kings

The Board of Fisheries denied a request on May 17 from the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee to set more restrictions on the Copper River commercial fishery to protect king salmon. The Fairbanks AC petitioned the board to further regulate the commercial fishery in the area after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecast a small number of kings to return to the stream system — about 29,000, with the minimum escapement for the drainage set at 24,000 fish. ADFG Commissioner Sam Cotten initially denied the petition as qualifying as an emergency under regulations, but the board elected to take up the petition for discussion and ultimately voted to agree with his decision. Subsistence, personal use and sportfishermen also target kings on the river system, which winds its way 290 miles up northward to headwaters near Slana, on the north edge of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. When the forecast came out, ADFG issued an emergency order closing the sportfishery for king salmon on the river, prohibiting retention of kings in the popular Chitina personal-use dipnet fishery and restricting subsistence harvest of kings to two per fisherman using dipnets or fish wheels between June 1 and July 15. Fishwheels also have to be closely attended, which creates a burden for the fishermen, the Fairbanks AC argued. “This will be a significant departure from historical methods used in this fishery,” the group’s petition states. “…It is clear that the upriver fishers are going to take significant actions to help achieve the escapement goal.” The AC asked the board to find the department’s decision to restrict the inriver fisheries but not the commercial fishery as an emergency, which allows the board to act out of cycle. In its petition, the AC asked for the board to require the department to use genetic information about the strength of the Gulkana River kings for at least the first two commercial openings, restricting the commercial fishing area, restricting nets to 29 meshes deep, closing the fishery after July 1 if the commercial harvest exceeds the forecast objective, prohibiting the sale of king salmon bycatch and requiring incidentally caught kings to be surrendered to the state and prohibiting retention of kings for commercial fishermen taking home fish as their subsistence harvest, known as “home pack.” However, the board voted 4-3 not to take up the petition as an emergency. The members opposing the emergency finding said they thought the fisheries managers had enough tools to manage the commercial fishery to maximize sockeye harvest while keeping an eye on king salmon. Like most systems in Alaska, the Copper River has seen historic low returns for king salmon in the past decade. This year’s poor return was expected, so doesn’t qualify as an emergency, said Bert Lewis, the Prince William Sound fisheries management coordinator for the Division of Commercial Fisheries. Managers missed their king salmon escapement goal in 2016 — only about 11,864 kings made it up into the river system, about half of the lower bound of the sustainable escapement goal, or SEG, according to ADFG data. At the same time, the managers saw an extremely large return of sockeye salmon, leading to additional hours and space, but the harvest was still lower than the previous 10-year average, according to the 2016 season summary. Lewis told the Board of Fisheries the managers had to provide extra time to the commercial fishery to control overescapement of sockeye. That likely won’t be the case this year, he said. The total predicted Copper River sockeye salmon run for 2017 is below the recent 10-year average, with about 1.81 million expected to return, according to the 2017 forecast. “We’ve been fishing at an aggressive schedule because of large sockeye returns for the last couple of years,” he said. “We expect to reduce time … (and) we expect to achieve the SEG.” The Copper River does not have much of an inseason assessment for king salmon other than reports from anglers and commercial fisheries fish tickets, Lewis said. The managers reconstruct the run after the season, and while they thought they were in good shape last year because of the solid forecast, the post-season came out lower than they expected, he said. “Forecasting is inherently uncertain,” he said. “We react inseason as the runs develop. In this case, the indicators continued to suggest we were comfortable where we were. We thought we had an appropriate strategy, and then postseason assessment indicated that it didn’t work out.” Board members Sue Jeffrey, Robert Ruffner and Orville Huntington and chairman John Jensen voted against accepting the petition. Jeffrey agreed that it didn’t meet the emergency criteria because it wasn’t unforeseen and the managers have the tools to reduce the commercial fishery this season. “I also know from public comment that the public is concerned about the resource and this region, and I am mindful of that too, but I think we have to consider this seriously and not declare this an emergency unless it is a trend that is ongoing,” she said. “As others have said, I’m sure we will be watching this very carefully.” Board members Israel Payton, Reed Morisky and Al Cain voted to support it. The fisheries upriver seem to be unfairly bearing the burden of conservation this season and they have no alternative fisheries, Morisky said. Payton said he understood the managers were considering the long term but the board should consider the present effects as well. “Though the department states that they don’t think it will affect the long-term sustainability of king salmon stocks, but we have to think about the short term as well,” Payton said. The Copper River District commercial fishery had its first opening Thursday. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

How big can the Alaska health care bubble grow?

KENAI — Alaska faces a paradox with its health care industry. In an economy sliding downhill, health care is the only sector still growing. With many jobs that pay solid wages and a growing need for medical services, in some ways it is encouraging even as other high-paying jobs in the state are lost. However, health care is also one of the top costs to the Alaskan government and a heavy burden for many local municipalities and businesses. As it continues to grow, with more employees and more income, it is worrisome for employers and public agencies, who pay the vast majority of health care costs in the state. To try to trim away at some health care costs in the fiscal year 2018 budget, Gov. Bill Walker upped premiums for state employees’ health care, avoiding an approximately $8 million increase in costs, according to the Office of Management and Budget’s summary. “The Governor recognizes the negative impact this will have on lower paid state employees, but it is necessary for the state to make changes that are equal in measure to the challenge,” the summary states. The Senate and the House of Representatives approved a Medicaid reform bill in 2016 and have been sorting through Health and Social Services’ expenses this year, looking for places to cut. The Senate’s budget, passed April 16, proposes millions in cuts to the department, while the House of Representatives proposed a small increase. Changes at the federal level under the American Health Care Act, recently approved by the U.S. House of Representatives and awaiting hearings in the Senate, may mean changes for the Medicaid program, including requiring the state to shoulder more of the cost. After Walker accepted the Medicaid expansion in early 2015 under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, the state began receiving millions from the federal government to prop up the Medicaid program under the additional enrollees. Now, with Republicans in charge of Congress and the White House, the American Health Care Act may roll back that support, leaving the state on the hook to either drop all the additional enrollees or pick up the multi-million-dollar bill. In February, when Congress was debating the first version of the bill, Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Valerie Davidson formally said the state couldn’t bear the cost shift. “With a $3 billion budget deficit in Alaska, we simply cannot absorb a shift in federal responsibility to states,” Davidson said. Mouhcine Guettabi, an assistant professor of economics with the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, researches both the health care industry and state government spending. It’s sometimes an interesting juxtaposition, he said. “At times I present (economic) forecasts … and the only field we’re relying on is that health care is still growing,” he said. “And I’ll go to the next room and rail about health care costs.” Alaska’s health care industry, with some of the highest costs in the country, is an isolated bubble. While other states’ hospitals and clinics draw medical tourists from out of state, bringing in additional money to their economies, Alaska sees the reverse. Many health care plans pay for medical tourism — flying a patient down to hospitals in the Lower 48 to receive treatment and reimbursing the costs of hotels, food and flights along the way, because it is cheaper to do so than have the same procedure in-state. So the fiscal growth of Alaska’s health care industry is coming entirely from the pockets of insurers and companies based here, Guettabi said. Many of Alaska’s people also rely on federal dollars for their health insurance. Besides those receiving Medicare, Tricare and Indian Health Services benefits, Medicaid in Alaska is in part paid for by the federal government and 90 percent of those who purchase individual plans from Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield through the Affordable Care Act marketplace receive federal subsidies, according to a research summary published by ISER in April 2017. Altogether, about 53 percent of Alaskans have employer insurance, and about 9.2 percent of Alaskans still report being uninsured, according to the summary. “Employer insurance is still the most common, covering half of all Alaskans,” the summary states. “But fewer small businesses are offering it.” The actual costs of health care services increase every year, leaving it up to commercial insurers to raise premiums and public insurers to either raise taxes to cover the cost increase or to lower the percentage of a price they reimburse doctors for. The lower reimbursement rates for Medicare and Medicaid relative to private insurers affect providers at all levels. Alaska has not lost any of its rural hospitals yet, unlike the Lower 48, but they feel the lower reimbursements, said Becky Hultberg, president and CEO of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association. “From a hospital standpoint, doing more with less can mean a reduction in rates, utilization or eligibility,” she said. “When the decision to do more with less means lower rates, that is just asking hospitals to do the same thing for less money, which essentially is just squeezing the balloon.” The federal administration and some in Congress are also looking to reform Medicare, a growing program as the population ages. Among the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association’s 2017 legislative priorities are goals to preserve Medicaid reimbursement rate stability and look for new payment models, strengthening policies to support the growth of the individual insurance market and advocate for Alaska-specific solutions for Medicaid coverage for low-income residents, according to its website. In June, the Alaska Legislature is due to receive a feasibility study on the formation of an Alaska Health Care Authority, which would oversee the implementation and expenses of the Medicaid program. Among its functions could be running a single health care plan for state employees and retirees, with the potential for expansion to private individuals and businesses — fundamentally a single-payer insurance program for Alaskans. Pat Linton, former executive director of the Seward Community Health Center, said he spent 40 years working in health care and watched its share of the national gross domestic product triple as costs rose out of control. The cost is only likely to increase as the population ages and public health continues to be poor, despite how much the health care system costs. Socioeconomic status, proposed by many researchers as a major determinant of health, is not recovering for many of the poorest people nationally and until it does, health care delivery is not going to solve many widespread health problems people see, he said. Linton, who also served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Healthcare Task Force in 2015 and 2016, advocates for a national single-payer system, which he said would at least simplify the currently complex health care insurance system. “Scrap this — transition to a single-payer ‘Medicare for all’ system and it will at least do probably better than we’ve been doing through this hybrid, hodgepodge of market based (and) public-based, just this cacophony of things,” he said. Hultberg said it’s too early to say what the effects of an Alaska Health Care Authority might be, but that the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association will provide comments on the study when it is released. The current status of the health care industry, growing beyond what anyone can afford, is clearly unsustainable, Guettabi said, but just how big it can grow is unclear. Until there’s an incentive for providers to change the system, they won’t be motivated to move toward reducing costs, which means reducing profits as well. And the question of better health outcomes is a separate one entirely — it’s easy to get inexpensive systems or systems that produce good results, but finding one that meets both is the challenge. “The state is trying to save money,” Guettabi said. “Is it trying to maximize the health of its citizens? I have no idea. The hospitals are trying to maximize their profits, if it’s a for-profit (hospital). The individual is trying to save money. We all have different objectives. It’s not like we’re all in this together.”

NOAA releases annual fisheries economic report

KENAI — The total value of commercial fisheries landings in Alaska didn’t change much between 2014 and 2015, but by species, salmon prices have been the millstone around the industry’s neck. Total landings for all commercially fished species in the North Pacific region came out to $1.7 billion in 2015, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service annual report for the North Pacific region, released May 9. It didn’t change much from 2014, when total landings came in at $1.712 billion, but the 2015 value is a 25 percent increase in real terms since 2006 when accounting for inflation. Total value climbed for most species, some dramatically — crab is at an all-time high since 1999 for all species except for Dungeness crab. Salmon, however, is down 24 percent since 2014, or $133 million, despite some record-breaking total poundage. The salmon market has been in trouble for the last several years. An ongoing embargo in Russia preventing the import of food products from the U.S., Canada, Norway and the European Union has heavily impacted prices, eliminating a major market for seafood. A strong U.S. dollar has also weakened demand in traditional markets for salmon such as the European Union and Japan, according to the NMFS report. A record-breaking harvest in Bristol Bay flooded the market in 2015, but with prices close to 50 cents per pound, fishermen didn’t bring in much income that year. Prices rose a little in 2016, but not to pre-2015 levels, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game ex-vessel value data. Alaska still leads the nation in commercial salmon catches, with about 1 billion pounds landed in 2015 for a total value of $413 million, according to the NMFS national fisheries management report, also released May 9. Meanwhile, pink salmon supply increased dramatically from 2014, up about 95 percent, and chum salmon increased by about 49 percent, according to the Alaska report. Lower Cook Inlet saw record-breaking returns of pink salmon in 2015, as did Prince William Sound. “With the Russia ban also covering farmed salmon, the market for wild caught salmon faced further pressure from that source,” the report states. Herring value is also down, falling about 39 percent, or $4.5 million, between 2014 and 2016, according to the report. The Russia import ban also affected herring, and the cut in the Sitka Sound herring sac roe fishery by about half impacted total landing values. Salmon and herring fishermen in Alaska may be having a hard time, but other species are seeing healthy increases in value. Crab landings revenue is up nearly 122 percent since 2014, with a total value of $284 million for all species. Southern Tanner crab nearly doubled, climbing $20 million between 2014 and 2016 to $41 million. Dungeness crab was the only species that declined, but it came after a year of nearly record-high prices, according to the NMFS report. Walleye pollock climbed by more than a fifth, or $87 million, for a total of $509 million. The total allowable catch for the Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands increased slightly, allowing for larger catches and increasing total value, according to the report. Pacific halibut prices were the highest of all North Pacific species at $4.85 per pound in 2015, but with concerns about declining stocks, it also saw one of the greatest decreases in poundage — down 67 percent between 2006 and 2015, according to the Alaska report. Pacific halibut saw the largest revenue decline, about 49 percent in real value, between 2006 and 2015, according to the NMFS national report. Alaska’s seafood sector supports about 53,400 full- and part-time jobs, none of which rely on imports, according to the NMFS national report. Altogether, the industry is worth about $4.4 billion in sales, $1.9 billion in income and $2.4 billion in value-added impacts. Commercial fishing contributes the largest portion of that, with 38,000 jobs, according to the report. The increase in Alaska landing values follows the national trend — total landing values are up about 17 percent in real value between 2006 and 2015, according to the NMFS national report. Total pounds landed are were up about 2 percent between 2006 and 2015, Alaska still leads the nation in both total pounds and total value landed. The season looks better for salmon fishermen this year as well, based on Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts. Despite disastrously low pink salmon returns last year, Fish and Game is predicting rosier returns for Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound, Kodiak and Lower Cook Inlet. They aren’t predicted to be record-breaking returns, but ADFG biologists are reasonably confident in the forecasts, and the colder winter breaking up the warm surface temperature anomaly in the Pacific Ocean — nicknamed “the blob” — may make for better pink salmon returns. Sockeye returns are far below average for Upper Cook Inlet, where approximately 4 million fish are predicted to return in 2017, with a commercial harvest of about 1.7 million. Bristol Bay forecasts predict a return about 27 percent higher than the average, and Kodiak is expecting close to its average. Prices look to improve as well, with sea lice and algal blooms troubling the farmed fish sector in Chile, Scotland and Norway while demand continues to grow and the dollar weakens slightly. Suppliers have diminished back stock and supply this year may be lower, aiding prices. ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Senate budget cuts holes in public health service

The state’s public health division has been whittled down significantly over the past several years and is facing more cuts this year. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services has been high on the chopping block for a Legislature looking for places to cut expenses in the fiscal year 2018 budget. The Senate passed a budget on April 18 cutting another $29.2 million out of the department’s budget, on top of a $1.5 million reduction in the final fiscal year 2017 budget passed last year. The House of Representatives is still debating it, but if the cuts go through, one area that will feel them strongly is the Division of Public Health. Unlike other states, where the counties or boroughs run their own public health programs, the state runs one for the entire population of Alaska outside Anchorage, with a network of traveling nurses and public health centers to provide basic services such as well child exams and vaccinations. However, due to budget cuts, several centers have had to be scaled back or closed within the last few years. The Senate’s proposed budget cuts Unrestricted General Fund dollars from the Public Health Nursing section by an additional 5 percent, “with the expectation that PH Nursing collaborate with other Health Centers,” according to the Conference Committee motion document. Division of Public Health Director and Chief Medical Officer Jay Butler said nothing is decided for sure, but if the division does have to take the cut, they’ll have to make them thoughtfully. Cuts have already led to a series of service reductions across the state, he said. “With those cuts of nearly 20 percent to DHSS over the last three years, we’ve had to reduce statewide services, with basically very little for people over age 29 now,” he said. “It sort of breaks my heart when people call me and say they’ve always gotten their first shot at the public health center and they can’t do that anymore.” Cuts to the Medicaid program will also ripple through the Division of Public Health through matching, he said. Public health nurses don’t just administer shots and provide tests for sexually transmitted infections — they also investigate epidemic outbreaks of diseases and provide a safety net for basic medical services. For example, when an outbreak of whooping cough occurred in Homer last year, it was the Section of Epidemiology that started gathering information on infections from private physicians and hosting a vaccine drive. But as the budget for public health gets slimmer and slimmer, fewer nurses can travel to remote communities and fewer regular services are offered. There are no full-time nurses in Cordova, Haines, Wrangell and Seward, and as more positions are cut, there are only so many people who the department can send out, Butler said. “At some point, you can’t have more work done by fewer people,” he said. “You do less with less because you phase things out. There’s no more efficiency to be gained.” More of the burden has shifted to organizations like community health centers, which like public health centers offer sliding-scale payment systems. Seward Community Health Center had to step up when the Seward Public Health Center’s one full-time nurse retired, leaving the public health center there as an outpost to be visited by a traveling nurse from Kenai. But there are situations public health nurses are set up to handle that community health centers aren’t equipped for, such as a mass disaster or epidemic, said Seward Community Health Center Executive Director Pat Linton. “You cannot make a simplistic conclusion that if you close the public health centers that the community health centers will pick up the work,” he said. “That’s not true. That’s impossible.” Epidemiology is unique to the state’s public health nurses, Butler said. “Community health centers are really focused on providing individual access to care, whereas public health centers are better at looking at (larger questions),” he said. “That is a somewhat different mission, and oftentimes what the public health centers do are much less likely to be billable services.” Public health is a long-range game. Programs implemented tomorrow can take years to show measurable results. Amid the conversation of health care reform and reducing costs, a common question has been held forth by industry members, regulators and activists, known as the triple aim: How do we get better health for more people at a lower cost? Linton, who retired at the end of April, testified to the Senate with Butler and Head Public Health Nurse Linda Worman about the effects of cutting too far into public health services. The state has already worked out some partnerships to cut costs, like in the case of the Healthy Alaskans 2020 public health effort — when federal support for that effort lapsed, the state worked out support in partnership with community and private organizations, he said. “Health is one of those fundamental aspects of life that we oftentimes take for granted and when we lose it, we really begin losing everything — relationships, wealth, property,” he said. “The protection of health is one of a lot of things that Alaskans hold dear.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

2017 sockeye forecast weak for Cook Inlet

KENAI — Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial salmon fishermen are predicted to have another slow season, if the forecast proves accurate. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s 2017 commercial salmon fishery outlook predicts a total run of about 4 million fish to all the stream systems in Upper Cook Inlet, which includes the Kenai, Kasilof and Susitna rivers as well as a number of smaller streams. Commercial fishermen are projected to harvest about 1.7 million of that, the lowest projected harvest in the last 15 years. It’s largely the Kenai River not living up to the recent 10-year average. The river is projected to see a return of 2.2 million sockeye, about 39 percent below the recent 10-year average of 3.6 million fish. By contrast, the Susitna River is projected to see about 366,000 sockeye return, about 5 percent below the average; the Kasilof River is expected to see about 825,000 sockeye, about 16 percent below the recent average, according to the forecast. The 2017 forecast follows a poor 2016 season, when the run came in significantly below the prediction. Total harvest by all user groups was about 3.3 million sockeye rather than the 5.3 million fish predicted. “Overall, the 2016 sockeye salmon run was 26 percent below forecast, largely due to the below forecast Kenai sockeye salmon run,” the forecast states. The biologists who conduct the forecast always include a margin of error — for the Kenai River run, it’s 20 percent below or above, with the 2.2 million as the point estimate. For the Kasilof, it’s a 12 percent margin of error. Area Management Biologist Pat Shields said the managers are relatively confident in the forecast models, though it’s always subject to error and is reviewed when in-season data starts to come in. “When you run those models and if you get a big difference, (the forecaster) tends to look at the performance of a model for the last few years … and look at which of the models has performed the best,” Shields said. “You can end up using multiple models.” Better than 2016 By late summer 2016, it was apparent that the big days of sockeye harvests weren’t going to materialize. Commercial fishermen had only harvested 1.6 million salmon by July 19 last year, what is typically in the middle of the sockeye season. By July 26, Fish and Game dropped its estimate for the return to all of Cook Inlet by 1.8 million to 1.9 million sockeye. Two age classes seemed to have had a hard time returning: the 4- and 5-year-old sockeye. It wasn’t the only strange run. Commercial fishermen all over Alaska puzzled over the disappointingly small pink salmon returns, but many noted the exceptionally large fish. Cook Inlet’s setnetters recorded an average of 5 pounds, the largest on record, as compared to the usual 3.6 pounds. But this year, pink salmon returns look better around the state, and sockeye runs outside Cook Inlet look rosy. Bristol Bay is expecting a run of approximately 41.5 million sockeye, about 26 percent more than the recent average, according to the 2017 Bristol Bay season outlook. Of that, about 27.5 million fish would be available for commercial inshore harvest. About 16.1 million sockeye salmon are expected in the Naknek-Kvichak District; about 10.7 million in the Egegik District; about 5.5 million in the Ugashik District; 8.6 million in the Nushagak District and 660,000 in the Togiak District, according to the outlook. All fisheries in Bristol Bay open June 1 by regulation, but additional fishing time is based on in-season data. “The department manages fisheries based on inseason information regarding abundance,” the outlook states. “The inseason management approach uses a suite of tools to provide information on abundance in each district as each run develops and that information is used by the department to determine fishing opportunity.” If the forecast holds true, it will be the second big year in a row for Bristol Bay. In 2016, salmon fishermen in the bay saw a run of 51.4 million fish, the second highest in the last 20 years. The preliminary ex-vessel value of $156.2 million was about 40 percent higher than the average in the last 20 years. Improving prices Prices look to rise as well, said Andy Wink, the seafood project manager for research firm McDowell Group. For several years, a large harvest of sockeye salmon in Alaska has pushed down prices, especially in competition with the massive numbers of farmed salmon entering the market from farms like Norway, Chile and Scotland. However, an algal bloom in Chile and widespread infections of sea lice have damage farmed salmon production, pushing up prices significantly. Processors’ backstocks of frozen sockeye are down, and with demand up but supply lower, the prices are likely to rise, Wink said. “We’ve got strong headwinds, but it hasn’t all been pulling against us,” he said. “Because, for the last 10 years, farmed salmon production has grown about 5 percent. Last year, they estimated production down 7 percent. That’s certainly a very large decline when you’re talking about 4.5 billion pounds of fish. That’s a lot of missing supply. That’s been helpful.” Processors have been hit hard by the extremely strong U.S. dollar. A valuable U.S. currency is bad for Alaska’s seafood market — when other currencies are worth significantly less than the dollar, it typically pushes prices down. Cook Inlet lost a major processor in spring 2016 when Great Pacific Seafoods filed for bankruptcy, closing its Kenai, Anchorage and Whittier plants. Bristol Bay saw an improvement in prices last year from the very low prices in 2015, but not quite up to pre-2015 levels, according to ADFG records. However, with the farmed market down and demand higher, signs look good for improved prices, Wink said. “This year it’s going to be kind of interesting how this year plays out,” he said. “I suspect there’s a lot of buyers out there who would like to reproduce what they’ve done in the last several years, but there’s probably not going to be as much going around this year.” Board of Fisheries changes Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen also have some new regulations to watch for. The Board of Fisheries passed several proposals loosening regulations on East Side setnetters, including exempting the East Forelands statistical area from the paired restrictions system, which pairs setnet openings with Kenai River late-run king salmon escapements, and pushing back the effective date for the one-percent rule. Because the king salmon forecast predicts a run of 33,600 large king salmon, which is higher than the sustainable escapement goal of 13,500 to 27,000 large king salmon, the season can start off normally and be managed for in-season abundance, according to the outlook. The board also opened up the use of a near-shore fishery to help control Kasilof River sockeye salmon escapement and keep the managers from having to open the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area, a terminal fishery in the mouth of the Kasilof River that has been widely criticized by fishermen. When authorized, setnetters can operate their full complement of gear within 600 feet of shore, which allows them to stay on their sites and has shown promising results for controlling escapement without catching too many king salmon, Shields said. “It puts commercial fishermen more in their regular area,” he said. “It lets people fish from their regular fish sites rather than getting hundreds of people to move from their regular fish sites. That change the board made, probably of all the changes for setnetting, has potentially the largest impact.” Drift gillnetters can now stack multiple permits and have the potential to get one inlet-wide period in July if the projected run to the Kenai River is between 2.3 million sockeye and 4.6 million sockeye. Though the current projected run is less than 2.3 million, Shields noted that it would only take a relatively small variation to push the run into that management tier, so the managers may have the option to open up one inlet-wide period. Otherwise, the drifters are restricted to fishing in Drift Gillnet Area 1, a large area that stretches across the inlet between the south side of Kalgin Island and the Anchor Point Light. “If the forecast is correct, the change to the drift plan won’t come into play this year,” he said. “If the forecast is just a little off, that’s something the department will have at their discretion to use.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Researchers identify widespread parasite in Alaska scallops

A lot of Alaska’s scallops are sick, and scientists are trying to figure out why. Alaska’s scallop fishery is a small one; in recent years it has included four boats, with just one operating in Kamishak Bay in Lower Cook Inlet. The rest operate out of Kodiak on grounds stretching from Yakutat to the Bering Sea. Most scallop beds straddle the three-nautical mile line between state and federal management areas, and the permit system is attached to vessels rather than to individuals, restricting the entire fishery to nine vessels total under the federal system. Together, their 10-year average landing poundage of shucked meats is about 383,000 pounds, for total value of about $4 million, according to a report submitted to the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council by its Scallop Plan Team. But in recent years, the fishermen have had to start tossing a lot back. When they pull them up, a lot show signs of degraded meat with brown spots and a stringy texture and will occasionally slip off the shells at the processor. The condition, called “weak meats,” results in a lot of waste in the scallop fishery, as processors aren’t interested in buying scallops with weak meats. “Weak meats are a very general term for the adductor muscles … being of a very low quality, very easy to tear,” said Quinn Smith, the Southeast Region fishery management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in a report to the council on April 5. “High prevalence in 2014, 2015 was somewhere on the order of half of all scallops shucked couldn’t be marketed. That was much higher than the fleet had ever seen before.” In response to increasing reports of infected scallops, ADFG observers on board scallop fishing vessels began collecting samples for evaluation. The observers took samples primarily from one area in 2014 and then spread to statewide sampling in 2015 to get an idea of how widespread the infection is. ADFG pathology labs turned about 82.2 percent of the scallops sent in with the presence of the parasite, called an apicomplexan parasite. The condition doesn’t seem to be harmful to humans, only to scallop meat quality, and not all scallops infected show the symptoms — it depends on the intensity of the infection, according to the pathology report. However, similar parasites in other scallop populations have caused trouble before. ADFG’s pathology report mentions that a similar parasite was found in Icelandic scallops and Atlantic sea scallops from the Atlantic waters of Canada and the U.S. No commercial fishing has been allowed on Iceland’s scallop stocks since 2003 because of concerns about the stock, and a 2015 paper published in the scientific journal PLOS One asserts that there is a strong correlation between the presence of the pathogen and mortality and sexual reproduction in the stocks, causing further decline. Intensity varies across the seven registration areas of Alaska, from very prevalent in the Bering Sea and Shelikof Strait near Kodiak to much less prevalent in the Yakutat area, Quinn said. Scallop catches have been declining somewhat, with more effort required to catch the same poundage. Some areas are doing better than others, with areas like Yakutat holding fairly steady while Shelikof Strait is much lower than it has been in the past, Quinn said in his report. However, ADFG staff don’t know enough yet to pin down whether the presence of the parasite is what’s causing declines. “Is this the explanation of what’s happened with the decline of the fishery? We don’t know,” Quinn said. “Is it a possibility that is going to continue to be followed up? Absolutely.” The scallop fishery isn’t overfished in Alaska, said Jim Armstrong, the plan coordinator for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and vice chair of the Scallop Plan Team. “We’re miles away from the overfishing limit,” he said. “That’s not really been an issue.” The North Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted the Scallop Plan Team’s proposed acceptable biological catch limit of 1.16 million pounds at its April 6 meeting in Anchorage. The discard mortality is accounted for within the managers’ recommendations, so the discards come out of the fishermen’s bottom lines, Quinn said. They deal with this by moving away from a scallop bed when the catch looks to be poor quality, he said. “We didn’t have any members of the scallop fleet at the meeting a couple of weeks ago, but they definitely are (concerned), and you see it in the fleet behavior,” he said. ADFG plans to continue researching the disease, but it depends on funding, Quinn said. The researchers in Alaska are also conversing with researchers on the East Coast looking into the parasite in scallops there. The pathology report submitted to the council recommends not discarding back into the sea on the fishing ground because the parasite seems to be directly transmissible from individual to individual. “However, this may not be practical or economically feasible without some incentive program,” the report states. “Treating the offal prior to discarding at sea could also be considered, but again this carries a cost.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Despite Trump overturning refuge hunting rules, conflict remains

Although Congress put an end to a set of federal restrictions on wildlife management on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, the underlying conflict is far from over. President Donald Trump signed a House Joint Resolution on Tuesday overturning a set of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulations enacted in 2016. The rule restricted certain hunting methods on national wildlife refuges in Alaska, with additional specific rules for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Under the rule, predator control activities were banned unless based on sound science and in response to a conservation concern or met refuge need. On the Kenai, additional public use restrictions went into place, including some plane and motorboat access, camping restrictions and requiring a permit for baiting black bears and prohibiting using a dog to hunt big game except black bears, among other rules. The state filed a lawsuit in January against the Department of the Interior over the Fish and Wildlife rules and another set of hunting restrictions set by the National Park Service in Alaska’s national preserves. The Safari Club International, a hunting organization, filed a similar lawsuit of its own about a week later. A few days after that, the Alaska Professional Hunting Association filed its own lawsuit over the same regulations. “Passage of this resolution reaffirms our state sovereignty, and the state’s authority to manage fish and wildlife statewide, including on federal public lands,” said Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth in a news release issued Tuesday. “Alaskans depend on wildlife for food. Reversal of these regulations will allow residents to continue their hunting and gathering traditions.” Despite the overturn, there’s still a sharp philosophical management disagreement between federal wildlife managers and state wildlife managers, and unless one side’s mandate changes, the disagreement will remain. Fish and Wildlife manages the national wildlife refuges for natural biological diversity, without promoting prey species over predators. Fish and Game, on the other hand, is mandated to manage for maximum sustained yield, which would provide enough harvestable animals to provide for hunters. The National Park Service protects the lands it manages and all the wildlife on them, prohibiting hunting entirely on national preserves. The part of the regulations still on the table, the National Park Service regulations, strongly affect rural hunting guides, hence the reason the Alaska Professional Hunters Association sued, said Thor Stacey, the registered lobbyist for the organization. Many of the group’s 300 members live in rural Alaska, where the economy is mixed cash and subsistence, and sustained hunting both for guided clients and for food purposes is important. Blocking hunting practices or not allowing the state to enact predator control to boost prey populations for sustainable yield impacts those groups, he said. Stacey said the group contests that by bypassing the state’s game management authority, the refuge and national park rules effectively amend the state’s constitution. “(The state constitution) is where you get the maximum sustained yield management rules,” he said. “Within (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act), it says nothing is supposed to modify or amend the state’s constitution. We argue that whrere the federal government steps in and imposes a foreign management philosophy, that actually effectively amends the state’s constitution.” The three agencies cooperate on management issues, but there have been times over the years when the Board of Game or Fish and Game crossed a line and trigged a reaction from the feds. A recent example was when the Board of Game authorized the taking of brown bears over bait on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said Board of Game chairman Ted Spraker. “We allowed the taking of brown bears over bait in 2013, and the refuge immediately said, ‘Not on the refuge,’” he said. “That hasn’t changed.” There are management tools built in, such as an overall quota for brown bears taken in the area before the season closes, he said. The refuge allows baiting for black bears in an area of Game Management Unit 15A but put brown bears off limits, which seemed inconsistent, he said. The National Park Service regulations are still in place, so the lawsuits will go on with those challenges, and the regulations on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge are still in place, so the Safari Club’s lawsuit will still challenge those. “It has more to do with not ceding authority to the federal systems compared to whether the department and the Board of Game will change things that we’re currently doing,” Spraker said. “I don’t see any major changes coming because of this, I think there will be a little more cooperation on some of the issues, but I don’t see the refuges embracing any sort of predator management because of this.” The overturning of the rule must be frustrating for the agency, though, said Michelle Sinnott, an attorney with environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, which represents a group of conservation organizations that petitioned to intervene in the three lawsuits and have been granted intervener status in the Safari Club and Alaska Professional Hunters Association lawsuits. “It’s maddening to a sense and I’m sure it’s very frustrating for federal agencies, because the Congressional Review Act takes a sledgehammer to agencies’ years of work and communications with the public and public noticing comment and meetings with people in the region,” she said. ANILCA has a role to play too. The act, passed in 1980, affected about 157 million acres of federal land in Alaska and changed management for others, including converting the Kenai National Moose Range into the current Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Its baseline principles include the provision of managing for natural diversity, and so even with the 2016 rules changed, with ANILCA still in place, the conflict still stands between federal management of wildlife on federal land and state sovereignty. “That question is still alive and well and we’ll be part of it now,” Sinnott said. “It’s great that our intervention was granted, because now there’s a whole host of Alaskan voices that will be heard in these cases.” Once the debate moved to the national level, the groups supporting Fish and Wildlife’s rule received support from members of Congress who saw problems with the rules themselves and with the state asserting its right to manage wildlife on federal lands, said Pat Lavin with the Alaska office of conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. “To have any state kind of challenge that and claim that the state has the right to do whatever it wants … I think plenty of members of Congress saw that right away and that was all the noise,” he said. “Unfortunately, we lost the vote anyway. There’s plenty of folks in Congress who understand that and aren’t crazy about it but were willing to undo this regulation.” Lavin agreed that ANILCA would help reinforce current management practices. Refuges around the country don’t always follow the strict state regulations, he said. “It is true, and not only in Alaska but around the whole country, that as a general proposition in managing refuge lands, the Fish and Wildlife Service defer at least initially to the place they’re in, in a given refuge,” he said. “That’s kind of the default position, but on top of that, the refuge does things all the time that are specific to the refuge and may or may not be consistent with state regulations.” Spraker said he was optimistic that with the new federal administration, a new Department of the Interior director and a new Alaska regional supervisor of the Fish and Wildlife Service, state and federal managers could collaborate on management more. “I don’t think this is going to make a major change in how we do business, but I do think it’s going to increase the level of collaboration between the state and federal agencies,” he said. “And with new leadership, I think that will lend itself toward cooperation with the state.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

North Pacific council takes first step in creating salmon plan

A lot of new faces are coming to the table at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, and not a lot of them are happy about it. Fishermen who had never previously been involved with the council now have to show up to have a hand in how their fisheries will be incorporated into a federal fishery management plan, or FMP. The council, which regulates federal fisheries off the coast of Alaska, on April 6 started in on the topic of the salmon plan for Cook Inlet, part of the Alaska Peninsula and part of Prince William Sound near Cordova. After removing the three areas from the plan by amendment in 2011, effectively exempting them from federal oversight and delegating entirely to the state despite occurring partially in federal waters, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the move was illegal. Now, the council is having to initiate the process of revising the salmon FMP to include the three areas, which is likely to take years. The State of Alaska is appealing the decision with a petition to the Supreme Court, but the court has not decided whether to take up the case yet. At the April 6 meeting, the council — which didn’t agree with the court’s decision but has to start addressing it anyway — got into the complex questions the plan will have to answer. The council didn’t make an attempt to answer any of the questions at the meeting April 6, but passed a motion solidifying the preliminary purpose and need, a number of alternatives and forming a stakeholder workgroup, which would decide its scope and agenda at future meetings. The motion will require council staff to focus on those questions to bring a more thorough analysis back to the council. The stakeholder committee, or committees, will not be formed until after the council gets its next review of the topic. One of the first hurdles is that the council doesn’t usually regulate directed salmon fisheries. As anadromous fish, most salmon are harvested within three nautical miles of shore in terminal fisheries, which are in the state’s jurisdiction. However, under the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the council is required to manage harvested species throughout their ranges. For salmon, that would include state waters and potentially in-river fisheries, where essential salmon habitat is found. The council wrangled with the question of whether they could preempt state management, which is provided for in law, at the meeting April 6. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration legal counsel Lauren Smoker clarified that legal precedent says the council wouldn’t be able to preempt state management in internal waters, which puts in-river management off limits. The state waters near shore, though, may be a different story. Another part of the conundrum is setting criteria for overfishing. The Magnuson-Stevens Act requires the council to set accountability measures to meet the 10 sustainability criteria that are set out in the law, but the parameters of those are based on species and subject to evaluation by NOAA. For salmon stocks, management is based on the state’s analysis and setting of escapement goals, which are in-river and based on state data. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the trade group that sued to have the amendment removing the net areas overturned, argued that the state was not meeting Magnuson-Stevens Act sustainability criteria and needed to be held to federal oversight at the North Pacific Fishery Management Council level. In its comments submitted before the meeting, UCIDA said it was not opposed to the state’s escapement goal management, and state day-to-day management of openings and closures may be more effective than federal management, which can be slower. UCIDA Vice President Erik Huebsch said the group wants to see the state held accountable to the sustainability criteria and the fishermen get the opportunity to harvest surplus salmon in Cook Inlet to prevent overescapement. “We see problems in Cook Inlet, both with habitat problems and management problems,” he said. “…We would like to harvest these stocks for (maximum sustained yield), but for various reasons, we don’t really get to do that.” Cook Inlet’s fisheries are a tug-of-war when they come up before the state’s Board of Fisheries. In late February and early March, stakeholdes and the board met for 14 days to hash out regulations for the area’s sport, personal use and commercial fisheries, with hundreds of comments and sometimes hours of discussion on a single topic. Ricky Gease, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, asked the council to consider the effects on in-river sport and personal use fishermen, who sustain a massive sportfishing and tourism industry in Southcentral Alaska. He said the group supported the council deferring as much management to the state as possible and suggested restrictions like limiting the number of openings in the federal waters and a genetic project on sockeye salmon harvested in federal waters to protect depressed Northern Cook Inlet stocks. “Though this salmon FMP will impact three areas, Cook Inlet definitely has some unique features to it, and it’s the most complex management system for salmon in the state,” he said. Two groups representing the fishermen in the other two districts affected by the lawsuit openly said they had been fine with state management and didn’t want to be involved — Concerned Area M Fishermen and the Cordova District Fishermen United. Huebsch said UCIDA didn’t want the other groups to have to be dragged into it, either, but it was part of the process. The Concerned Area M Fishermen are catching up with the process now that they’ve been pulled into it, but don’t want much to change, said Steve Brown, the president of Concerned Area M Fishermen. “Our perspective is that the state is the proper management for the fishery,” he said. Federal management comes with other requirements such as vessel observers, who watch commercial fishery bycatch. Electronic monitoring systems for bycatch are in the works, but for now, most observers are still people stationed on boats. Huebsch said the Cook Inlet fishery had had observers before and could accommodate them, but the Prince William Sound fishermen would be very inconvenienced, said Jerry McCune, the president of Cordova District Fishermen United. “It’s going to be very disruptive for our fleet,” he said. “…We want out of this FMP. And how we do that, if we can get out of this and go to state management, we’d be happy.”

State launches review of Premera’s finances

After the state’s sole individual market health care insurance provider posted a higher than expected profit this year, the Alaska Division of Insurance launched an investigation into the company’s financials. Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska is the last health insurance company standing on the state’s federally facilitated individual insurance marketplace, where Alaskans who don’t get employer-sponsored health insurance or qualify for public options like Medicare or Medicaid can purchase insurance. Despite struggling with the small number of consumers in Alaska and the exceptionally high cost of doing business, the company posted an $18 million profit in 2016, according to its yearly financials. That was much higher than the expected margin, so the Division of Insurance announced its intention to investigate the company’s financial reports for the last three years in a release March 30. “As soon as the Division of Insurance was made aware of Premera’s higher than expected net income for 2016, we began verifying the company’s financial statements,” said Division of Insurance Director Lori Wing-Heier in the release. “While we have not uncovered anything out of the ordinary, we are doing our due diligence — early this month I ordered a financial examination to independently verify what we’ve been told.” The state has hired Johnson Lambert, a multi-state accounting and auditing firm, to perform the examination and expects it to be finished by May, according to a fact sheet released with the announcement. Premera is based in Washington. While that state does its own examinations, Wing-Heier said in an interview that she felt the financials merited more review. The state should have a good understanding of its insurers, she said. “That’s exactly why we’re going in and looking at these things ourselves,” she said. Part of the discrepancy may have been based on timing. Part of the federal Affordable Care Act provides for reimbursements between insurance companies based on how many high-risk patients they have, and Premera had more of the market share of the high-risk patients than Moda Health, which left Alaska’s individual insurance market effective Jan. 1, 2017 after prolonged financial trouble. Because of the timing of the transfers from 2014 and 2015, they were recorded on the 2016 financials, which pushed up the numbers for 2016, said Steve Kipp, the vice president of corporate communications for Premera. The program, coordinated by the federal government, is meant to balance out the market between companies, he said. “What happens if you have companies like Premera, typically Blue Cross Blue Shield companies take on much more risk,” he said. “People who are sicker tend to go with Blue Cross Blue Shield. They tend to go to us when they really need help. When they’re looking for more savings, they go to a different plan.” Premera has lost millions in the Alaska individual insurance market over the last three years — about $7.7 million, Kipp said. Alaska is a small, volatile market, so it’s important to look at multiple years of a company’s performance before drawing conclusions, he said. “That’s why these numbers are really confusing and, I think, a little misleading,” he said. Premera had about 5,000 individual market customers at the end of 2016, Kipp said in an email. That’s compared to about 200,000 customers in the Washington individual market in the same time period, he said. The company’s rates depend on enrollment and claims over time, and so if there are fewer customers and more expensive claims, rates will go up. Studies across the nation have also identified a trend known as super-utilizers — patients who account for a disproportionately large percentage of the claims in a market. For Premera, 33 individual market members in Alaska in the first half of 2014 accounted for $7 million in claims, or more than a third of the total claims costs for all individual members, he said in the email. In some ways, there is a line that the state is working with — regulators want to make sure the company is following the rules but doesn’t want to lose its only insurer. “There is a line,” Wing-Heier said. “That being said, we don’t want to be without any insurer, but we also think as the regulator, as the state, we have to have an understanding for ourselves.” On the note of the higher-than-expected net income, both Wing-Heier and Kipp said it’s not necessarily a bad sign. The company has to prove its stability to keep participating in the market each year, both where it’s based in Washington and with Alaska should the Division of Insurance choose to review its finances, Wing-Heier said. Despite financial challenges, Premera is committed to staying in Alaska, Kipp said. The company talks with regulators and the state administration frequently and supports several principals, including creating incentives for people to purchase insurance, creating a stable market, providing financial assistance and allowing states to pursue their own innovations. In Alaska last year, one innovation was to pass a reinsurance bill to allow Premera to keep its rates lower than its original projected increase. It’s hard to say what the effect of the reinsurance bill will be, as they only have a few weeks of data — the bill went into effect Jan. 1, 2017 — but the primary effect will be on the premium rates rather than profits, Kipp said. “We had a 7.3 percent rate increase this year,” he said. “Without reinsurance, we were looking at a 42 percent rate increase, had reinsurance not been enacted for 2017. It had a big effect on rates.” The other wild card in the conversation is the uncertainty of health care regulations at the federal level. Had the GOP’s American Health Care Act passed, it would have meant significant changes for the state’s Medicaid enrollees and thus for individual market insurers. If things stay the same as they are now, the state is hoping to address some of the overarching concerns about the sky-high costs of health care in the state, Wing-Heier said. A feasibility study on creating a statewide Health Care Authority is due out in June, which she said may lead to legislation for the 2018 legislative session. “If (things stay the same), we’re feeling pretty positive that maybe we can start addressing some of the cost of health care, with providers (involved),” she said. “…Red, blue, it doesn’t matter, if we start to see talks again where the market becomes upset, then it’s a different question.” Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Federal council forced back into Cook Inlet salmon fray

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council will open up a process next week that will likely take years to redesign the Cook Inlet salmon fishery management plan. A federal appeals court decided last fall that the council, which oversees all federal fisheries management in the North Pacific between 3 and 200 nautical miles offshore — known as the United States Exclusive Economic Zone — has to craft a management plan for the salmon fishery. The council decided in 2011 to hand over several of Alaska’s salmon fisheries to state managers by removing them from the existing fishery management plan, and though an Alaska U.S. District judge ruled that it was legal in 2014, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed the decision this past September. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is tentatively scheduled to hear the first discussion paper prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service on what the plan could look like and how they should proceed during the council’s meeting April 6 in Anchorage. The federal rulemaking process can take multiple years, so the council will have to reach a working plan to allow the fisheries to operate for the 2017 season before moving forward with a finalized fishery management plan. How did we get here? The disagreement over the salmon FMP traces its roots as far back as 2007, when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, also known as the MSA, was amended to include a number of criteria for managing fisheries. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council began reviewing its various fishery management plans that year to bring them into compliance, but left the Cook Inlet salmon plan until 2011, a year before the 2012 deadline set out in the reauthorized MSA. In 2011, the council voted to remove the Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Alaska Peninsula-area salmon fisheries from the federal FMP, deferring to state management. The main thrust of the updates was to bring the plans into compliance with the act’s national standards for sustainable fisheries, including accountability measures to prevent overfishing. When the council voted 11-0 to remove the fisheries from the FMP, it determined that the state was meeting those standards. A Cook Inlet commercial fishing group, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, disagreed with that. The group argued that the state’s management, which is based on escapement goals, leads to large unharvested surpluses and overescapement into freshwater systems in Cook Inlet, which is not consistent with sustainable fisheries and national standards. The group sued in January 2013, challenging the amendment to the salmon FMP, known as Amendment 12. Though Alaska U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Burgess initially rejected the suit, UCIDA appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, where a panel of three federal judges ruled in favor of the group and sent the case back to Burgess with the instruction that the council can delegate management authority to the state, but the state has to manage within the criteria of a federal plan. “The panel held that the National Marine Fisheries Service cannot exempt a fishery under its authority that required conservation and management from and FMP because the agency is content with state management,” the decision states. “The (Magnuson-Stevens Act) requires a regional fishery management council to create an FMP for each fishery under its authority that requires conservation and management.” What does the plan have to include? The Magnuson-Stevens Act sets out 10 criteria for sustainable fisheries management, as follows: 1. Management for optimum yield from each fishery while preventing overfishing 2. Management based on best scientific information available 3. Management for each individual stock of fish throughout its range 4. Non-discriminatory allocation among U.S. commercial fishermen 5. Efficiency 6. Consideration of variations and contingencies in fisheries, fishery resources and catches 7. Minimize costs and avoid unnecessary duplication 8. Consider the importance of fisheries to communities and, to the extent practicable, provide for sustained participation in communities and minimize adverse economic impacts to them 9. Minimize bycatch and minimize mortality of bycatch 10. Promote human safety at sea The council has to amend the salmon FMP to include the three areas exempted by Amendment 12 and manage them to meet the criteria. According to a discussion paper released in preparation for the council’s meeting, the first step is to develop alternatives for managing the three areas, followed by options to address the criteria not currently set out in the FMP. The discussion paper suggests forming a committee to deal with developing options. “If the council decides to delegate specific management measures to the State to use existing State salmon management to the extent possible the Council would need to identify those management functions that would be delegated and how the delegation would operate,” the discussion paper states. The court case isn’t entirely over yet. The State of Alaska, which intervened against UCIDA’s on the side of the National Marine Fisheries Service, filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 27 to hear the case. In the petition, the state wrote that the National Marine Fisheries Service agrees the three areas would be worse off managed under a federal plan. “The Ninth Circuit held that the Magnuson Stevens Act forecloses (escapement goal-based management) and requires that the fisheries be managed under an FMP with annual catch limits,” the petition states. “NMFS agrees that managing the fisheries with catch limits increases the risk of over- and under-harvesting salmon. Whether salmon are over or under-harvested, the result is the same: fewer salmon in years to come.” The Supreme Court hasn’t decided whether to hear the case yet. In any case, the council is moving forward with the process as if the 9th Circuit’s decision is the last word, said Jim Armstrong, plan coordinator with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. “Since that’s kind of up the air, we’re dealing with the circuit court finding as final, and as such, we need to amend the FMP,” he said. UCIDA initially requested that the U.S. District Court of Alaska vacate Amendment 12 and reinstate the old FMP, but the group does support escapement goal-based management versus annual catch limits. In its comments submitted to the council for the upcoming meeting, the group requests that the council form a committee to help develop options for a salmon FMP and include UCIDA members in the process. The group wants the fishery to managed as a unit throughout salmon species’ ranges, according to its comments. “To be clear, this does not mean that the Council is required to take over the State’s job or preempt state fishery management,” the comments state. “Rather it means that the Council, through the FMP, has to set the standards for this fishery based on the requirements of the MSA and its 10 national standards. Whether the State is ultimately willing to voluntarily meet those standards is a separate question, as is the potential need for preemption if the state does not meet those standards.” Implications for the other salmon fisheries? Though UCIDA was the group the brought the lawsuit, it wasn’t the only salmon fishery affected by Amendment 12. The move also removed the salmon fisheries in Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula from the FMP. The fishermen in the Alaska Peninsula area aren’t too happy about being pulled into the lawsuit, said Steve Brown, the president of the Concerned Area M Fishermen, which represents commercial fishermen who fish in the Alaska Peninsula management area. “Out there, we don’t have any of the issues that the Cook Inlet guys have been complaining about,” he said. “That’s not an issue for us. We feel like we’re kind of getting dragged into this and we’re getting up to speed.” The Alaska Peninsula fishermen don’t have an axe to grind with state management — in general, they’ve been pretty happy with it, Brown said. With the future of the plan thrown into question, however, the Alaska Peninsula fishermen will have to jump into the North Pacific Fishery Management Council process, he said. That means travel costs, attorney’s fees and time investment into reading through the lawsuit and discussion paperwork, he said. They’re also concerned about the potential for the implementation of annual catch limits, which are a regular management tools in other federal fisheries. To meet the Magnuson-Stevens Act criterion of preventing overfishing, the FMP has to determine standards for annual catch limits, a less flexible system than the escapement goal system, according to NMFS’ discussion paper. The Concerned Area M Fishermen plan to advocate for a plan that keeps management as close to what exists now as possible, Brown said. Annual catch limits and having to incorporate standards from the Endangered Species Act, which are involved in other West Coast fisheries, would make the fishery more complex, he said. “In some respects, (the annual catch limits) provision is trying to pound a square peg into a round hole,” Brown said. “It doesn’t really match up with the life history of salmon. That’s going to be a really tough issue to deal with, when the council starts looking at catch limits and how that concept would apply to salmon fisheries.” ^ Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

Graphite mining company considering plant on peninsula

Kenai, Homer and Seward are up for consideration as sites for a new graphite processing plant. A Vancouver-based company is working on plans to develop Alaska’s sole graphite find, located on the Seward Peninsula about 37 miles north of Nome. Part of the development plan includes a value-added manufacturing facility to process the raw graphite from the mine into coated spherical graphite for lithium-ion electric vehicles batteries and other products. The company is still selecting a site for the manufacturing facility, though it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to consider locations in Alaska for the plant in February, according to a news release from the company. Of the four communities currently under consideration, three are on the Kenai Peninsula, said Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District Executive Director Tim Dillon at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s meeting March 21. “What we’re trying to do is make sure the product doesn’t go from Nome down to the state of Washington to get processed and then over to Asia,” he said. “What we want is we want it to stay in Alaska.” Dillon said the plant would bring 150 new jobs to the peninsula, if one of the cities is selected. It’s still early, but there could be a variety of jobs available, he said. There may more workforce training and planning needed if Graphite One Resources chooses a location on the peninsula, he said, such as housing in Homer and Seward. AIDEA is working with the company to select a site. The final choice will take a number of factors into consideration, including sufficient industrial land, electrical infrastructure to power the plant and industry infrastructure like a port and dock with shallow-draft barge access and potential need for access for lager vessels that would bring in processing materials, wrote AIDEA External Affairs Officers Karsten Rodvik in an email. “Nearby road and rail access, as well as storage silos on-site for incoming material and finished product round out the infrastructure requirements,” he wrote. The Kenai area, with its multiple oil support docks to the north, has long been a center for heavy industry in Southcentral Alaska. With the recent decline in oil prices and production, multiple longstanding oil companies have also scaled back operations or withdrawn, including the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. shuttering its fabrication facility and ConocoPhillips seeking to sell its LNG export facility. However, Homer and Seward have been building their industrial capacity in recent years. A consulting firm is wrapping up a feasibility study for Homer to expand its deep water dock, which serves fishing vessels, cruise ships, oil drilling jack-up rigs and other large vessels. The multi-million dollar project has not taken a final direction yet, and the Homer City Council has a variety of options to choose from in expanding the dock. Seward, meanwhile, has been expanding and improving its Seward Marine Industrial Center on the east side of Resurrection Bay, which also serves heavy vessels and oil drilling rigs. The goal is to expand its capacity for large vessels, including the cruise ships that arrive in Seward all summer, bringing thousands of tourists. In October 2016, the city and multiple partners — including AIDEA — finished a study on upland development at the industrial center, allowing for further business development at the site. The city is also finishing up work on its breakwater there to provide more shelter from swell and wake action, according to the upland development study. Dillon told the assembly the consideration of the three cities is a good sign for the peninsula, whether or not the company ultimately chooses to build its plant here. “My hope is that just having three qualified communities, whether this work outs or not, it’s showing people that, ‘Hey, the Kenai Peninsula is looking to be diverse with different things, and they want to work,’” he said. Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected]

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