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Tusty not so trusty, say Southwest communities

April 20th, 2017 | Dave Bendinger, KDLG Print this article   Email this article  

Delayed sailing (again) this spring is creating hardships and added costs for communities ahead of a summer swell of activity and fishing.

The Department of Transportation announced this month that the M/V Tustamena would be delayed getting back into service, citing repairs underway at a Ketchikan shipyard.

"Every spring we take the Tustamena in for regular inspection and work," said DOT spokesperson Meadow Bailey. "This year the return to service is delayed because of some steel that needs to be replaced, which is taking longer than anticipated."

The "Trusty Tusty" will now leave Ketchikan on May 23, according to the state, and begin its summer service with a run from Homer to Seldovia on May 27. That is several weeks later than anticipated, and the state acknowledges the headaches this will create.

"There are communities where this is the regular vessel, and there's not a replacement. So when she's out of service, it has a huge impact," Bailey said.

One of those communities is Chignik Bay, which is finishing construction of a new $11 million dock that was built to keep its link to the state's marine highway system. The city council has directed the mayor to send a letter to Governor Walker citing their displeasure with this delay, which Mayor Alana Anderson says follows a recent pattern.

"Around, I think it was 2013, we started seeing more and more delays. What used to be a May travel to the Chigniks has now turned in to June or July," she said this week. "It's really put a hardship on all the families that are coming back into the remote areas here in Chignik and along the Chain."

The stop at Chignik Bay is used primarily by the three Chignik villages, plus Perryville and Port Heiden. Anderson says transportation on the Tusty is a vital piece of the summer salmon fishery, and this late sailing will be costly.

"One of the biggest things for the fishermen is the fact that they aren't able to get all their supplies and their food brought in at a reasonable, affordable price," said Anderson. "Even families coming in, airfare to Chignik is $645 ... so if you have a family of four, that's almost $3,000 just to bring a family in."

By comparison a fare from Homer to Chignik on the ferry is just under $200, a third the cost of airfare from Anchorage on the most reliable local carrier.

The new dock project became the priority of the Lake and Peninsula Borough after a bridge to Nondalton was nixed by local opposition. Construction on the new facility began last year and is nearly complete. It was an essential upgrade after the state threatened not to tie up to the older dock owned by Trident Seafoods, which would have cut the service to Chignik.

"When the weather is really nasty or the wind is blowing, that dock from Trident is kind of unstable," said Anderson. "It's been very hit and miss with the ferry, and several times the ferry had to go by Chignik due to the weather and the condition of the dock."

Lake and Pen officials were planning a special event to cut a ribbon on the new dock in mid-May when the Tustamena made her first stop in Chignik this year. That event has been delayed, if not now canceled, on account of its timing to salmon fishing in the region.

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