A ballot measure to protect salmon in Southwest hasn’t grabbed as many headlines as pot and campaign politics. Ballot Measure 4, sponsored by the group Bristol Bay Forever, asks voters to give the Alaska Legislature final say on any large oil, gas and mining projects in the 36,000 square miles of the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve.
The initiative does three significant things to the existing reserve, said Dick Mylius, a former state director for the Division of Mining, Land, and Water.
“It adds large-scale metallic mines to things requiring legislative approval, it broadens the geographic area to include the entire drainage including uplands, and it also applies to state, private and federal lands within the reserve,” Mylius said at a recent forum hosted by Alaska Common Ground in Dillingham.
I must admit that U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan achieved something I have been trying to accomplish as a fisheries writer for more than a quarter of a century: he gave long legs to media stories about Alaska’s fisheries and, more importantly, attracted unparalleled recognition of the seafood industry nationwide.
How did that come about for a fractious industry that bemoans a la comedian Rodney Dangerfield — “I don’t get no respect?”
When Sullivan’s campaign announced he would not attend a traditional Kodiak fisheries debate scheduled with all U.S. Senate candidates in late May, he said it was due to a military obligation. Then, after winning the August primary, and despite months of advance notice, Sullivan’s campaign abruptly brushed off a fisheries face-off against incumbent Sen. Mark Begich set for Oct. 1. Dan had no other commitment, his manager said, his travel schedule was just “too busy.”
Alaska’s conservative management, combined with the grace of Mother Nature, is swelling the abundance of two of the state’s largest and most important fisheries.
Bering Sea crab scientists and stakeholders met last week to discuss the outlook for Alaska’s biggest crab fisheries that open Oct. 15. The take away was that the stocks of red king crab, bairdi Tanners and snow crab all showed big increases in mature size classes, based on data from the annual summer surveys. (Only mature male crabs cans be retained in Alaska’s crab fisheries.)
The lure of reaching a statewide audience was too much for U.S. Senate hopeful Dan Sullivan to pass up. He will be at the Oct. 1 Kodiak fisheries debate after all.
Sullivan was able to reshuffle a packed travel schedule to fit in the fisheries event, said Ben Sparks, campaign manager. Sullivan initially was going to be in Bethel on a multi-day swing through Southwest Alaska during the time of the Kodiak event.
“Dan recognizes the importance of Alaska’s fisheries, and our campaign has rescheduled our southwest swing to ensure that Dan could make the debate. He looks forward to a healthy exchange of ideas with Mark Begich on the future of Alaska’s fisheries, and is excited to attend the debate in Kodiak,” his campaign said in a prepared statement.
Since 1990, the fisheries debates have been an election year tradition and have always attracted 100 percent participation by leading candidates. The debates are limited to one topic: Alaska’s seafood industry.
“Surprised and disappointed” was the reaction by Senator Mark Begich upon learning his opponent Dan Sullivan has bowed out of an Oct. 1 fisheries debate in Kodiak. It is the second time this year that Sullivan has declined to participate in the Chamber of Commerce event that has been an election year tradition since 1990.
“I can’t recall a time that a candidate has not participated in the Kodiak debate,” Begich said as he readied to head back to DC on Friday. “It’s a must-do for statewide candidates. It’s not an option. It’s clear he doesn’t have the same Alaska values as we do when it comes to our fisheries, and I think he is doing an incredible disservice to Alaskans.”
Sullivan campaign manager Ben Sparks told debate organizers that Sullivan does not have a prior commitment keeping him from the fisheries debate, but that “he is just too busy with all the traveling he is doing.” The two-hour debate is broadcast live to more than 330 Alaska communities.
More than 100 researchers and three dozen projects are underway to find clues as to why Alaska’s Chinook salmon production has declined since 2007.
The ambitious effort marks the start of a state-backed, five-year, $30 million Chinook Salmon Research Initiative that includes 12 major river systems from Southeast Alaska to the Yukon. And while it will be years before the project yields definitive data, the scientists have pinned down some early findings.
“It’s not the fresh water production of the juvenile Chinook that is the reason this decline is occurring, it’s being driven by poor marine survival,” said Ed Jones, the lead for the Initiative and Sport Fish Coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “We don’t know why, but once these juvenile Chinook salmon are entering the ocean, they are not surviving at the rates they once did.”
Seafood is by far Alaska’s top export, and as it heads overseas, global politics play a big role in making sales sink or swim. That dynamic took center stage last week when Russia banned imports of foods for one year from the U.S., Canada, Europe, Norway and Australia in retaliation for sanctions imposed due to its aggressive actions in Ukraine.
It is a direct hit to Alaska, which last year exported nearly 20 million pounds of seafood to Russia, valued at more than $60 million. The primary product it hurts is pink and chum salmon roe; Russia is also a growing market for Alaska pollock surimi.
“After Japan, Russia is our largest market for salmon roe,” explained Alexa Tonkovich, International Program Director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). “Japan takes about $125 million worth of salmon roe and Russia takes about $46 million (more than 7 million pounds).
As millions of Fraser River sockeye salmon head for spawning beds polluted by a brew of metal toxins oozing from the Mount Polley gold/copper mine disaster in British Columbia, Republican candidates vying for U.S. Senate want environmental regulators to butt out of Alaska’s mining development decisions.
The three men hoping to unseat Mark Begich faced off last week for a Rural Alaska Republican Candidates forum hosted by KYUK/Bethel.
To questions posed by moderator Ben Matheson, candidates Joe Miller, Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan all slammed the Environmental Protection Agency for its plans to impose strict water requirements aimed at blocking the proposed Pebble Mine. Each candidate also agreed with legislation recently introduced in the Senate (by Murkowski and two other senators) that says the EPA cannot use its authority under the Clean Water Act “pre-emptively or retroactively.”
Fishermen won’t need special permits to hose off their decks, thanks to a bill moving through the U.S. Senate. That’s garnered a big sigh of relief from harvesters across the nation, and kudos to a rare show of bipartisanship by coastal lawmakers; notably Senators Begich of Alaska and Marco Rubio of Florida.
“The Vessel Incidental Discharge Act extends a moratorium that was already granted to the commercial fishing industry from 2008,” explained Brett Veerhusen, executive director of Seafood Harvesters of America. Verrhusen has been watch-dogging the discharge bill that comes up every couple of years. “It would extend this moratorium indefinitely so commercial fishing vessels don’t have to apply for a ridiculous discharge permit every time rain falls onto your deck and flows overboard. That’s incidental discharge to the normal operation of a vessel. So it just cuts the red tape that fishermen would have to incur.”
Nowhere in the world do people have more say in shaping fisheries policy than in Alaska. While the outcomes might get mixed rants and reviews, no one is ever denied the chance to state ideas, concerns and gripes to decision-makers.
Several opportunities are available right now:
First off, a revised draft of the Magnuson-Stevens Act was just released for public review and comment. The MSA is the primary federal law that governs all fisheries management in U.S. waters; it is undergoing reauthorization targeted for completion at the end of this year. Comments will be taken until the bill moves through the Senate to the full Congress for final action. Find more information at the Department of Commerce website.