Alaska News Nightly: November 17, 2011

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UAF Professors Educates Senators About Carbon Dioxide Effects on Fish, Crab

Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC

Senators representing states that border America’s oceans heard a warning on Thursday about carbon dioxide and how it could have a deadly effect on valuable fish and crab stocks.  They heard it from a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor invited to Washington to share his research.

Environments, Alaska Native Groups Challenge Salazar’s Chukchi Lease Sale Conclusion

Associated Press

Alaska Native and environmental groups are back in court challenging Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s conclusion that a 2008 petroleum lease sale in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast meets federal environmental law.

Shell Gulf of Mexico Inc. spent $2.1 billion on Chukchi leases and hopes to drill during the open water season next summer.

Salazar last month said the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management had corrected flaws noted by a federal judge in a lawsuit.

Earthjustice attorney Erik Grafe says in a prepared statement that federal scientists acknowledge big gaps in what they know about Arctic Ocean basic features.

Grafe says Salazar has incorrectly concluded he didn’t need the information to open the Chukchi to petroleum development.

An Interior spokeswoman says the department would have no comment.

800 Still Without Power on Kenai Peninsula

Shaylon Cochran, KBBI – Homer

Damaging winds earlier this week knocked power out for nearly 10,000 customers around the Central Kenai Peninsula.  Crews were still at work Thursday to bring the grid back online.

Fairbanks Sets Another Daily Low Temperature Record

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Fairbanks has set another daily low temperature record earlier Thursday.  National Weather Service technician Allura Wiemer says the thermometer at the airport hit 41 below zero.

Fairbanks also set a daily low temperature record Tuesday, and just missed a record Wednesday.  There could be more record breaking days ahead, as the forecast through Monday calls for 25 to 40 below zero lows.  National Weather Service meteorologist Ray Little says the cold is the result of a ridge of high pressure that’s pulling in arctic air, and there’s minimal relief in sight.

Little says higher elevations are warmer as an inversion sinks the coldest air into valleys.  He says it’s hard to predict how big the temperature spread will be day to day, but the inversion is strong.

Extreme cold means more wood, coal and oil burning, upping fine particulate pollution at ground level. The Fairbanks North Star Borough has issued alerts due to declining air quality.

Ahmaogak Contesting North Slope Election Results

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

George Ahmaogak is contesting the outcome of the special run-off election for North Slope Borough Mayor.  Charlotte Brower won the election, the final tally was 1,022 to 960.

Ahmaogak filed his notice on Tuesday the same day Brower took office. He lists seven grounds for contesting the election including missing ballots and recording discrepancies.

“There are inconsistencies and irregularities in the whole process and the final numbers kept changing every day, different versions every day and it just doesn’t balance out,” Ahmaogak said.

Ahmaogak’s campaign contends the election should not have been certified until the discrepancies were cleared up.  On his campaign website, Ahmaogak says, “I don’t have reasonable faith and confidence the voter’s will is upheld.” He says he’s not convinced all the votes were counted.

The Borough Clerk did not agree to a recorded interview. The new Borough Attorney also refused to be recorded but said she is assembling an independent team to investigate the election results.

APOC Rejects Treadwell Settlement

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau

The Alaska Public Offices Commission late Thursday rejected a Consent agreement announced this morning between the commission’s staff and Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell.   The staff had filed a complaint of campaign finance violations that stemmed from irregularities found in its review of year-end financial reports filed for the 2010 election cycle.

Associate Staff Attorney Martha Tansik said the sticking point was in the value of services provided to Treadwell.  APOC’s staff was not able to determine whether charges for an individual’s editing and marketing skills were commercially reasonable or were a blatant violation of law.

This morning’s settlement – already signed by Treadwell and APOC Executive Director Paul Dauphinais — would have required Treadwell to pay a total of $6,704 – part of that amount as fines for not disclosing errors and part as the cost of APOC’s staff time in investigating the complaint.  The rejection by the full commission sends the complaint back to the staff for further investigation, to determine the exact status of the issues that were initially questioned.

BC Power Line Spurs Transboundary Development

Rosemarie Alexander, KTOO – Juneau

Alaska and Canadian scientists are among a large group of experts hoping to convince the British Columbia government to study the cumulative impacts of proposed development in the transboundary region.

In a letter sent Tuesday to B.C. Premier Christy Clark, 36 scientists say   industrialization spurred by construction of B.C. Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line threatens the area.

Fairbanks Passes Resolution Encouraging Industrial Hemp Production

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fairbanks City Council passed a resolution Monday night encouraging the legalization of industrial hemp production.   Growing hemp is illegal under federal law because the plant is a relative of marijuana.  City Council member Lloyd Hilling sponsored the resolution to support hemp as a viable agricultural crop for Alaska. Hilling told the council hemp has lot of valuable uses.

“It’s fibers for a myriad of cloth-type products and rope and canvas, and of course the seeds for oils that are used in a bunch of different food and even potentially for fuel. And then the hurds, the center of the stalk which is an extraordinarily good fuel. It competes with wood,” Hilling said.

Hilling says hemp is grown at similar latitudes in Canada, and the United States is the world’s largest hemp importer.  During public testimony, Lance Roberts questioned the council’s consideration of the hemp cultivation resolution, considering no farming is likely to happen in the city.

“I don’t really think this is city business, I don’t think this is anything that the city should be involved in. This has nothing to do with the city,” Roberts said.

Roberts said legalization of hemp growing is an attempt to get a foot in the door by people who really want to grow marijuana.  Hilling countered that the crops are very different, and said that development of hemp agriculture in the broader region would lead to jobs and wealth that would benefit the city of Fairbanks.  Hilling’s resolution urging the state to petition the federal government to legalize industrial hemp production passed the council on a 4 to 1 vote.  Council member Bernard Gatewood, who directs Fairbanks Youth Detention Facility, was the only no vote, saying he couldn’t take the political risk because hemp is associated with marijuana.

Bristol Bay Season Echoes Derby Days

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

10 years ago a Bristol Bay red king crab fisherman could head out for three or four days and come home with a year’s salary in his pocket.

After the fishery was rationalized, it seemed unlikely that was ever going to happen again.  Until this year.

When the season started, things weren’t looking good for Bristol Bay.  The quota was cut by 47 percent this year and the pre-season abundance survey showed a continued decline in crab stocks.  Some crabbers were predicting this would be the last opener for at least a few years. But as the season progressed, things started looking better.

To start with, fishermen pulled up a lot more red king in each pot this year than in recent seasons.  The three-year average is 20 legal crabs per pot.  This year’s preliminary number is 32 or almost 40 percent more.

Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Heather Fitch says it’s hard to say why the catch rate was so much higher.

“I really wouldn’t want to speculate on that.  It could be that crab were just in areas where they weren’t in previous years – I heard that from a few members of the fleet – which could have to do with the temperature over the summer.  It could have to do with maybe the population is doing better than we thought.  There’s a lot of things that play into it that I really couldn’t speculate as to why we’re getting such high catch rates this year.”

Captain John Hansen says he did notice boats were finding crab in places they hadn’t before, but cautioned that the reduced quota is probably padding the numbers.

“If everybody was catching twice as much, I’m sure by the end of that it would look pretty skinny.”

Bill Prout is skipper of the Silver Spray.  He says the area he fished seemed to have an abundance of crab, even with multiple vessels picking it over.

“We set pots back four times and still had good catch rate in them.  And some other boats fished in that area, left and new ones came in and still had good fishing.  So it just looked like there was a good abundance of crab.”

It might be hard to say how much influence the reduced quota had on the catch rate, but it had a pretty straightforward impact on the price.

Crab broker Rob George says the final dock price is going to be around ten dollars and fifty cents per pound.  That’s almost three dollars more than last year and a new record for the fishery.  That would seem like a good thing, but skipper Bill Prout says the higher prices make him nervous.

“You know, it’s always nice to see a high price, but there’s always some repercussion.  Gets things too out of line and it just kind of throws the balance of things off, I believe.”

Balance is something crabbers talk about a lot these days, both in terms of money and fish.  Here’s captain John Hansen again.

“Ultimately, the bottom line is that the way this fishery is run now, that everybody is vested in this industry and they want to look after it so we can fish every year and not go to this boom and bust cycle like it used to be years ago.”

That balance can be a hard thing to achieve with a dynamic resource.  It’s still up in the air whether the fishery will be closed next season.  Area Management Biologist Heather Fitch says it really depends on the results of the federal trawl survey that happens each summer.

“The survey data gets plugged into a model and that’s what we use to determine the total allowable catch each year and that’s where we get the relatively abundance indexes for the fishery.”

And sometimes that survey is at odds with what fishermen see out on the grounds, as was the case this year.  So really, it’s hard to say what the future holds for Bristol Bay.

While the red king season might have been unusually short, fishermen will probably face the reverse situation when they go after snow crab in January. The quota for that fishery nearly doubled this year to almost 90 million pounds, which means it’s unlikely any boats are going to have a one-trip season for snow crab.

Invasive Species Unleashed by Baronof Island Storm Damage

Ed Ronco, KCAW – Sitka

The storm that hit Baranof Island ripped up a former fish farm and unleashed an invasive species.  The Fish and Game Department says it hopes the pieces of the floating farm in Whiting Harbor have been contained in the harbor area by currents.  Invasive species co-ordinator Tammy Davis says the fish farm had been scheduled for removal last weekend, but then the waves and winds hit.

“High seas and high winds definitely broke apart the farm. Some sections really just getting destroyed as it crashed up on the shoreline, the causeway shoreline,” Davis said.

Whiting Harbor, and much of the infrastructure inside it, have been infested with a species of tunicate called D-vex, or Didemnum vexillum. It coats anything in its path, destroying habitat and preventing mussels from feeding. The Whiting Harbor outbreak is the first time D-vex has been discovered in Alaska. But other states, including Washington and Oregon, have spent thousands of dollars to prevent its spread.

The storm’s damage to the farm definitely has caused problems, but Davis says because the winds were out of the west, the structure stayed in the harbor system.

“That is the silver lining indeed. The direction of the wind was the lucky, lucky piece in this story. Instead of things moving out of the harbor, they were moving into the causeway,” Davis said.

Things didn’t go quite as well at the end of October, Davis says, when a piece of farm escaped the harbor and crashed on some nearby rocks. Most of it has been recovered, but that some small floating pieces might have washed up elsewhere.

She urged members of the public to be on the lookout for buoyant debris that might have come from the farm at Whiting Harbor.

“Especially if the debris has any sort of yellow orangey-white growth on it that might be the tunicate,” Davis said.

Anyone who suspects they’ve seen the invasive tunicate is asked to report it at the state’s hotline, 877-INVASIV.

The cleanup of Whiting Harbor is expected to continue through the week. Davis says she’s thankful for all the assistance so far, especially from the U.S. Coast Guard, various government agencies, and even local concerned citizens.