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Fish Factor

State denies citizens’ petition aimed at protecting Cook Inlet fisheries from coal mining


October 31, 2011
Monday PM

It took nearly two years for a decision, but recently the state denied a citizens’ petition aimed at protecting Cook Inlet fisheries from coal mining. The petition, by the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Cook InletKeeper asked that buffer zones be required to protect salmon streams of the Chuitna River should a coal mine be built.  In a 109 page, Dept. of Natural Resources commissioner Dan Sullivan claimed the petitioners’ request would ‘ban all surface coal mining on these lands.’ 

The Chuitna strip mine, so called because it removes wetlands and land overlay, would be the largest coal mine in Alaska.  Plans by developer PacRim of Delaware call for removal of 11 miles of Middle Creek, an important salmon spawning stream.   PacRim claims it will be able to restore the stream after 25 years of strip mining. DNR’s Sullivan said he agrees such reclamation of areas affected by strip coal mining is possible.

Deputy DNR Commissioner Ed Fogels said the citizens’ petition would have called a halt to the permitting process.  

“We decided there is simply not enough evidence to say there is no way you can reclaim the land, and we were not about to pull the plug on this thorough environmental impact process. And that is the appropriate place to make these decisions as to whether reclamation can be done properly and in accordance with the law,” he told APRN.

United Fishermen of Alaska, the nation’s largest commercial fishing trade group, was disappointed with the DNR petition denial.

“UFA has commented in opposition to the mine and in support of the petition for unsuitable lands, and we remain skeptical of the idea that large sections of salmon streams hosting five species of salmon could be removed and then successfully replaced,” said Mark Vinsel, UFA director.

DNR’s Ed Fogels said an environmental impact statement should be out for public review in about nine months, and  final decisions will be made only after a new round of public meetings is held.  

 “No way is this petition decision giving the green light to the mine. We still have a long way to go,” Fogels said.

Meanwhile, Cook Inlet Keeper’s Bob Shavelson cautions that permitting the Chuitna mine will set a dangerous precedent.

 “Because it is going to be the first time in state history that we are going to mine through 11 miles of a salmon stream. If they can do it here in Cook Inlet, they are going to be able to do it anywhere in the state,” Shavelson said. “Gov. Parnell has said repeatedly that he would not trade one resource for another. He has gone back on that promise to Alaskans.”  

Crab dip - Kodiak crabbers were disappointed when catches below one million pounds were announced for the Tanner crab fishery that starts in January.  For several years Tanners have been trending upwards due to strong year classes recruiting into the fishery. Kodiak’s take last season was 1.4 million pounds, and crabbers and fishery managers anticipated a higher harvest for 2012. But annual trawl surveys showed a turn around.

 “During the fishery we heard reports of a fair number of crab that were just under legal size, and we saw those same crab in the survey. The expectation was that they would molt and be available for this next year’s fishery, but that crab didn’t materialize. It was a little unexpected,” said Nick Sagalkin, a fishery manager at ADF&G in Kodiak.  

Sagalkin said the lack of legal crab (only mature male crabs of about two and a half pounds can be retained for market) was fairly widespread.  

“We saw it throughout the  Kodiak area, along the Alaska Peninsula and at Chignik. So whatever happened, it occurred throughout the Gulf,” he added.

In all, the Westward fisheries will yield about 3.3 million pounds of Tanner crab, down by more one million pounds from last season.

The Kodiak district crab harvest is 900,000 pounds. The Alaska Peninsula fisheries also took a cut to 1.6 million pounds, down from 2.3 million. At Chignik, Tanner catches got a slight boost to 700,000 pounds.   Last season 70 boats dropped pots for Tanners around Kodiak, 53 at the Alaska Peninsula and 16 at Chignik. Crab prices averaged $2.40-$2.50 a pound at the docks, and are likely to be higher in 2012.

Fast crab

Crabbers took more than half of the 7.8 million pound red king crab harvest in the first 10 days of the Bristol Bay fishery.  The base price is a record at $9/lb and will go higher pending post season sales adjustments.

Salmon sales sizzle

Wild salmon was a hot commodity all summer.  Alaska’s total salmon catch of 172 million fish was 2% higher than 2010, but the first wholesale value (not including roe) topped $540 million, an increase of more than 5%.   The Alaska Department of Revenue’s latest Salmon Price Report covers sales volumes and prices for the busy May-September sales season.  Market expert Ken Talley provided a snapshot of trends and highlights during that four months: 

Salmon sellers made a big push to get fresh fish to customers this summer and gained a nearly 10% market share, while frozen sales tumbled by more than 7%.  For headed and gutted salmon, the industry mainstay, fresh production increased nearly 6%  while the frozen H&G salmon pack dipped by 9.5%. 

Customer-friendly salmon fillets continued to make big gains -Alaska production was up nearly 26% and approached 20 million pounds.  Over 6 million pounds of salmon fillets went out fresh this summer, a gain of more than 30 %.  

Alaska Chinook salmon saw a big average price jump to $10.76/lb. for fresh fillets this summer, on reduced production of just 32,000 pounds.  Fresh also was the name of the game for coho salmon. Wholesale prices increased from $3.02/lb. to $3.40/lb. for fresh H&G cohos on a nearly 40% drop in volume.

Talley said for the first time in recent memory, fresh and frozen pink salmon wholesaled for virtually the same price this summer, both at about $1.45/lb.   

Chums saw gains in prices for  fresh and frozen H&G, along with fresh fillets, while prices for frozen fillets fell as volume went up.

For sockeye salmon, fresh prices for both H&G and fillets dropped slightly this summer on higher output of those products. Sales of frozen fish over coming months will be important to watch.

Fewer than 30,000 cases of canned sockeye were put up this summer, down more than 63% from last year. That pushed prices to a whopping $151 per case of talls, compared to $113 last summer.  For pinks, case prices dropped slightly to about $78, on gains of nearly half a million cases of canned pinks, a 62 increase in production. 

Get Smart Gear! 

The international Smart Gear competition rewards new gear ideas that help fishermen retain their target catches while letting marine mammals, turtles, birds or small fish swim away. The contest, which began in 2005 by the World Wildlife Fund, set a record this year.  

“We received 74 entries, the second highest number,  (80 in 2006)  but from 31 different countries, and that is the highest we have ever had,” said Mike Osmond, WWF project director.    

The competition attracted one entry from Alaska.

 “ It did quite well, I can tell you that, but that is all I can say at the moment,” Osmond said.

The bi-annual Smart Gear competition awards cash prizes to three winners: a $30,000 grand prize; two runners up prizes of $10,000 each, and a regional $7,500 award for gear that reduces tuna bycatch.

Long after the contest ends, WWF continues to work with the innovators to get their gears out on the fishing grounds.  

 “At present around 45% of the ideas are out there on the water,” Osmond said.

The 2009 winning gear from Australia was a stern mounted, underwater baited hook that reduces seabird bycatch. And, because it minimizes drag, it is the most fuel-efficient method of delivering baited hooks at required depths. 

In 2007, Rhode Island’s “Eliminator” took home the top prize – it is a high rise modified trawl net that takes advantage of fish behavior to allow cod bycatch to escape.   

“That has been adopted by quite a number of  fishermen on the east coast, and a modification of the net is being used successfully in the United Kingdom,” Osmond said. 

Another gear – the Flexi-grid from the Faroe Islands - targets bycatch in blue whiting fisheries. Its use has become mandatory by the Faroese government and the gear is now also used in Russia and Iceland.  

Smart Gear winners will be announced November 17 at Pacific Marine Expo in Seattle.

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This year marks the 21st year for this weekly column that focuses on Alaska’s seafood industry. It began in 1991 in the Anchorage Daily News, and now appears in over 20 newspapers and web sites. A daily spin off – Fish Radio – airs weekdays on 30 radio stations in Alaska. My goal is to make all people aware of the economic, social and cultural importance of Alaska’s fishing industry to our state, the nation and the world. 


Laine can be reached at msfish[AT]
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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska


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