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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 20 min 30 sec ago

Sockeye Wildfire Threatens Willow

Sun, 2015-06-14 23:59

A wildfire near Willow jumped from 200 acres to 1800 acres in five hours on Sunday, as high winds pushed the flames South toward a populated area. The fire has consumed structures, closed the Parks Highway, and is headed South.
How the fire started has  not been determined yet, but officials say it is human caused. Tim Mowry is a information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry

“We just know it was a human caused fire and it is under investigation.”

Now dubbed the Sockeye fire, the blaze was called in shortly after one ‘clock Sunday afternoon, at forty acres. By 4 o’clock, it had spread to 200 acres. That’s when the wind kicked up. Matanuska Susitna Borough Assemblyman Vern Halter, who represents Willow, had just returned from a survey of the fire area after 9 Sunday evening. Halter spoke from his home near Willow

“I tell ya it’s on both sides of the highway when you cross Willow Creek, within a three quarters of a mile, a mile of crossing Willow Creek, you just run into flames, both sides of the highway, there were structures burning, and the intensity, it probably took us a mile and a half, to two and a half miles to get through the main portion, both sides of the highway. And then there would be flareups, there would be.. almost scare ya when you are looking out.. because you can feel the intensity of the heat when you are inside the car with the windows rolled up.”

A voluntary evacuation was called from mile 72 to 77 on the Parks Highway on Sunday afternoon, but the wind pushed the evacuation area south to mile 69 Sunday evening. The fire threatens a heavily populated area along Willow Creek Parkway. An incident command center, and a Red Cross shelter, initially located at the Willow Community Center, was moved late Sunday, as the flames crept closer to Willow.

“They’re moving the command center. The command center and the Red Cross moved to the Willow Community Center, and now they are evacuating this area pretty much and moving every thing to the Houston Middle School. So the Red Cross is moving to Houston Middle School The fire command is staying here locally.”

Halter says fire fighters are doing all they can to save homes.

“But there was a firetruck at just about every house that I could see, trying to keep water on buildings and houses, and let the fire pass, and save it. I don’t know, but I’m sure they saved a bunch, but there’s some that they couldn’t either. ”

The area is home to a considerable number of dog mushers, such as Dee Dee Jonrowe, Martin Buser and Halter as well.

“There was a ton of dogs moved, and all of those came out of where Dee Dee Jonrowe lives, up there on mile 71, 72, 73, in there, there was hundreds and hundreds of dogs moved in about a two or three hour period this [sunday] afternoon. Dee Dee Jonrowe, and Martin Buser, I saw their trucks. I imagine Martin Buser has hundreds of dogs at his place right now. ”

Fire information officer Tim Mowry said  the Parks Highway would be closed all through Sunday night, and it is not certain when it will reopen. Mowry says a huge amount of effort is being used to fight the fire.

“We’ve got units, crews enroute to the fire, crews on the fire, we’ve got firefighters from Palmer on the fire. We have multiple aircraft, that have been working the fire all day. Three retardant tankers, and four water scooping aircraft, plus multiple helicopters. We have five hot shot crews on order from the Lower 48. But we basically are throwing everything we can at this fire and we have been doing it since we got the report just after one o’clock” [Sunday afternoon]

The front of the fire was three miles long by Sunday evening, according to reports.

“We are just trying to get a handle on this thing, and it’s been a tough thing to do. It jumped the Parks highway once, and I am trying to figure out if it has done it again.”

A State Trooper roadblock is set up at mile 77 of the Parks heading South.

Categories: Alaska News

Breaking: Fire prompts evacuations, Parks Highway closure

Sun, 2015-06-14 16:10

(Photo courtesy of the Mat-Su Borough)

Sunday afternoon, a wildfire in the Willow area prompted evacuation of 10 homes and the closure of the Parks Highway.

According to Tim Mowry, spokesman for the Division of Forestry, the fire was called in shortly after 1:00 p.m. At that time, it was estimated to be two acres in size. By 4:00 pm, it had grown to over 200 acres. The fire is being driven to the south by wind.

Shortly after 3:00 pm, Mat-Su Borough Emergency Manager Casey Cook confirmed that the Parks Highway is closed between Mile 74 and Willow Fishhook Road, and no traffic is passing through the area.

Officials are advising that people avoid the area of the fire.

As of 3:30, 10 homes were confirmed evacuated, and evacuation in the Sharen Road subdivision was beginning.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature’s Per Diem Expenses Approach $200K

Fri, 2015-06-12 21:08

Lawmakers collected nearly $200,000 in per diem over the course of two special sessions.

According to a preliminary tally by the Legislature’s accounting office, every lawmaker took at least one day’s per diem during the first special session, which began in Juneau and ended in Anchorage. Almost half took per diem during the Anchorage special session that followed. Twenty-four members also took per diem while the Legislature was in recess for two weeks, and not holding floor sessions.

Per diem is meant to cover food and lodging expenses, and it is federally set. It was paid at a rate of $233 per day while the Legislature was holding its special session in Juneau. It jumped to $295 for the second session in Anchorage, because of the start of tourist season and the move to a more expensive location.

While any legislator could apply for the allowance those who did not live within driving distance of the Anchorage were more likely to take it. Sen. Donny Olson, a Golovin Democrat who serves on the finance committee, was the top collector. He filed for 44 days, amounting to a payment of $11,439. Sen. Peter Micchiche, a Soldotna Republican, was the one exception to this — declining per diem during the Anchorage session, despite living 150 miles away.

There was less consistency with Anchorage and Mat-Su members.

Some members of leadership took per diem, even though they live within commuting distance of the LIO. House Finance Co-Chair Mark Neuman, lives one hour away in Big Lake, and collected $8,393 over the two special sessions. Senate Rules Chair Charlie Huggins, a Wasilla Republican, received $6,329, with most of his per diem collected while in Anchorage. But other members of leadership who live in the area did not. Neither Senate President Kevin Meyer nor House Rules Chair Craig Johnson — both Anchorage Republicans — applied for the funds during the second session.

There were even some rank-and-file members who collected per diem while the Legislature was meeting in their area. Sen. Lesil McGuire collected $7,347 during the special sessions, and Sen. Cathy Giessel received $5,352. Neither of the two Anchorage Republicans holds a leadership position or serves on Finance, the only committee to meet regularly during the special session.

However, the majority of Anchorage and Mat-Su legislators declined per diem during the second special session. None of the Anchorage Democrats in the House or the Senate applied for per diem. House Republicans also largely abstained, with Neuman being the lone exception.

At nearly $4,000 per member, the Senate’s Republican majority caucus collected the most per diem on average. At the low end of the spectrum is the House’s Democratic minority, with an average payout of $2,000 per member.

According to Legislative Affairs, these numbers could still be revised upwards. The agency is still receiving per diem claims. As of Thursday, the total cost of the two special sessions, which were called to address the budget deficit, exceeded $600,000.

To find a more detailed breakdown of per diem costs, click here.

Legislator Special Session Per Diem OLSON, DONALD $11,439.00 NEUMAN, MARK $8,393.00 COGHILL, JR., JOHN $8,188.00 STEDMAN, BERT $7,535.00 MCGUIRE, LESIL $7,347.00 OLSON, KURT $7,333.00 NAGEAK, BEN $7,299.00 THOMPSON, STEVE $7,176.00 HERRON, BOB $6,984.00 ORTIZ, DAN $6,466.00 FOSTER, NEAL $6,414.00 HUGGINS, CHARLES $6,329.00 KELLY, PETE $6,243.00 WILSON, TAMMIE $6,115.00 STEVENS, GARY $6,108.00 CHENAULT, MIKE (CHARLES) $5,745.00 GIESSEL, CATHY $5,352.00 KREISS-TOMKINS, JONATHAN $5,298.00 MUÑOZ, CATHY $4,989.00 HOFFMAN, LYMAN $4,585.00 EDGMON, BRYCE $4,173.00 KITO, SAM $3,834.50 MILLETT, CHARISSE $3,159.00 KAWASAKI, SCOTT $3,009.00 SEATON, PAUL $3,005.00 WOOL, ADAM $3,005.00 BISHOP, CLICK $2,962.00 TALERICO, DAVE $2,713.00 KELLER, WES $2,640.00 STUTES, LOUISE $2,129.00 MEYER, KEVIN $1,416.00 TARR, GERAN $1,416.00 GARA, LES $1,167.00 CLAMAN, MATTHEW $669.00 COSTELLO, MIA $669.00 DRUMMOND, HARRIET $669.00 DUNLEAVY, MIKE $669.00 ELLIS, JOHNNY $669.00 GARDNER, BERTA $669.00 GATTIS, LYNN $669.00 GRUENBERG, MAX $669.00 GUTTENBERG, DAVID $669.00 HAWKER, MIKE $669.00 JOHNSON, CRAIG $669.00 JOSEPHSON, ANDREW $669.00 LEDOUX, GABRIELLE $669.00 LYNN, BOB $669.00 MACKINNON, ANNA $669.00 MICCICHE, PETER $669.00 PRUITT, LANCE $669.00 REINBOLD, LORA $669.00 SADDLER, DAN $669.00 STOLTZE, BILL $669.00 TILTON, CATHY $669.00 TUCK, CHRIS $669.00 VAZQUEZ, ELIZABETH $669.00 WIELECHOWSKI, BILL $669.00 COLVER, JIM (JAMES) $604.00 EGAN, DENNIS $501.75 HUGHES, SHELLEY $223.00 AVERAGE $3,122.52 TOTAL $187,351.25
Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: Friday, June 12, 2015

Fri, 2015-06-12 17:36

Stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Mixed Feelings On A New Company’s Plans To Drill in Cook Inlet

Quinton Chandler, KBBI – Homer

A Texas-based company will begin drilling for oil in Cook Inlet next year using extended-reach oil wells.

Maritime Group Approves Aleutian Shipping ‘Buffer Zones’

Emily Schwing, KUCB – Unalaska

The International Maritime Organization’s Marine Safety Committee is in the middle of its 95th session in London this week.  Included on the committee’s agenda is the adoption of five recommended “areas to be avoided” in the Aleutian Chain.

NOAA Investigates Steller Sea Lion Deaths Near Cordova

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is investigating the deaths of several Steller sea lions southwest of Cordova.

Advocacy Group Puts Setnet Restriction Measure on the Ballot

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance has handed over enough signatures to the state division of elections to get a voter initiative on the 2016 general election ballot.

Cameras May Remedy Gripes With Alaska’s Fisheries Observer Program

Robert Woolsey, KCAW – Sitka

Smaller boats in Alaska’s offshore fisheries may no longer have to carry human observers in the future, if a plan to deploy cameras proves feasible.

Feminist Icon Gloria Steinem Visits Fairbanks

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem speaks at the University of Alaska Fairbanks tonight.

49 Voices: Matt Williams of Anchorage

Monica Gokey, KSKA – Anchorage

Xxxx

AK: Ice Dance

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

New York dancer and choreographer Jody Sperling had a rare opportunity last year. She was “artist in residence” aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy while it was on a research mission in the Arctic. Alone on vast ice floes, she danced while no one watched.

Categories: Alaska News

Advocacy Group Puts Setnet Restriction Measure on the Ballot

Fri, 2015-06-12 17:35

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance has handed over enough signatures to the state division of elections to get a voter initiative on the 2016 general election ballot.

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The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance wants to stop all commercial setnetting in five areas deemed to be “urban” and non-subsistence under Alaska law.

According to the groups’ president, Joe Connors, who owns a sport fishing lodge on the Kenai River, the Alliance’s motive is to conserve dwindling salmon stocks.

The initiative asks state voters to decide on banning setnets in the five urban areas.

A state Superior Court decision last year favored the Alliance’s plan to put the question on the ballot, but the state has challenged that decision and asked the state Supreme Court to decide if the Alliance’s initiative is legal. Corie Mills, a spokesperson for the state department of law, says state attorneys are drafting an opinion on the constitutional legality of the initiative, and would not comment further on the issue.

The state Supreme Court will hear the case during August 26 and 27.

Categories: Alaska News

Feminist Icon Gloria Steinem Visits Fairbanks

Fri, 2015-06-12 17:35

Gloria Steinem at a press conference in Fairbanks Friday.
CREDIT DAN BROSS / KUAC

Feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem speaks at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on Friday night. The human rights activist’s visit was instigated by local politics.

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University of Alaska Fairbanks Summer Session and Lifelong Learning Program Director Michelle Bartlet reached out to the Ms. Magazine founder last year after a borough assembly member unsuccessfully pushed to get the local Food Coop to stop selling the magazine because of a story in support of the right to abortion.

Bartlet says a Fairbanks organizing committee subsequently raised thirty thousand dollars from individuals, businesses and organizations to pay for the Steinem’s event, which is free to the public. Steinem spoke with reporters Friday morning. She says Alaska was the only U.S. state she’d yet to visit and that the local story about an attempt to ban Ms. got her attention.

Steinem attributes attempts to do things like ban a magazine empowering women’s reproductive rights, to a fundamental top down control model that underlies injustice and violence.

Steinem points to what she calls “supremacy crimes” like mass shootings and murder suicides as the saddest expression of the male control mindset.  

The 81 year old Steinem says she takes hope in major changes she’s seen over her decades as an activist and organizer, adding that humans have great ability to adapt.

Gloria Steinem’s only Alaska speaking engagement is tonight event at UAF, but the event will be streaming live over the web.

Categories: Alaska News

3-Man Seattle Team Wins Inaugural ‘Race To Alaska’

Fri, 2015-06-12 16:54

Team Excellent Adventure checks in from the Inside Passage during the “Race to Alaska” event. Photo by R2AK.

In the promotional video released for the first-ever Race To Alaska, a man walks past a sign in the woods saying “Welcome to Alaska.” He nails $10,000 to a tree and blows a fog horn. The premise was simple: no motors, first boat to Alaska wins.

Just before 1:00 p.m., five days and fifty-five minutes after leaving Victoria, British Columbia, the three-man crew of the Elsie Piddock sailed across the finish line.
“Cover your ears” cannon and cheering.

As Al Hughes, Graeme Esarey and Matt Steverson stepped onto Alaskan soil — in this case a wooden dock — race organizer, Jake Beattie was there to greet them with a handshake and $10,000 nailed to a piece of firewood.

Steverson says he’s not sure what will happen to the prize money.

“We didn’t do it for the money, bottom line. I don’t think we’ve talked about it.”

He says for him, it was all about adventure. The adventure included sleeping about two hours, twice a day, a constant drum of water against pontoons, and food.

“We ate a lot of fish, salmon and tuna. We did Israeli couscous, and pasta, and macaroni and cheese. Yeah, salmon macaroni and cheese was pretty good, you have to get the recipe from Matt.”
The men and the boat all are from the Ballard area of Seattle. Elsie Piddock, the winning carbo- fiber trimaran was borrowed from a friend, whose daughter named the boat after her favorite book.

“It’s an English children’s story about a young girl who skips rope and learns how to be the super duper rope skipper and eventually saves her town from the evil landlord. ”

Hughes says he is proud of the crew and of Elsie in particular, which he credited as their winning weapon.

Second prize is a set of steak knives, and has yet to be claimed. Team Por Favor is in second-place, but is still 200 miles away from the finish line in Ketchikan.

Categories: Alaska News

49 Voices: Matt Williams of Anchorage

Fri, 2015-06-12 16:22

This week, we hear from Matt Williams, who works as a special ed teacher in Anchorage most of the year. Every summer, he and his wife trade their frumpy teacher’s clothes for Grundens and head out to Bristol Bay, where they work as commercial fishermen. Williams shares some thoughts on life at fish camp on Nushagak Bay.

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Categories: Alaska News

Maritime Group Approves Aleutian Shipping ‘Buffer Zones’

Fri, 2015-06-12 16:12

The International Maritime Organization’s Marine Safety Committee is in the middle of its 95th session in London this week.  Included on the committee’s agenda is the adoption of five recommended “areas to be avoided” in the Aleutian Chain. The shipping buffer zones come in anticipation of increased mariner shipping traffic in the region.

The new zones apply to ships 400 gross tons and heavier – the kind of ships that make trans-oceanic voyages through the Bering Sea and the North Pacific.

Leslie Pearson is a project manager for the Aleutian Islands risk Assessment and a management consultant. She said the zones are meant to dampen environmental damage in the event of an accident or spill.

“Well certainly the projection of future development in Alaska and long the west coast helped as far as being a driver for these, but also past accidents,” said Pearson. “I mean we learn from history perhaps it’s better to be offshore than close into shore.”

The zones come from recommendations made by the US Coast Guard. They are based on similar “Areas To Be Avoided” established around the Northern Hawaiian Islands.

Those in the Aleutians extend 50 nautical miles from shore on islands at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula as well as Unalaska, Unimak, Adak, Atka, Kiska and Attu islands. But there are also passages outlined in-between each zone.

“One of the things that probably wasn’t taken into affect in Hawaii was when you get the winter storms, many mariners need to seek refuge in Bering straits where you have calmer weather than what you would see in the Pacific ocean and that was the reason for keeping the passage ways open so that way mariners can use them for storm avoidance,” explained PEarson.

In March, the International Maritime Organization approved the designations, but final approval falls to the IMO’s Marine Safety Committee.

“One of the things about going through the IMO process is it will actually put these ar eas to be avoided on charts – both international and domestic charts,” said Pearson.

Even though the areas will show up on maps and charts, they are only voluntary.

“Whether its voluntary or mandatory, people tend to adhere to them and insurance companies recognize these as well,” said PEarson. “So, if an operator is deviating from something that’s on the books, whether it’s recommended or mandatory, they do take notice.”

Under the IMO, the Coast Guard can still make the buffer zones mandatory. Once the IMO’s Marine Safety Committee gives their final approval, NOAA has six months to add the areas to charts.

Categories: Alaska News

Mixed Feelings On A New Company That’ll Begin Drilling in Cook Inlet

Fri, 2015-06-12 16:07

A Texas-based company will begin drilling for oil in Cook Inlet next year using extended-reach oil wells.

BlueCrest Energy plans to drill from shore about six miles north of Anchor Point. Informational meetings were held in Homer and Anchor Point this week. The participants seemed split between hope for an economic jump start and worry for the project’s safety.

BlueCrest held three meetings in the three communities closest to the proposed site, Ninilchik, Anchor Point and Homer. BlueCrest inherited the Cosmopolitan Project from a long line of predecessors. Pennzoil, Arco, Conoco Phillips, Pioneer and Buccaneer all tried to reach the reserves in question. They all failed. When Buccaneer took its shot, BlueCrest already owned a 75 percent interest in the project and they decided to buy the other 25 percent after Buccaneer fell into huge amounts of debt.

As full owner, BlueCrest plans to drill onshore wells, some as deep as 25,000 feet, straight down and two and a half miles out beneath the ocean floor to tap reserves in the cosmopolitan fields. Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) is directional drilling of very long, horizontal wells.

“We are not drilling offshore for oil. All of the oil development is from an onshore land rig.”

Larry Burgess, the Health, Safety and Environmental Manager for BlueCrest, says drilling from shore will leave very little risk of spills in the inlet.

Although onshore drilling was far more welcome than the prospect of offshore wells, Anchor Point and Homer residents still had concerns.

“[I am] Ken Lewandowski, I live in Cottonwood Subdivision which is in the backyard, the side yard of the Stariski plant that they plan on building.”

Lewandowski says there’s only one road in and out of his subdivision, where BlueCrest plans to drill.

“They literally tore up an ambulance coming down the hill in the winter time. Without having any access whatsoever to get out of our subdivision safely all year round and not having any kind of access to the facility leaves me to believe there’s a problem that’s going to happen in the future for sure.”

Lewandowski says living in that home was originally part of his retirement plan, but after learning about the Cosmopolitan Project, he’s looking for an exit strategy. He wants BlueCrest to compensate all four homeowners in the subdivision for the inconvenience.

“I spoke with this gentleman, Larry, a couple of minutes ago and he assured me that we’re going to sit down again and I’m looking forward to our next meeting.”

Other big concerns during the meeting included fire danger, spill prevention, noise, water use, and mode of transportation. Burgess was prepared with an answer for nearly every issue. But, no answer could stem worry over the risk of trucking oil. Burgess says there are only three real options to get the oil from the plant up to the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski. By truck, by ship, and by pipeline.

“If we have one barge running up and down Cook Inlet once or twice a week, that’s much less traffic with oil moving than if we’re running four or five trucks a day. On the other hand we’re looking at 400 barrels per truck as opposed to 50,000 barrels in a barge.”

BlueCrest would rather risk the 400 barrels on the road. A pipeline was the most popular option at both meetings. It’s the safest and most efficient mode of transport but it’s also expensive.

“More vehicles on the road, just by sheer probability is less safe than barging or a pipeline. That doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. It just means it’s less safe than the other options.”

BlueCrest plans to eventually produce about 17,000 barrels per day and Burgess says that’s nowhere near enough to justify a pipeline to Nikiski. Initially BlueCrest expects to have one or two trucks on the road each day. As production climbs the company plans to look at transportation alternatives.

Outside of safety concerns, the other big question on people’s minds was what benefits BlueCrest would bring to the Southern Peninsula.

Long-term Anchor Point residents Emmitt Trimble and Buzz Kyllonen were around to see the long procession of companies attempt the cosmopolitan project. Trimble says BlueCrest might be the people to get the job done.

“It’s going to be nice to see that income generated in this community when we don’t have a lot of economic growth or development here. It’s going to be nice to have somebody join the rest of us tax payers in paying those property tax bills.”

Kyllonen agrees with Trimble. But, he says they’ll keep an eye on BlueCrest.

“I think they’re on the right track and we’ll have to wait and see. But, I think they’ve done their homework and I’m optimistic.”

Burgess says BlueCrest needs feedback and he urges peninsula residents to share any comments and concerns they might have regarding this project. The company plans to start full scale construction in August.

Categories: Alaska News

Cameras to remedy observer problems in Alaska?

Fri, 2015-06-12 12:11

Smaller boats in Alaska’s offshore fisheries may no longer have to carry human observers in the future, if a plan to deploy cameras proves feasible.

At its Sitka meeting this month, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council gave the green light to an inter-agency effort to develop Electronic Monitoring. The council would like to see cameras in action within three years.

Although the headline news out of the council’s contentious June meeting focused on bycatch, there wouldn’t even be a bycatch debate without human observers.

Bycatch is what you get when you’re trying to catch something else. Halibut or chinook when you’re trawling for pollock; rockfish when you’re longlining for halibut.

Year-round, observers fly to Alaska’s remote ports, board fishing boats, and go out on trips. They monitor the bycatch, sample the harvest, and collect the reams of data needed by organizations like theNorth Pacific Fishery Management Councilto sustainably operate commercial fishing in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.

The EM cameras on the Magia, Steven Rhoads’ 55-foot longliner, are mounted on an outrigger boom. “I would pay to have electronic monitoring every day, rather than be selected to carry a human observer,” Rhoads told the council. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Expenses for the program top $4-million a year, with about one-quarter of that funding coming from the federal government, and the other three-quarters from fees collected from the fishermen, who also have to feed and house the observers while they’re on board.

On a big boat with a large crew, like a factory trawler, an extra person isn’t necessarily a big deal. These ships may carry an observer every single voyage. On small boats, that extra person can be a bit of a wild card.

“Our observer was on board. And our observer was seasick for about half the days. Conditions were cramped, and I got to sleep on the galley table,” said Steven Rhoads, who owns a 55-foot longliner based in Sitka. Rhoads explained to the council why he’s one of over a hundred boat-owners in this size range who ask for exemptions when they’re randomly selected to carry an observer.

“The observing was not approaching anything I would call complete. It greatly disrupted our regular fishing functions.”

This so-called “observer effect” is a concern. If fishing trips are miserable with an extra person on board, or if boats manipulate their normal fishing patterns in order to return to port sooner and shed their observers — how does it affect the quality of the data?

Recently the council authorized a research program to test electronic monitoring, and Rhoads was one of eleven boat owners to volunteer to have cameras installed on his deck.

“This year every trip, every set, every haul, every hook was observed. It is a wonderful alternative.”

Aboard the TammyLin in Sitka’s Crescent Harbor…

Hi, George? Robert.

Another one of those volunteers was George Eliason. I visited him aboard his 50-foot longliner in Sitka’s Crescent Harbor. The TammyLin has six bunks.

“My boat’s big enough that there’d be plenty of room for an observer. I don’t think we’d do anything differently than we do now. I don’t think I would have a problem with that person, unless we have a conflict in personalities. That always happens.”

But Eliason has not had to test his patience with a human observer. Because he’s got room for only four people in his life raft, he’s successfully applied for an observer exemption. Instead, he’s had cameras on the Tammylin for two years running.

“This wire here goes over to the hauler. Soon as the hauler turns on, it starts the cameras up. Two (seconds) after the hauler goes off, the cameras go off.”

Eliason says he was worried at first that the cameras might catch him in a mistake, throwing fish overboard that he ought to have kept. Unlike gulf trawlers, who are prohibited from keeping some species aboard, longliners like Eliason bring their bycatch back to port and sell it. It’s species like yelloweye and demersal shelf rockfish — but if they catch too much it can restrict their ability to target halibut in some areas.

Eliason’s fears did not come to pass.

“After the person looked at the videos, they said that they could tell what each species was, because what they saw is what they’re going to get.”

Unlike salmon, bottom fish species are managed in weight, and not quantity. Accurately converting the video image of fish into weight remains one of the biggest challenges to be solved by electronic monitoring. But the upside is so compelling: Removing human observers from boats — of all sizes — reduces an element of risk, both for the crew and for the observer. Those “personality conflicts” Eliason mentioned can escalate to abuse — even assault — in the high stakes world of commercial fishing.

Why not just work out the bugs in electronic monitoring, and go for it?

“It’s a challenge. Because federal funds are tight.”

Chris Rilling manages the North Pacific Groundfish and Halibut Observer Program. Because of problems with federal funding, he’s scraping bottom just to pay for the human observer program.

So, organizations like the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association in Sitka are finding money on their own. Just this month they received nearly $500,000 out of a total of $3-million awarded by the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to develop electronic monitoring. The funding will put cameras on 120 boats in Sitka, Homer, Seward and other ports.

All the boats receiving the equipment will be in the 40- to 57-and-a-half foot range, the so-called small boat fleet. But Rilling doesn’t rule out the possibility that electronic monitoring will have applications in bigger classes.

“There are a lot of promising applications for EM technology, whether it be accounting for halibut discard on some of the larger vessels, compliance monitoring for retention of species in some of the trawl fisheries, and for catch accounting on some of the smaller boats. There are a variety of ways we could use the technology and we’re exploring all of those.”

The council voted unanimously in Sitka to move forward with a pre-implementation design this year, with the hope that electronic monitoring could be integrated into the management of the small-boat fleet by 2018 — when it then could be subsidized by observer fees.

At Crescent Harbor…

Back on the TammyLin, George Eliason has mixed feelings. He believes electronic monitoring is an important goal, but that doesn’t mean he’s fine with it.

“It’s not fine to any one of us. It’s a direct intrusion on our liberties. Nobody likes it, but nobody sees a way out of it.”

Relatively speaking, Eliason and skippers like him are a small part of the bycatch problem in the Gulf. But if electronic monitoring becomes viable, they’re hoping to play a big part in the solution.

Categories: Alaska News

Wildfire season in Alaska

Fri, 2015-06-12 12:00

Funny River fire rages in the Kenai Keys area of the Kenai Peninsula May 25, 2014

It’s wildfire season in Alaska and this year more than 50,000 acres have already burned. Is this the new normal? It’s been a hot and dry spring and climate conditions are changing. Even the tundra is burning. How will these changes impact wildfires and how we fight them?

HOST: Anne Hillman

GUESTS:

  • Tom Kurth, state fire program manager, Alaska Division of Forestry
  • Rick Thoman, climate scientist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Callers statewide

PARTICIPATE:

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  • Call 550-8422 in Anchorage or 1-800-478-8255 if you’re outside Anchorage during the live broadcast

LIVE Broadcast: Tuesday, June 16, 2015 at 10:00 a.m. on APRN stations statewide.

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Categories: Alaska News

AK: Ice Dance

Fri, 2015-06-12 11:53

New York Dancer and Choreographer Jody Sperling had a rare opportunity last year. She was “artist in residence” aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Healy while it was on a research mission in the Arctic. Alone on vast ice floes, she danced while no one watched. APRN’s Liz Ruskin reports on her experience, and what it’s become.

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Before she left New York, Sperling was worried about traction.

“And I had in my head that it would be like an ice skating rink, like slick,” she said. “So I got boots that had a real tread on them but they weren’t very high. But what I discovered the first time I went out is that the snow is kind of deep. The snow went right over, into my feet!”

Sperling made do. Twelve times during the six-week mission, she descended the Healy’s gangplank, and joined the teams of scientists on the ice.

“And while they were doing their research in a particular area,” she said. “I would have an area that was dedicated for dance, and I could do my research.”

She usually wore little more than a body suit and those low-top boots. Sometimes she wore a costume made of yards and yards of white silk, printed with a design suggesting ice floes. In videos she shot of herself during the voyage, you can see Sperling twirling and fluttering on the biggest, barest stage she’ll ever find. Last month, though, she was at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History on a more traditional stage.

With five dancers on deck at the Baird Auditorium, she worked on the lighting the afternoon before a performance. It was part of an Arctic festival the museum hosted.

“It can go from this more icy look to a more watery look …. And it can also start to be a little more intense.”

(Photo courtesy Jody Sperling)

Some of the dancers wore extra long silk robes, using sticks to control the distant reaches, like an extension of their wing span. Sperling says it’s the silk that’s her medium. She projects light and video on it. This isn’t her first dance project about natural phenomena. A scientist at MIT was drawn to a piece she did about turbulence. He later introduced her to another scientist who was selecting people for the Healy voyage to the Arctic. The main mission was to follow up on the discovery of a massive plankton bloom. They also wanted artists for public outreach about climate science. Sperling says she was already interested in the Arctic and climate change, but the offer caught her off-guard.

“When he first invited me – it was 43-day mission in the Arctic, and at that time my daughter was two and half,” Sperling said. “And I literally turned white, as white as snow, when he told me because I had these two conflicting urges: I have to go, I want to go, I want to go. And the other one was I can’t, I can’t be away for that long.

She declined at first – then reconsidered. So in May of last year, she flew to Dutch Harbor, caught the Healy and sailed to the Chukchi Sea, off Alaska’s northwest coast.

“Sometimes we had to break ice and it would be the most amazing sound when you’d be in the ship and you’d be going through the ice and you’d hear grhrhrhrhrh, you know, cracking through the ice. I love that,” she said.

After her Arctic experience, Sperling knew she wanted the sounds of sea ice for the performance. That led her to Matthew Burtner, a musician who considers snow and ice his instrument. Sperling quickly figured out she didn’t just want to buy a few of his recordings. She was hesitant to ask him, but Burtner says when you play a rare instrument, gigs don’t come along often.

“So if you make music out of ice and snow and someone call you up and says ‘I want to do a piece about ice and snow, would you be interested in collaborating?’” Burtner said. “Well yeah, of course! This is the best!”

Burtner spent part of his childhood in Nuiqsut, where his parents were teachers. He lives in Virginia now, and returns to Alaska annually to collect ice audio.

For Sperling’s project, Burtner says his composition uses data tracking the change in the Arctic ice extent over 16 years. He plays that as a 16-beat sequence, over real-time ice sounds. Burtner says listeners don’t necessarily know what they’re hearing.

“The idea is it should work as music but it has this other kind of secret game hidden inside it,” he said. “And if you discover it, than it works on another level, as well.”

Sperling also compresses time in her dance, showing what’s normally too slow to see. She says the warming climate is in effect doing the same thing, because as ice thins it becomes more dynamic, speeding up change across the Arctic. Burtner says that change defines our era, and his art.

“Like I think our lifetime is the time of ice melting. That we are in the time of ice melting,” he said. “Maybe when I was born there was lots of ice, and maybe when I die there won’t be any ice. That somehow, it’s like a life work.”

The Smithsonian show was a bit of a preview. Their work, called “Bringing the Arctic Home” premieres in New York this month.

Categories: Alaska News

NOAA investigating Steller sea lion deaths near Cordova

Fri, 2015-06-12 11:28

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is investigating the deaths of several Steller sea lions southwest of Cordova.

(L-R) Kate Savage (NOAA), Noah Meisenheimer (NOAA), Lt. Matthew Keiper (US Coast Guard), and Sadie Wright (NOAA) collect samples from a dead Steller sea lion near Cordova, Alaska. Credit: NOAA

Julie Speegle, spokesperson for NOAA Fisheries, Alaska region, says 15 dead sea lions were discovered in the area on June 1.

“Three to five of them had wounds that our biologists could definitely say were human-caused wounds,” Speegle said. “So that indicates that these Steller sea lions had been deliberately killed.”

Killing sea lions violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which only allows limited exceptions for subsistence hunting by Alaska Natives

These particular animals were from the western stock of Steller sea lions, which are also listed under the Endangered Species Act.

NOAA law enforcement is looking for information from anyone with details about the event…and are offering an award up to $2,500 dollars for information leading to a conviction.

Categories: Alaska News

Pollock B season opens in Aleutians, Eastern Bering Sea region

Fri, 2015-06-12 10:14

Pollock ‘B’ Season opened today in the Aleutian Islands and Eastern Bering Seas Region.

Mary Furness is a Fisheries Resource Specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Juneau.

“The total allowable catch is up for the Bering Sea Pollock fishery this year, about 43,000 metric tons and the allocation is divided by the A season which gets 40% and the B season gets 60%,” she said.

According to Furness, there are about 19,000 more metric tons of Pollock available for harvest in this year’s B season.

Pollock numbers have been up in recent years.  Last year’s was the second largest biomass estimate on record since scientists started surveying the fish in 1982. But harvest levels for groundfish are not allowed to surpass 2 million metric tons, regardless of increased assessments.

Furness said federal managers expect the Pollock B Season to wrap up by early to mid-October.

Categories: Alaska News

9th Circuit Court rules in favor of Shell’s spill response plans

Fri, 2015-06-12 09:25

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Thursday in favor of the Department of Interior’s approval of two oil spill response plans for Arctic drilling put forward by Royal Dutch Shell.  The company plans to explore for oil in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas this summer.

A handful of environmental groups brought the suit.  They claim the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement didn’t do enough to review Shell’s plans.

In an email, shell Spokeswoman Megan Baldino said the 9th Circuit Court decision was “welcome news and validates that the Department of Interior complied with applicable laws and regulations in approving [Shell’s] plan for work offshore Alaska.”

Baldino wrote that the company remains “confident that the [Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s] approval of [Shell’s] plans meets all legal and regulatory requirements.”

But environmental groups are troubled by the decision.  Holly Harris is a Staff Attorney with the group EarthJustice, which was involved in the suit. She also declined to be recorded, but in an email she said the decision was “a troubling outcome for the Arctic Ocean.” She added that “despite [Thursday’s] decision, the administration has not yet given final approval to Shell’s dangerous and dirty drilling in the Arctic Ocean.”  Harris writes that EarthJustice “urges President Obama and his administration to protect the Arctic Ocean and act to prevent climate change by saying no to drilling.”

Meanwhile, Shell continues to move forward on its plans for this summer.  According to Megan Baldino, the first of a number of vessels that will be part of the exploratory drilling effort is heading north to Dutch Harbor.

The oil giant’s contracted oil spill containment vessel, the Arctic Challenger, has left Seattle. It’s not yet clear when the ship will arrive.

Baldino says a team will be in Dutch Harbor next Monday to brief city leadership on their plans for the summer.

Categories: Alaska News

Troopers cite man for running down, killing bald eagles

Fri, 2015-06-12 09:21

A 28-year-old Oregon man has been accused of running over several bald eagles feeding on a roadway in Dutch Harbor, killing two and injuring two others.

The Alaska Dispatch News reports that Alaska State Troopers cited the man after a witness reported the act to Unalaska police. The troopers took control of the case.

Witnesses say a Ford truck hit the eagles near the city’s landfill Sunday.

Troopers cited the man for using a motorized vehicle to harass or molest game and accused him of accelerating his truck through several bald eagles.

The man is scheduled to be arraigned in Unalaska District Court June 30.

Categories: Alaska News

Death of sea lions found to be caused by humans

Fri, 2015-06-12 09:20

Federal officials are saying several of the 15 Stellar sea lions found dead last week near Cordova had wounds indicating they had been “deliberately killed.”

The Alaska Dispatch News reports National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spokesman Julie Speegle said Thursday that some of the deaths appeared to be caused by humans.

The agency received a report of the dead sea lions on June 1.

Biologist and enforcement agents visited the remote Alaska beach and found 15 of the endangered animals. The sea lions had been discovered in various stages of decomposition.

Speegle says samples from the animals have been taken and necropsies have been performed on some.

The sea lions were among the western stock of the population. The killing of sea lions in that population is illegal.

Categories: Alaska News

Youth decision making and healthy choices

Fri, 2015-06-12 08:00

Think back to being a high school student and navigating the social world. What made you happy or lonely? How did you decide if you wanted to play sports or study hard or drink alcohol? Nowadays fewer kids are drinking and making risky decisions than many people think. And we have data showing why. This week’s Alaska Edition focuses on youth decision making and how the community is supporting healthy choices.

HOST: Anne Hillman

GUESTS:

  • Deborah Williams, executive director, Anchorage Youth Development Coalition
  • Gabriel Garcia, associate professor of Public Health, University of Alaska Anchorage

KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, June 12 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, June 13 at 6:00 p.m.

Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, June 12 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, June 13 at 4:30 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Gavels Out

Thu, 2015-06-11 17:45

Legislators in the House listen to final thoughts on this session’s contentious budget. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

Nearly two months after its regular deadline, the Alaska Legislature finally gavels out. Both chambers have approved a $5 billion operating budget and agreed on a way to pay for the deficit.

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There will be no government shutdown, or an eleventh-hour deal to avert one. If you’re a glass-half-full type, you could say the Legislature even brokered a compromise with a couple weeks to spare.

The big sticking point was the cost-of-living increases that public employees had negotiated in their contracts. During the House floor session, Finance co-chair Mark Neuman explained that the Legislature would pay for the raises this year, but there were conditions.

“Number one, that these are one-time increments. Two, that there be no cost-of-living pay raises beginning with collective bargaining agreements negotiated in 2015.”

The Legislature was also directing Gov. Bill Walker to make $30 million in agency cuts to offset the raises.

Neuman, a Big Lake Republican, also explained that the final version of the operating budget also restored some money for education, the ferry system, senior benefits, and public broadcasting.

While there was a deal, there was also grumbling from both sides. Mat-Su Republican Mike Dunleavy defended some the more contentious reductions that had been made by the Senate, noting that cuts will need to be even deeper next year.

“We’re looking at a $4 billion deficit. And if people thought it was difficult this year, it’s not going to be any easier next year. And some sacred cows that escaped a haircut this year — some of those sacred cows might actually be butchered coming into the next year.”

Meanwhile, Democrats expressed disappointment that the Legislature did not consider scaling back oil tax credit payments or accept federal money for Medicaid expansion. In both chambers, the minority was split on the budget for these reasons.

But they all voted to tap the state’s rainy day account. Senate Minority Leader Berta Gardner said the multi-billion-dollar draw was necessary to cover the state’s budget deficit, and prevent the government from grinding to a halt.

“My objections to the underlying budget are not strong enough to take us back to the brinksmanship. They’re not strong enough to endanger the Permanent Fund dividend, which is a proposal that’s been floated to this special session, and we remain committed to trying to protect the fund for future generations. Lastly, I don’t want to add even another single day to this special session.”

There was one area where there was unanimous agreement.

According to the Legislature’s accounting staff, the cost of the extended and special sessions exceeds half a million dollars [$668,000].

Categories: Alaska News

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