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Don't let cruise ship waste dumping harm the greatest fisheries in the world

Les Gara

Care much about the decline of Alaska’s king salmon and halibut? I do. You do, and protecting Alaska’s fish and clean water is why you voted in 2006 for strict water quality standards to prevent cruise ship companies from dumping poorly treated, damaging copper and human waste -- 20,000 gallons at a time -- into our fishing waters. Unfortunately, in my view and many of yours, the governor and GOP-led House passed a bill last week to weaken this voter initiative.

I’m not a big fan of reversing voter-passed initiatives, or of endangering Alaska fish, including king salmon and halibut which we are losing in numbers far too fast. The desire to protect Alaska’s world class fishing -- from the Yukon to the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and across the state -- binds us together as Alaskans.

The next step is to hope the Senate won’t agree with what Gov. Parnell and the House pushed.

I hope folks work across party lines, and that a GOP-led Senate will work with Democrats who have proposed rules I’ll explain below to protect our fisheries from poorly treated waste. And though this bill sped through the house with no commercial fishing member testimony, now fishing groups have organized to push for similar changes to the bill that I and others pushed on the House side.

As an avid fisherman, I don’t believe in trading wild fish for cruise ship waste.

So why did the governor and his allies (with two dissenting GOP votes from Reps. Paul Seaton and Peggy Wilson) vote to roll back the 2006 citizens’ initiative water quality?

Well, let’s start from the beginning. Copper damages fish, and especially King Salmon, which have been dwindling in numbers in Alaska’s most important rivers recently. Your voter initiative limited copper discharges. It also required human waste to be treated to high standards. Half the large cruise ships coming to Alaska meet these clean water standards.

Princess Cruises doesn’t. A few others don’t too. They are pushing this bill. So -- despite the main argument -- that the technology is not there to protect our fishing waters, it is for half the large cruise ships that port in Alaska. The other half (the largest number are owned by Princess) claim they need some additional time to comply, through retrofits or ship replacement.

OK, I can buy some of that. But I’m not a big fan of throwing babies out with bathwater.

The voter initiative said our clean water standards had to be met at the spot where the dumping occurred. Now the governor lets ships spread their waste over large areas, called “mixing zones” -- so the pollution in any one column of water is less, but cumulatively, as a school of Kings swim through that swath of waste, they swim through almost as much formerly illegal waste and copper.

We can do better.

Rep. Chris Tuck, D-Anchorage, proposed an amendment that would let fishermen know where ships had dumped -- so they can avoid those areas.

I proposed an amendment saying that until the non-compliant ships can meet clean water standards, they should go two miles offshore to dump -- in state waters where we can impose clean water regulations -- and dump only in areas not dangerous to fish and shellfish. While the state has some regulations on protecting fish from wastewater, those can easily be eliminated by the Governor at any time, like past clean salmon stream regulations Governor Murkowski weakened with his pen. I proposed strong fisheries protections be put in statute where a Governor can’t meddle with them. And I pushed the two-mile limit requirement that doesn’t exist in regulation -- to maximize the protection of Alaska’s wild fish.

Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, proposed an amendment to maintain the voter initiative, but give ships a few more years to meet the standards half our cruise ships meet already, instead of eliminating them.

I don’t believe in trading our wild fish, and our voter initiative, for the right of outside cruise ship companies to endanger our resources -- ones sport, commercial and subsistence fishermen rely upon.

Rep. Les Gara is an Anchorage Democrat. He represents Downtown, Fairview, Government Hill and Eastridge.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.