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Alaska congressman fights Trump administration push for fish farming in federal waters

In his 46 years as Alaska’s lone representative in Congress, Don Young helped toss foreign fishing fleets from the state’s waters with the 1976 onset of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

Now he’s intent on doing the same with offshore fish farms.

Magnuson-Stevens established an “exclusive economic zone” for U.S. fleets fishing from 3 to 200 miles from shore. Now, a bill introduced by Young aims to stop the Trump administration’s push to use those waters for industrialized fish farming operations.

The fish farms are being touted as a silver bullet to boost seafood production, provide jobs and reduce the $15 billion seafood trade deficit that comes from the nation importing over 85 percent of its seafood.

This month, Young filed the Keep Fin Fish Free Act, which would stop officials from allowing fish farms in U.S. offshore waters unless specifically authorized by Congress.

“The biggest selling power we have in Alaska is wild-caught salmon and other fish products and I don’t want to hurt,” Young said in a phone interview. “If we put in a commercial operation offshore, outside of state jurisdiction, we’d have a big problem in selling our wild Alaskan salmon.”

Young’s effort follows a push begun a year ago by over 120 aquaculture and food-related industries to have lawmakers introduce an Advancing the Quality and Understanding of American Aquaculture Act, which failed to get traction. The campaign is organized under a new trade group, Stronger America Through Seafood, and includes Cargill, Red Lobster, Pacific Seafoods and Seattle Fish Co.

“I was assured they were not going to grow salmon but they will have to feed all the fish. And that pollution factor can get into the water and contaminate our salmon. And I don’t know who’s going to be involved in it,” Young said.

“I’m very supportive of the state waters production of shellfish and kelp, but I’m trying to keep all fish farms off the Alaskan shores -- that’s the big thing.”

Young said he believes most other coastal states are opposed to the idea of large fish feedlot operations off their shores. He added that no one likes the idea of so much fish being imported to the U.S. but said, “We shouldn’t weaken our natural system to try to feed our appetite. We should try to increase our natural system and make sure we have more finfish, and I’m confident we can do that.”

Young’s bill was immediately hailed by environmental organizations.

“Raising fish in massive cages in federal waters is completely against the public interest and will not solve our food system crisis,” said Shannon Eldredge of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance.

“This is what I’m doing this for,” Young said. “To keep our fish safe and make sure that the best product gets to the market.”

As for the AQUAA Act, Young said it has not yet been re-introduced to Congress and he does not believe there is much interest in advancing it.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, that bill’s sponsor, is reviewing the legislation and working to find a Democratic co-sponsor before refiling it.

Pebble lawsuit gets tossed

A lawsuit by the Pebble Partnership and six fishermen against the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association was dismissed on May 17 by an Anchorage Superior Court.

The plaintiffs argued that the association was overstepping state statutes in aligning itself with tribal and other groups to speak out against the threats posed by the proposed mine and should instead restrict its messages to marketing. The lawsuit was supported by the state of Alaska, a stance contrary to that of previous two governors, Sean Parnell and Bill Walker, who both acknowledged the association’s authority to spend its own funds at its own discretion.

In dismissing the case, Judge Yvonne Lamoureux said the association had the right to not only promote Bristol Bay salmon, but to take steps necessary to protect the integrity of that brand.

“Interpreting the statute as restricting RSDAs’ abilities to devote efforts regarding environmental concerns in their regions has the potential to produce some absurd results. For example, a RSDA could advertise and market its salmon as wild, pristine, and sustainable but would not be able to spend funds in a way to keep those brand identities authentic in its view or spend funds to signal to its consumers its efforts to maintain that brand identity,” Lamoureux wrote.

She also ordered the Pebble Partnership to pay the defendants’ attorney fees and costs.

In an email correspondence, I asked Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy what he would say to a roomful of Bristol Bay salmon fishermen, Native groups and others about his support of the Pebble lawsuit. Spokesman Matt Shuckerow responded: “Gov. Dunleavey has said that like all natural resource development projects, he would like to see the Pebble project follow the established permitting process. He says the outcome of that process will ultimately determine if the project meets the standards set forward in law and regulation.

“More broadly, the Governor’s position on resource development continues to be that we should take care of our environment while responsibly seizing opportunities here in Alaska. Rather than developing minerals across the globe in locations with little to no environmental safeguards, we should be doing our part here to allow Alaska resources to move safely to market.”

Dunleavy also did not support expanding the public comment period on the Pebble mine permit, which was extended to July 1.

Salmon starts!

Alaska’s 2019 salmon season officially got underway May 16 with catches of sockeyes and kings at Copper River -- a total of 2,237 king salmon and 20,474 sockeyes during the 12-hour opener.

“It looks like we might be back to normal,” said Bill Webber, a 52-year fishing veteran at Copper River, referring to last year when the total sockeye salmon harvest of 44,000 was the lowest in 120 years.

Starting prices also were reported as the highest ever, with sockeyes paying out at $10 a pound and $14 for chinook.

“Fish and Game takes three data points to create a trend and establish how the fishery is going, and Mother Nature might throw a curveball but I feel optimistic,” Webber added.

For 16 years, Webber’s Paradigm Seafoods has sold much of his salmon directly to customers, and he is renowned for the equipment he has created to enhance fish quality. All of the salmon are immediately processed onboard the Paradigm Shift using an automated intravenous pressure bleeding system, which as of this season can be regulated via cellphone.