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Some Southeast Alaska fishermen speak out against push to exempt Tongass from roadless rule

The federal government’s plan to raze more roads through the Tongass National Forest is facing opposition from fishermen, Native groups and coastal communities throughout Southeast Alaska.

More than 220 Southeast Alaska fishermen signed a letter to the Trump administration last week opposing the abrupt push to exempt the Tongass National Forest from a roadless rule in place for over a decade. The exemption would release more than 9 million acres from protection and open nearly 200,000 acres to logging.

The U.S. Forest Service announced on Oct. 15 that it is seeking a full exemption from rules that ban more road building in the nation’s largest forest. Alaska would be the only state exempted from the federal law.

The fishermen’s letter, spearheaded by the Sitka Conservation Society and Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, was sent to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue telling him that fishing is the backbone of local economies and it relies on intact watersheds and salmon spawning grounds in the Tongass, which produces 80% of the salmon caught in the Southeast region.

The push has quickly generated support from other fronts.

The Skagway Borough Assembly passed a resolution last week in support of maintaining the roadless rule citing, among other things, the impact logging could have on tourism.

“I wonder what happens to that experience when cruise ships are passing by clear-cut areas, or when cruise ships dock in a port and people take a flight through an area that has been clear-cut or a place that you used to be able to fish like I’ve done in Baranoff that you can no longer do because the stream has been compromised,” Mayor Andrew Cremata said, as reported by radio station KHNS.

Likewise, six tribal governments issued a joint statement condemning the roadless exemption. They include the Angoon Cooperative Association, Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Hoonah Indian Association, Hydaburg Cooperative Association, and the Villages of Kake and Kasaan.

Their statement accused the federal agencies of ignoring the concerns of the tribes and said they were “deeply disappointed” by the process, according to the Juneau Empire.

The rollback of the roadless rule has the strong support of Alaska’s congressional delegation and “every statewide elected official in Alaska supports an exemption from the regulation,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski wrote in a Sept. 25 opinion piece in The Washington Post called “Why I support Trump’s proposal to lift restrictions in the Tongass.”

“The one-size-fits-all roadless rule is an unnecessary layer of paralyzing regulation that should never have been applied to Alaska,” Murkowski said, adding that the rule has hurt the timber industry and also affects “mining, transportation, energy and more.”

“When combined with national monument and other natural-setting land-use designations, more than 13 million acres of the Tongass are already explicitly restricted from resource development or are required to be managed as roadless areas. That’s nearly 80 percent of the forest,” Murkowski wrote. “It is also critical to understand that all of the designations listed above, and all of the protections they afford, will apply to the Tongass regardless of what happens with the roadless rule,” she added.

That doesn’t convince Sitka fisherman Eric Jordan, who was highly critical of the way in which the Forest Service began working on new rules shortly after Gov. Mike Dunleavy met with President Donald Trump aboard Air Force One in July. (That meeting also resulted in the abrupt pullback of protections for the Bristol Bay watershed by the EPA.)

“Their record is one of irresponsible top-down management without listening to their constituents,” Jordan said in a phone interview, adding that more people are meeting to make sure their voices are heard.

“People are taking notice of the draconian policies of this state and Trump’s leadership and there’s going to be consequences at the polls and in the courts,” Jordan said. “There will not be logging activities that they are envisioning because we’re going to tie it up in courts and demonstrations forever.”

The Forest Service has so far received more than 140,000 public comments on the proposed Tongass roadless rule with the majority being opposed to the change.

Comments are being accepted through Dec. 17 or by email to akroadlessrule@fs.fed.us. Comments also can be sent to USDA Forest Service, Attn: Alaska Roadless Rule, P.O. Box 21628, Juneau, AK 99802.

Halibut happenings

In a few weeks, the researchers who oversee and set the catch limits for the Pacific halibut stock will reveal how the fishery could play out next year. The interim meeting of the International Pacific Halibut Commission will take place Nov. 25-26 in Seattle.

Nearly all of the documents related to the fishery are now posted, including updates on the summer survey, minus stock assessments. That information will be revealed by Nov. 22.

The Pacific halibut resource is modeled as a single stock and each year’s survey is divided into 31 regions extending from Northern California to British Columbia and the far reaches of the Bering Sea.

From June through August, 18 longliners this year participated in surveys of nearly 1,370 stations, including 89 added to the Central Gulf of Alaska. The survey boats used 407,000 pounds of chum salmon as bait and caught nearly 860,000 pounds of halibut during the summer survey.

Most of the vessel contracts receive a lump sum payment plus a 10% share of the halibut proceeds. Data show how much the halibut fetched at all ports, ranging from $3.71 a pound at St. Paul to $7.76 at Cordova.

The total coastwide catch of Pacific halibut for 2019 was increased by 6% to nearly 25 million pounds. Alaska’s share was just under 20 million pounds, a 3 million pound boost from 2018.

The catch numbers for 2020 will be revealed at the IPHC’s annual meeting set for Feb. 3-7 at the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage. The eight-month fishery opens in March.

Up next: Expo

The proposed Pebble mine will be the subject of a keynote presentation at the Pacific Marine Expo set for Nov. 21-23 in Seattle.

“Pebble has gone from an Alaska issue to something that has really become important to everyone in the fishing and seafood communities. This is something that can impact a lot of people,” said Denielle Christensen, expo director. “A panel will look at the environmental impact statement, the science behind it and what this might mean. We’ve even including a chef who feels quite passionate about understanding what to communicate to consumers about the Pebble mine.”

Fishing safety also will be showcased — the U.S Coast Guard will advise about changing fishing vessel safety requirements along with crossing hazardous bars. Historically, such crossings have been one of the biggest risks inherent with commercial fishing in the Pacific Northwest.

“Responders are going to cover everything from understanding bar condition reporting, how and when to request a Coast Guard escort and what they can expect during an escort,” Christensen said.

More than 400 expo exhibitors are expected at the CenturyLink Center in Seattle. Other events include a Fisherman of the Year contest, Highliner Awards, Fisher Poets, daily happy hours and the first leg of the Alaska Symphony of Seafood competition, where the top winners will be announced.

See the expo lineup at pacificmarineexpo.com.

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