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Decision on salmon vs. coal showdown at Chuitna postponed until fall

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  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published May 22, 2015

Alaskans will have to wait until fall to learn if salmon habitat prevails over a coal mine proposed for Upper Cook Inlet.

A decision due earlier this month by the state Department of Natural Resources has been delayed until after a public hearing later this summer, said Ed Fogels, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

At issue are competing water rights claims filed in 2009 by the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and PacRim Coal of Delaware and Texas. The coalition wants to protect spawning tributaries of the Chuitna River, dubbed by some as the Kenai of the West Side. PacRim wants to dig Alaska's largest coal mine.

DNR received more than 7,500 public comments in favor of water rights for salmon by the May 9 deadline.

It's no surprise that the coal versus fish face-off moves on to a hearing, as both sides want the final say.

"This will be a public hearing with testimony to be provided by individuals or groups who filed objection(s) to the reservation of water applications, or to the information and analyses produced by water resources section staff," Fogels said via email, adding that the hearing details are being worked out.

Should DNR rule in favor of coal over salmon habitat, the decision will set an unsettling state precedent.

"It would be the first time in Alaska's state history that we would allow an Outside corporation to mine completely through a salmon stream," said Bob Shavelson, a director at Cook Inletkeeper, a nonprofit advocacy group aimed at protecting Cook Inlet. "And the sole purpose is to ship coal to China. It's really a very dangerous precedent, because if they can do it here in Cook Inlet, they will be able to do it anywhere in the state. It could soon be coming to a river near you."

Cook Inletkeeper, along with the coalition and Alaska Center for the Environment, requested the hearing. They objected to aspects of DNR's analyses, such as including only coho salmon in the stock analysis and using only dock prices to quantify the value of the entire Chuitna watershed.

PacRim spokesmen have argued for years that they can restore the salmon habitat after the coal is extracted. PacRim data show that the first phase of the project would remove and de-water 20 square miles of salmon habitat, dig down 300 feet and discharge 7 million gallons of mine waste a day into the Chuitna River. All together, the project calls for extracting 12 million tons of low-grade coal a year for 25 years.

Dave Schade, DNR's water resources section chief, agreed that the water rights decision is precedent setting, and that it comes down to "saying yes to one applicant, and no to the other."

The hearing will be Aug. 21 at the U.S. Federal Building Annex in Anchorage. Fogels expects a decision by Oct. 9.

Sidelined

Two Alaskans won't vote on whether to cut the halibut bycatch by the Bering Sea groundfish fishery when the North Pacific Fishery Management Council convenes the week of June 1. Council members Simon Kinneen of Nome and David Long of Wasilla are recused from voting due to financial conflicts of interest. Kinneen is vice president of the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. Long is a captain and fish master for Glacier Fish Co. Both will be able to participate in deliberations as the 11-member council (including seven Alaskans) grapples with reducing the more than 6 million pound halibut bycatch allowed the Bering Sea groundfish fishery.

Kenai’s Inlet Fish to be sold

North Pacific Processors is poised to purchase Inlet Fish of Kenai and Kasilof. The website seafood.com reports that John Garner, chief operations officer of North Pacific, confirmed last week that the company is "in advanced talks to purchase Inlet Fish." Inlet buys and processes salmon from Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Rivers.

The purchase would bring to seven the processing plants owned by North Pacific. Others are in Kodiak, Bristol Bay and Southeast Alaska. Garner said he is "optimistic about the future of Alaska salmon."

Boon for Aleutian fishermen

Alaskan-owned Cannon Fish Co. opens its doors this weekend in Kent, Washington. The company was purchased in 2013 by the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association (APICDA), one of six western Alaska Community Development Quota (CDQ) corporations. The CDQ program gives a percentage of all Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands fishing quotas to regional communities to enhance economic opportunities.

Cannon Fish is a high-end seafood processing and marketing company started in 1991 that caters to a nationwide network of retailers, restaurants, and specialty grocers. Most fish processed at Cannon is caught by fishing families from six Aleutian Island villages, said Larry Cotter of the community development association.

"It ties directly to our Alaska processing plants, Atka Pride Seafoods in Atka and Bering Pacific Seafoods at False Pass," he added.

Fish board surprise

The appointment of U.S. Air Force veteran Bob Mumford to the state Board of Fisheries came as a surprise to most Alaskans. Gov. Bill Walker announced the news May 20, crediting Mumford's "vast range of experience in multiple fields as a commercial pilot, hunting instructor and state trooper, which has taken him all over the state." Mumford, who lives in Anchorage, is a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife trooper who has worked for 18 years on sport and commercial fishing enforcement and also has served on the state Board of Game.

Lanie Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at msfish@alaska.com.

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