The western Alaska census district named for a confederate slave owner and Civil War general has a new name.
Governor Bill Walker wrote Thursday to the Census Bureau to begin the process of changing the name from the Wade Hampton Census District to Kusilvak Census District. Katie Marquette is the governor’s press secretary. “That original name had no connection to the culture or history of Alaska and its people. With support of the people I mentioned, Governor Walker felt it was only appropriate that Alaska’s place names reflect and respect the diversity of our great state.”
The city and tribe of the largest community in the area, Hooper Bay, passed a resolution in support of a change and came up with the new, local name. A recent Alaska Dispatch News article brought the history to the forefront. Local and state politicians voiced their support for shedding the name of a Confederate general whose rise to political power was in tandem with terror campaign by a violent white-power group, the Red Shirts.
Edgar Hoelscher is the tribal chief for the Native Village of Hooper Bay. “Everyone knows in the early times, that man was a slaver and never had stepped into Alaska. Why should our area be named after a man we don’t even know about?”
Wade Hampton’s son in law was a territorial judge and named a nearby mining district after the South Carolina politician. That showed up in census data first in 1920 and stuck.
Myron Naneng, Association of Village Council President and Chairman of the Sea Lion Corporation, of Hooper Bay, and has been organizing behind the scenes to get a new name. “Kusilvak means the high one. It’s the mountain located between Scammon Bay and Mountain Village. It’s highest mountain in the area and there’s a lot of history associated with it.”
The peaks, which rise as high as 2200 feet, are visible from several villages and are used a landmark for traveling and navigating. Naneng says stories tell of a mole or mouse that attempted carry the mountain to the Bering Sea, but stopped short of the coast. Several nearby lakes are shaped like animal prints.
Hoelsher says having a local Yup’ik name honors the region’s people. “It shows that our elders and forefather were there, and we’re still living on the ground where they were.”
The name is mostly used for statistical and record keeping. There’s no regional government with the name, but it shows up in countless publications for borough-level information. That will change going foward. Eddie Hunsinger is the state demographer. He explains that the Census Bureau will begin to implement the new name in their records systems. “I don’t think it will be that difficult of a process. We expect that it will be in their next borough and census area release of data.”
That’s expected to be early next year. The Governor writes that he will use the new name from now on.
The Coast Guard Cutter Sherman had to return to Dutch Harbor a few days early this week. The cutter and its crew were forced to turn back from a regular patrol in the Bering Sea when one of the ship’s diesel engines malfunctioned.
The vessel’s public affairs specialist Alex Oswald says the coast Guard Cutter Sherman has a long history. It was first launched in 1968. “So the ship’s very, very old.” Oswald is a Junior Officer on board. “It’s actually on its way out. This class of ship is call the legend class cutters and they’re in the process of being replaced. This one is one of the last ones t be decommissioned.”
The Sherman has two turbines and two main diesel engines. Oswald says one of those engines failed. “I can’t disclose the specifics of what happened, but basically we just had a problem with the engine. We couldn’t get it to work the way we wanted it to, so we shut it don completely and we were just operating on one engine, so we had to come into port to fix the problem.”
Oswald says equipment was shipped into Dutch Harbor as part of the repair work. He wasn’t able to say if some of that work was contracted locally.
The Sherman is home-ported in San Diego. In 2001, it became the first coast guard cutter to circumnavigate the globe. The ship and its crew are in Alaska this summer to enforce fisheries regulations and provide search and rescue support. They are slated to depart again Monday.
The wildfires around Nulato and Ruby on the Yukon River have been burning slowly but steadily this week. The Nulato Fire has covered more than 26 thousand acres, while a series of fires around Ruby have burned close to 65 thousand acres.
A special crew of fire managers is overseeing the response to these fires from a base at the Galena Airport. The managers are being assisted by computers that help predict the future of a wildfire.
Sam Amato and Risa Lang-Navarro are sitting at a table in a windowless room, bank of laptops open in front of them. They are the analysts on Diane Hutton’s Northern Rockies Fire Management Team, which is in charge of fires near the villages of Ruby and Nulato. While other firefighters live in a world of Pulaskis, chainsaws and pumps – these two live in a world of data.
Temperature, wind speed, humidity, fuel type, fire behavior, satellite imagery, topography, and lots of other variables go into the computer models that Amato and Lang-Navarro run on their laptops – and what you get are predictions. It’s like a weather forecast, except with fire, showing where the fire is likely to move and how quickly it will get there.
Sam Amato is the long term analyst on the team. Even though the fire prediction models draw from reams of information in databases and coming in from automated weather observation stations, Amato says that the models still rely on human input to make them work well. “They are very rough estimates. So we depend a lot on information coming back from the field to help me pick the correct weather station, help me calibrate the fuels, ,change the fuel models to be more representative . Typically it will take between 3 days and a week to get the models where they are really helpful to the field, unless you are in a unit where there is a lot of fire activity, then they tend to have those pre-calibrated because they are doing this so much on that particular unit.”
Risa Lang-Navarro works more in the short term. As the fire behavior analyst it’s her job to get forecasts to fire crew in the field for the next day or two, while Amato often looks a week or two into the future.
She too believes that it is important to get away from the desk and see the fire with her own eyes. “Not only looking at the fuels and topography out there, but also interacting with the crews and getting their feedback. Because I basically put a fire behavior forecast together and a spot weather forecast together and then it is out in the field. So getting that feedback, saying ‘OK, am I getting what you guys are seeing out in my forecast. Do I need to change anything? Or do you need anything else.’”
This past week on the Nulato Fire, the analysts used the computer models to simulate an expansion of the fire to more cabins and allotments upriver to the northeast, and found that if firefighters concentrated their efforts on two particular hot spots, the chances of that expansion were significantly lower. So on Thursday fire managers assigned a helicopter to drop water on those hotspots.
That’s an example of how managers, like Incident Commander Diane Hutton, have come to embrace computer predictions as a way to eliminate much of the guesswork and allocate resources more effectively. “And they’ll tell us approximately the probability of when structures or values at risk are going to be impacted, so we know if we have time to get out in front and get some of that done. So they help us on our prioritization on the fire, of where we need to be putting our people.”
Hutton has been an incident commander for 6 years, and remembers a time when a couple of people with laptops would not have been able to drop into a remote site and do the kind of computer modeling that they do today. “Used to take big computers and big servers to run some of the models that they run. You couldn’t just run them out in the field. And that has improved probably just in the past couple of years. Of course you have to have an internet connection, and we been able to do that in the past. Our team usually gets stuck in some little cabin out in the middle of the wilderness someplace, and so the fact that we can bring in satellite dishes now and have internet connectivity about anywhere we go has made us be able to use that resource without having to do it from a remote station.”
The main challenge with the whole system is a familiar one to many rural Alaska residents: slow internet speeds.
Wade Hampton Census Area Gets A New Name
Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel
The western Alaska census district named for a confederate slave owner and
Civil War general has a new name.
Coast Guard Cutter Sherman Returns To Port To Address Engine Trouble
Emily Schwing, KUCB – Unalaska
The cutter and its crew were forced to turn back from a regular patrol in the Bering Sea when one of the ship’s diesel engines malfunctioned.
Computers Aid Firefighting Efforts
Tim Bodony, KIYU – Galena
The wildfires around Nulato and Ruby on the Yukon River have been burning slowly but steadily this week. A special crew of fire managers is overseeing the response to these fires from a base at the Galena Airport.
State Fish And Game Officials Warn Of ‘Rabbit Fever’ Outbreak
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials sent out a warning after a North Pole man was sickened by tularemia, a bacterial infection known as “rabbit fever.”
Haines Assembly Approves Lower Cruise Ship Moorage Fees
Haines has some of the lowest cruise ship moorage rates in Southeast Alaska. The borough assembly approved further lowering those fees for three summers.
Emily Files, KHNS – Haines
UAF Addresses Water Quality Concerns
The University of Alaska Fairbanks has taken action to address campus water quality, after testing this spring revealed an issue.
Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks
AK: Seward’s Mount Marathon Race Hits The Century Mark
Seward’s Mt. Marathon race, which takes place July 4th turns one hundred years old this year.
Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage
All eyes are on the nation’s July 4 birthday, but the date also marks the anniversary of an Alaska tradition. Seward’s Mt. Marathon race, which takes place July 4 turns 100 years old this year. The race is a one of a kind, grueling, uphill run, and now it is the subject of a documentary film aimed at putting a face on the men and women who take the challenge.
The story has it that a bar bet started the Mt. Marathon race. A wager that a man could run to the top of the slippery mountain and back inside of an hour. He almost made it. The first organized race was held in 1915. Max Romey, the University of Western Washington filmmaker, and track and field athlete, thinks that the race is the ultimate challenge.
“In 2013 is kind of when this film started. I went down to Seward to check out this race called Mt. Marathon. So I get there the day before the race I head up the mountain, and it just blew my mind.”
That’s Romey, who along with co-producer Natalie Fedock filmed last year’s race, focusing on nine of the runners to find out what drives them to attack the mountain. The documentary, 3022 ft., was released last month [June] in Anchorage.
Romey, who’s lanky frame perfectly fits a runner’s profile, says the sport of running doesn’t have heroes, like basketball, football and even snowboarding do. He’s out to put his filmmaking skills on the line to show that runners are not as interested in celebrity as they are in pushing past their own boundaries.
“Without the fame and glory, why do people do this. And that’s exactly what this film kind of hits on. It doesn’t hit on the individual people or how they trained or the history of the race, or Alaska. It just sort of hits on the spirit of what drives runners to do this race or do any race.”
But Mt. Marathon is not just any race. It’s unique, even in Alaska. And Romey discovered during the process of filming, it attracts athletes who are racing, not so much to win, but really to conquer something inside themselves.
“To win this race, you have to dedicate your life to it. Basically. You have to be everything you can be on that day. And if you cross that finish line first, there is about two thousand people who will know what you went through. total. They are doing it, not because of the fame, not because of the glory, there is no prize money, and they are literally just doing this because they care about what it means to them, which I think is so special and really admirable and something that we want to capture, which I think we did.”
The runners in the film range from current men’s champ and record holder Eric Strabel, and women’s 2014 winner Holly Brooks to teenager Allie Ostrander, who is the first girl to win the junior co-ed Mt. Marathon contest.
“Mt.Marathon is definitely like the idealistic. tough Alaskan race. It’s just all up, and there are no breaks.”
“What’s really cool is what people bring to the mountain. That’s where the character, that’s what flavors this whole story, is like what is actually brought to this race by the people. And that is year’s of training, they do bring kind of their hopes and dreams and everything, but I think, mostly, they just bring their best. When you have a thousand people throwing everything they’ve got at a single rock, like all the stories behind that just turn into something really exciting.”
And it can be a heartbreaking contest. Last year, Olympic skier Brooks won by only two seconds, chased to the finish by mom of three Christy Marvin.
Romey says the female athletes who compete deserve every bit of respect given to the male competitors.
The race is just over three miles.. the first half straight up, but the descent is considered even more difficult.
“I’ve heard it being compared to jumping out of a bus at forty miles an hour.”
So, who would do that? Runners, who Romey says range on a scale from one to crazy. But on a more serious level, the race’s tough course is a measure of personal strength.
“I kind of hope that, what this movie does, is that people don’t hold people in this movie above themselves. I hope that people see the stores in this movie and then internalize that. And are able to say, like, ‘yeah, she did it, and she did it because she believed in herself. And she did it, she had it really hard, but she kind of kept on pushing and she made it happen. And I’m kind of hoping that people see that, and are inspired by that. And that’s my real goal, not to make stars out of this, but to kind of take their strength and pass it on to other people.”
That special strength, that drive to go further, is something that champ Holly Brooks recognizes in herself…
“It isn’t always just about beating other people, but it’s about finding excellence in myself, and that’s kind of the challenge that Mt. Marathon puts in front of you, in the form of a 3, 000-foot bloody, dirty, gritty mountain. ”
This year’s Mount Marathon race promises to be more exciting than ever, with two international running stars competing. Spain’s Kilian Jornet will be in the men’s race and his girlfriend Emelie Forsberg, from Sweden will line up with the women.
The bill would amend the Child Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention Act of 1965 and define standards sexual abuse awareness and prevention programs must meet to qualify for funding.
The bill requires the program’s curriculum “be based upon an assessment of objective data” in order to improve student safety and health, and to strengthen parent and community engagement. The program must also consider input from teachers, principals, school leaders and parents.
Programs funded by the grant would be required to undergo a periodic third-party evaluation to assess the effectiveness of the program. Schools would be required to use the results of the evaluation to improve their program.
The final clause in the bill prohibits the federal government from mandating, directing or controlling the programs developed by local schools.
The Alaska Legislature passed a version of Erin’s Law — the Alaska Safe Children’s Act — last month during a special session. The bill was first introduced during the 2014 session by Rep. Geran Tarr of Anchorage. The bill died in committee, but was reintroduced in 2015 by Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate.
U.S. Senate Bill 1665 was released just as Congress was breaking for the Fourth of July. Spokespersons for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young all said the lawmakers were looking forward to reviewing the bill.
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, are sponsoring the bill.
A burn ban that has been lifted for most of the state remains in affect for the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta region.
Fire officials say drought conditions have fire danger at high levels throughout the region and no burning or setting off fireworks will be allowed.
Bethel fire chief Bill Howell explains what’s allowed and what’s not.
“Fireworks are not going to be allowed, as of today. That doesn’t mean that that could not be changed if we get some significant rain. Charcoal grills, outdoor fireplaces, outdoor fire pits, burn barrels – those things are not allowed right now. What is allowed is propane grills, contained electrical grills and smokers and also smoking fish in a traditional smoke house and also steam baths are still okay to use,” said Howell.
Bethel fire officials are asking residents to cooperate. Howell says officials will be enforcing code during the holiday weekend. If convicted, citation fines for violating the fire and fireworks ban range from $25 to $500 dollars and can include 10 days to six months in jail.
The burn ban and fireworks ban is also in affect in Anchorage.
A Haines man faces misdemeanor charges after shooting three brown bears on his property last month.
The Beach Road resident was charged on June 27th with three Class A misdemeanors.
The man contacted Haines police and Alaska Wildlife Troopers on June 17th to report he shot a sow and two cubs that were getting into his trash.
A dispatch from state troopers says an investigation found he did not follow the regulations in place for taking of game in defense of life or property.
The man was issued a summons to appear in Haines court.
Haines has some of the lowest cruise ship moorage fees in Southeast Alaska. And last week, the borough assembly approved further lowering those fees for three summers. The assembly accepted a resolution that would give 50 percent off waivers to all cruise ships for a three-year time period. It’s part of a marketing plan to draw more ships to Haines.
This summer, Haines sees about one or two cruise ships each week. Depending on their size, the vessels pay around $3,000 to pull into port. The resolution the borough assembly passed would give a 50 percent discount on that fee in the summers of 2017 to 2019.
“We need a stronger incentive package to attract ships,” said Haines Tourism Director Leslie Ross. “Why a waiver? We have an empty dock. We have one ship per week, we have this gorgeous dock that we sunk $6 million dollars into. It’s not just going to affect tour operators, it affects our businesses, our restaurants. It’s a business expansion that goes across the entire town.”
Ross said Haines has tough competition for cruise ship traffic, with Skagway and Juneau nearby. Both of those towns are ‘tier one’ ports. They have destinations like Skagway’s White Pass and Yukon Railroad that financially benefit cruise lines. Ross says going to cruise lines with a moorage discount will strengthen her pitch for Haines and hopefully boost cruise ship traffic long-term.
In 2012, the borough assembly approved waiving docking fees for two new ships for the 2015 season – the Golden Princess and the Celebrity Infinity. Ross says those ships gave evidence the cruise ship waivers pay for themselves in sales tax.
“When the Golden Princess came in this year, they sold 1,200 tours,” Ross said. “And I know that for a fact. We can estimate an average of $75 per tour. So that’s what we get sales tax off of. So that estimates $4,950 in sales tax just from the tours sold.”
Assemblyman Dave Berry pointed out that the Princess and Infinity only scheduled one or two dockings in Haines this summer. He said in order to make the economy strong enough to support new businesses here, he would want to see the ships come in on a regular basis – more like once a week, not once a summer.
“I need to see where ship number one is not going to come in once, but it’s gonna come in 15 times, ship number two is not going to come in once, it’s gonna come in 12 times,” Berry said.
He suggested a tiered incentive that would motivate cruise ships to schedule multiple dockings. Tour company owner Sean Gaffney responded. He said cruise lines have been reluctant to come to Haines in the past 15 years.
“We’re moving to a place that they’re willing to try, but to give them room to do it, without trying to bind or commit them.” Gaffney said. “And the onus is still on us entirely to show them. I think we’re doing it, but I don’t think we’re a place to demand it.
Gaffney is on the tourism advisory board, which recommended the 50 percent, three-year incentive over two other options because they thought it was the simplest one.
Another question that came up was whether ships that already come to Haines will get fee waivers as well. Assemblyman Ron Jackson said waiving fees for the current ships would mean an estimated $40,000 loss in revenue for the borough.
“I think we need to word this so that it’s about the new ships coming in, not about giving a gift to the ones that are already coming in,” Jackson said.
Assembly member George Campbell disagreed. He said offering the waiver to new ships only could aggravate the current ships and encourage them to dock somewhere else.
Campbell recognized that if the incentive doesn’t draw any new ships to Haines, the borough would suffer a financial loss.
“It has potential to fall on its face and it has great potential to help our economies,” Campbell said.
The majority of the assembly seemed to think the positive potential outweighed the negative. No one moved to change the waiver proposal. The assembly approved the resolution in a 5-1 vote, with Jackson opposed.
That question of whether the 50 percent off deal will actually work won’t be answered for some time. The incentive starts in 2017, because cruise lines have already set their schedules for next summer.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials are warning residents after a North Pole man was sickened by tularemia, a bacterial infection known as “rabbit fever.”
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that the man became sick after skinning a hare this spring.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, human tularemia cases in the United States are relatively rare, with fewer than 200 cases reported per year between 1990 and 2013.
Tularemia symptoms include fever, sore throat and swollen glands. It can be fatal if untreated.
It’s often transmitted to people handling infected rabbits, hares, beavers and muskrats.
Fish and Game advises that Alaska residents try to keep their animals away from hares, which will be slower if they are infected, making them easier to catch.
A man is under arrest after shooting at people in the middle Kuskokwim village of Crooked Creek, Wednesday.
Aniak-based Alaska State Troopers received a report that Moses Alfred John of Crooked Creek was shooting at people on the riverbank near a fish cutting area.
They say the 30-year-old shot his rifle from his boat towards three adults and three children.
Moses said he was attempting to kill one of the adults whom he had attempted to assault with knives earlier. Troopers say a knife pierced an item of clothing, but nobody was injured. Troopers say in their report Moses was intoxicated.
He was arrested and transported to Bethel where he was jailed without bail. He’s scheduled to be arraigned at 1:30 this afternoon. He’s charged with attempted murder, assault, reckless endangerment and misconduct involving weapons.
If humans don’t reverse global warming and stop the loss of sea ice, it’s unlikely polar bears will continue as a species.
That’s the blunt assessment in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s draft recovery plan for polar bears filed Thursday. The agency listed the animals as threatened in 2008.
Greenhouse gas emissions contribute to global warming, which is reducing the amount of summer sea ice in the Arctic. Polar bears use sea ice for feeding, mating and giving birth.
The plan says the first and foremost action for polar bear recovery is to stop Arctic warming. It says accomplishing that will require global action.
The estimated worldwide population of polar bears is about 20,000 to 25,000. The only U.S. state with the iconic animals is Alaska, and government scientists say those bears could be among the first to see global warming’s ill effects.
Funding cuts have forced Alaska hatcheries to stop raising Arctic grayling.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports the manager of Ruth Burnett Sport Fish Hatchery in Fairbanks, Gary George, says the state chose to cut grayling because the small, native fish are disproportionately expensive to raise.
The canceled grayling program makes up 11 percent of the fish that the Fairbanks hatchery planned to stock next year. The decision also removes grayling production at the William Jack Hernandez Sport Fish Hatchery in Anchorage.
Stocking will continue at near-planned levels for rainbow trout, salmon and arctic char.
George says it’ll be easy to restore production at the hatchery if funding for stocked grayling were to be restored in the future.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision and legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. But in the same week, the rainbow flag was burned outside of Identity, Anchorage’s LGBT community center. In these fast changing times, what challenges and successes are the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer communities facing here in Alaska?
HOST: Anne Hillman
- Melissa Green, activist and researcher
- Josh Hemsath, Regional Development Organizer, Pride Foundation
KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, July 3 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, July 4 at 6:00 p.m.
Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, July 3 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, July 4 at 4:30 p.m.
Cross-Border Salmon Dispute Puts A Damper on Summer Troll Opener
Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka
Harbors emptied throughout Southeast this week as fishermen headed out for the beginning of the summer troll season.
Bristol Bay Sockeye: A Run on the Brink?
David Bedinger, KDLG – Dillingham
Alaska’s largest sockeye salmon fishery was predicted to have a near-record return this summer, but so far the reds have only trickled into Bristol Bay’s rivers.
Berkowitz Emphasizes New Tone for a New Anchorage in Inaugural Address
Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage
Yesterday, Ethan Berkowitz formally became the new Mayor of Anchorage.
Anchorage’s 2014-2015 Snowfall Levels Lowest on Record
Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage
As July begins and the National Weather Service resets their annual snowfall totals to zero, it’s official — Anchorage’s snowfall levels last winter are the lowest on record.
Alaska’s Shoreline Erosion Rate Among Highest Worldwide
Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage
A new study from the U.S. Geological Survey finds that Alaska’s northern coast has some of the highest rates of erosion in the world.
Parasite Plagues Some Yukon Kings
Laura Kraegel, KNOM – Nome
As salmon swim up the Yukon River, subsistence fishermen continue to express frustration about gear restrictions, closures, and — now — potentially infected fish.
Hjalmar “Ofi” Olson, Bristol Bay elder, dies at 75
David Bedinger, KDLG – Dillingham
Bristol Bay elder Hjalmar “Ofi” Olson passed away at an Anchorage hospital late Wednesday, according to family friends. Olson, who had been battling kidney failure for weeks, was 75.
Sea Shanties, Scurvy, and a Sailboat Regatta Without Wind
Shady Grove Oliver, KBBI – Homer
The 19th annual Land’s End Regatta ended the way a sailboat race shouldn’t- it was called on the second day for lack of wind.
Harbors emptied throughout Southeast this week as fishermen headed out for the beginning of the summer troll season. July 1 marks the annual start of the summer’s first king salmon opener — the most lucrative time of the year for many trollers. And signs point to a banner year for king salmon. But Southeast fishermen say they’re not getting their fair share of those kings. The State of Alaska has been locked in a fight with its neighbors to the south over how many fish the fleet can catch. For now, at least, Alaska seems to have lost — and that has led to calls to change the system.
It’s been an uncertain, unsettled spring for many Southeast salmon fishermen. Bert Bergman is a troller in Sitka.
“It’s been real frustrating because nobody knows what’s going to happen, and usually by now, the quota’s been announced two months ago,” he says. “Nobody knows how many fish we’re catching, or why the number’s low, or how we got this way.”
Usually, fishermen have two numbers in hand before the summer season starts: an estimate of how many kings are out there, and how many they’re allowed to catch. This year, with the season already underway, they don’t have either.
“And basically, we’ve had to guess, and dock rumors have ruled the day, instead of reason and facts.”
That uncertainty came from the Pacific Salmon Commission, which implements the U.S.-Canada Pacific Salmon Treaty. Each year, the commission has to come up with an estimate of king salmon abundance, determine how many kings Alaska fishermen can catch, and decide how many will pass on to Canada, Washington and Oregon. But this year, the Commission deadlocked over those figures — leading to months of wrangling. Days before the summer opening, fishermen weren’t sure they’d be fishing at all.
Finally, in late June, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game announced that it would open the summer king salmon fishery, and it would be managed assuming low king salmon abundance. But the state explicitly said it believes that estimate is wrong.
“I wouldn’t say that we chose this course of action,” Swanton says.
That’s Charlie Swanton, Alaska’s representative on the salmon commission. He says Alaska was backed into a corner after representatives from the Pacific Northwest and federal government threatened to take the state to court.
But, he says, it’s not the end of the conversation.
“It’s hardened my resolve to turn around and find some solutions such that Alaskans get their fair share of the fish that migrate by our coastal communities.”
Alaska believes the model used by the Commission is deeply flawed. Last year was a huge year for king salmon in Southeast, and the winter troll fishery was also strong. Meanwhile, forecasts are calling for major returns to the Columbia River basin. All of that suggests a big year for chinook, Swanton says.
But even though Alaska didn’t win any concessions this year, the Commission has agreed to revisit its model before next year’s fishery.
Dale Kelley, of the Alaska Trollers Association, says that change can’t come soon enough:
“We’ve had thirty years of trying to pay for the sins of the south on habitat destruction. We’ve cared for fish and repeatedly made sacrifices on behalf of our industry and the region just to rebuild runs that are through the roof.”
And now, she says, Alaskans should be benefitting from those rebuilt stocks. She says trollers don’t mind taking fewer fish in years of actual low abundance. But she warns that when the model isn’t reliable, it undermines the entire management system.
Though the Department of Fish & Game hasn’t announced a quota, Kelley fears Alaska fishermen — commercial and sport — will be allowed about 237,000 kings this year, down from nearly 440,000 last year.
“They’re just busting our chops with this quota, this up and down thing. There’s no sustainability, no sense of security that they know what they’re getting year to year.”
Troller Bert Bergman says it’s clear the process is not working.
“I mean, we’re at the, I’ve never seen as many king salmon in the ocean as I’ve seen now, and I’ve got four generations of trollers in my family. To not get part of that fish when we’ve made all the sacrifices to help rebuild the runs, and we help pay for the hatcheries, and then to not get some of that feels like we’ve been sold out by the southern states and the National Marine Fisheries Service and NOAA.”
But for now, he says, he’s got no choice. Whatever the quota is, he’s fishing it.
“I think I’m gonna just take a lot of ice and listen to the radio, and see what happens,” Bergman says.
And fishermen around Southeast are doing the same thing.
Alaska’s largest sockeye fishery is predicted to have a near record return this summer, but so far the reds have only trickled into Bristol Bay’s rivers.
Through Tuesday, 3.4 million sockeye have been harvested, and the total run including escapement is 5.3 million fish. Given that Fish and Game’s preseason estimates suggested 54 million sockeye would return, with 38 million available for harvest, there was more head scratching than fish picking happening as June turned into July.
There are three questions on the mind of most: Are all those fish going to show up, if so, when, and will they hit all at once?
KDLG, Bristol Bay’s public (and often only) radio station, produces a nightly newscast dedicated to the fishery. Daily, we speak with Fish and Game managers, researchers from the University of Washington’s Fisheries Research Institute, and analysts at the Port Moller Test Fishery.
The consensus a week ago was, “The fish should be here any day now.”
The closest this fishery has to a crystal ball is the Port Moller Test Fishery, which catches sockeye at a series of stations spread offshore from Port Moller. Most of the sockeye caught there are bound for Bristol Bay’s districts, and those that aren’t caught will arrive in 2-11 days. Between genetic sampling of the catch and some study of past data, the timing and size of the run comes into view.
Provided, that is, some sockeye start to show up inshore, either harvested by the fleet or counted as escapement up area rivers. The research team needs the “catch and escapement” data to reference back to their test fishery numbers. Port Moller’s catches picked up by June 17, but a week passed and few sockeye arrived inshore.
The suspicion around the Bay for a week has been that the sockeye are balling up between Port Moller and the districts, maybe waiting for a weather change to make a big push upstream. Fishermen and processors worry about a “wall of fish” that will be too large to catch or process.
Or the preseason run forecast could be off, though no one has put up that white flag yet.
“Fish being late is the first part of them not showing up,” said F/V Stevie K skipper Buck Gibbons a week ago. Gibbons reiterated that comment Wednesday night, after a slow harvest and another day of down time in Naknek-Kvichak.
Fish and Game and PMTF are leery of making in-season predictions. Some tell us they want to avoid the “Greenspan effect,” named former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, whose words, it is said, could move markets. But by Wednesday evening, Port Moller and Fish and Game were hinting at problems.
“The run seems to be late if it is to break 30 million, and several days late for it come in at the preseason forecast,” wrote PMTF’s data analyst Scott Raborn.
“It certainly has the feeling of being potentially slightly smaller than forecast,” said Fish and Game Commercial FisheriesDirector Jeff Regnart, who was in Dillingham Wednesday. He added that the sockeye are smaller than expected, and the run seems late, too.
Right now, the Naknek-Kvichak district is lagging the furthest behind. After a long and at times impatient period of waiting, the first open periods offered the eager fleet little harvest.
“So far I haven’t seen a fish in my net yet,” Pederson Point set netter Sylvia Elford told KDLG about an hour into Monday’s opener. The day before her site had delivered only 140 pounds.
“Out of the 20 days we’ve been here, we’ve bought fish twice,” said Rob Trumble, skipper of the fishing tender Denali. “We have 11,000 pounds packed. It’s been the most different year ever.”
Fish and Game’s preseason forecast predicted 28.8 million sockeye returning to Naknek-Kvichak, with 18 million available for harvest. Through Tuesday, only 834,000 sockeye had been accounted for.
“It’s been really frustrating,” said Gabe Dunham aboard the F/V Oracle in Naknek Wednesday evening. His boat has been in the water since June 18. “This down time, best I can say for it, is that it’s been good for shoreside businesses.”
Fishermen are not leaving the district, despite the wait. In fact, more boats and more permits are registered to fish Naknek-Kvichak than any other district, and more are added every day.
That’s because fishermen know Bristol Bay’s run size and timing changes every year. They like to throw jabs at the biologists and gripe about their processors, but they also know that rolling with the punches of the world’s greatest sockeye run is part of the job, and part of the fun. “That’s why it’s called fishing, not catching,” a reporter will hear a hundred times a season.
“The last couple of years have been one way, and this year has definitely shaped up to be a different way,” said Lange Solberg on the F/V Opie II.
Solberg was frustrated when he spoke with us Wednesday evening. But he also counts himself among the optimists who say that a big push, the “wall of fish,” will be here soon.
“Hopefully by July 4 we’ll be up to our eyeballs in fish,” he said.
Bristol Bay elder Hjalmar E. “Ofi” Olson passed away at an Anchorage hospital at the age of 75. Olson was battling kidney failure, and his health was deteriorating in recent months. He was medevaced to Anchorage Sunday, and according to a family friend, was taken off dialysis mid-week. He succumbed late Wednesday or early Thursday, surrounded by family.
“I think we all knew that he wasn’t in the best of health, and I just learned very early this morning that he had passed,” said Bryce Edgmon Thursday morning. “A big shock to everyone, even though we all knew his health was in decline. Very sorry to see him go.”
Edgmon spent Saturday evening with Ofi, driving around town, the harbor, boat yard, and visiting subsistence sites all the way down Kananakak Beach.
“We watched a number of the set net boats being launched, and listened to the Fish and Game announcements, and really just had a very nice, quiet, reflective evening,” he said.
Olson remained in good spirits and his mind was sharp, even as his health grew worse and he spent more time at a hospital in Anchorage.
“We were down in the boat yard, and he was naming off all the boats that were still there, and why they weren’t going out, engine problems, whatever was the case. He was absolutely very sharp up until the very end,” said Edgmon.
Ofi Olson was a Bristol Bay fisherman, and was the longtime president, CEO, and chairman of the board of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. He also sat on a number of other boards, commissions, and panels throughout an active career as one of the region’s most prominent leaders.
“I think his legacy is so rich, and so profound, that it’s only going to grow over time,” said Edgmon. “Ofi was the chairman of the BBNC board, I think, for the longest tenure of any chairman in the history of the state. As iconic figures are known, all you had to say was “Ofi” and people knew who you were talking about.”
As of Thursday morning, there was no information about funeral arrangements. A family friend did say there was consideration of delaying a funeral until after the commercial fishing season.
“I think as time goes on, and his service is held, we’re going to find that a lot of people throughout the state, a lot of Alaska Native leaders, a lot of people in the Native Corporation world and elsewhere, are going to be coming to town and paying their respects to Ofi,” said Edgmon.
As Yukon salmon continue their summer runs, subsistence fishermen continue to express frustration about gear restrictions, closures, and — now — potentially infected fish.
When managers and fishermen met for their weekly teleconference on Tuesday, they heard reports of discoloration and pus in chum salmon from callers in Pilot Station, Russian Mission, and Fairbanks.
“Folks here complaining about summer chums having white patches and pus sacs … A lot of these fish have pus in the meat, so that’s a bummer … Kind of little pockets of pus when you fillet the fish. That’ll be about the size of a pea or maybe a little smaller. And I know that in warm water, which is what we have right now, that ichthyophonus really grows rapidly if the fish is infected.”
Stephanie Schmidt, summer season area management biologist for the Yukon for the Alaska Depart of Fish & Game, says the parasite ichthyophonus could be the culprit. Fish & Game says the pathogen is not harmful to humans, and Schmidt invites fishermen to submit samples for testing if they’re concerned.
The summer chum run is now estimated at 1.3 to 1.5 million fish, which is average but below Fish & Game’s preseason predictions. The first pulses are passing through Tanana, Koyukuk, and Kaltag, but many stragglers are still lingering in the lower river. Schmidt says that’s led to record numbers for commercial fishermen.
“There have been record catches of summer chum salmon with dip nets this year in district one and district two. To date, the dip net and beach seine commercial fishery in these lower districts have caught 185,700 summer chum salmon and they’ve released just over 8,000 Chinook salmon.”
Meanwhile, subsistence fishing has been a mixed bag. Abundant chums on the lower Yukon have helped fishermen like Joseph in Nunam Iqua to fill his racks.
“They had a three-hour subsistence opening on Tuesday, and we were finally able to fish with pride. I was able to get 118 chums and six kings, and I was so happy for the kings.”
But fishermen upriver have struggled to meet their subsistence needs, citing plenty of activity but little production. Jack in Kotlik says gear restrictions are largely to blame.
“I’m not familiar with using a dip net. I grew up using gillnets, and I’m not going to switch back to the white man’s way of fishing. I’d rather fish the way that my ancestors fished, so I have to go to Point Romanoff to catch my subsistence fishing. We’re allowed to keep our kings on that side.”
Fish & Game is continuing efforts to protect the kings through strategic closures, but Chinook numbers are still weak. 81-thousand kings had passed through Pilot Station by the end of June —about 20-thousand fish fewer than the historical average. The possibility for incidental harvest of Chinook has been discussed — and even allowed — for short periods in areas with strong passages of chum. But the general call for immediate release, coupled with gear restrictions, hasn’t allowed for much — which Ellis in Ruby says continues to harm traditional subsistence practices.
“Us not having a chance to actually set nets, do the traditional cutting, whatnot … I see this tradition slowly dying. This is very important to my village and our subsistence needs in my village are not being met at all.”
Jack in Kotlik echoed that closures conflict with Native practices.
“We grew up eating our staple foods all our lives and now you guys are just making criminals out of Alaska Natives and I don’t like that,” he says.
Schmidt points out that Fish & Game is trying to work with fishermen on gear usage and incidental take of Chinook. For instance:
“There are new regulations up in 4A upper that allow drift net gear during this time of the season. Didn’t want to just limit you to set net gear only. We also in case anyone does have a fish wheel, we are removing the condition that you have to man your fish wheel at all time and release all king salmon.”
Schmidt says it’s possible that king escapement goals will be reached this year, but conservative management strategies will continue to ensure that happens.
As July begins and the National Weather Service resets their annual snowfall totals to zero, it’s official — Anchorage’s snowfall levels last winter are the lowest on record.
Anchorage’s official total for the 2014-2015 snowfall season is 25.1 inches.
National Weather Service meteorologist Dave Snider says that beat the previous record – set in 1957-58 – by more than 5 inches.
“Something else to keep in mind is this new record is about 1/3 of the normal seasonal snowfall, which is about 74.5 inches, or so,” Snider said. “We count that over about 30 years and take the average.”
Snider says only three of the last 12 months exceeded the normal monthly precipitation averages. And he says the effects of such a low snow winter are evident in this year’s busy fire season.
“The snow here in Anchorage is just a point representation, but many other locations, like the Susitna Valley; like the western Kenai Peninsula, all those regions were very low on snow this year,” Snider said. “And that affects the moisture level of the ground, of the shrubs and the landscape, and all that is feeding into the dramatic fire season we’re seeing this year.”
Wildfires have burned 2,253,575 acres so far this summer.
This year’s record low comes just three year’s after Anchorage saw a record-high annual snowfall of 134.5 inches in the 2011-12 season.