Alaska News

Anchorage School District Set to Lay Off More Than 200

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 17:00

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

Tuesday, the superintendent of the Anchorage School District announced how he will trim $23 million from the district’s budget.

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The cuts are mostly the result of several years of flat funding from the State of Alaska that does not keep up with inflation and cuts to federal grant programs along with rising health care costs. The district will cut more than 200 positions, including classroom teachers.

Everyone knew the cuts were coming, but they became real as Superintendent Ed Graff stepped up to the podium in the Anchorage School District Board Room to talk about the details. With a heavy voice he put it like this.

“These reductions are unprecedented, unlike anything I’ve seen in my 23 years in the Anchorage school district. For the last two years we faced gaps of $19 and $25 million. This year we face a $23 million dollar funding gap,” Graff said. “Having to restructure reduce and eliminate positions to address gaps of this magnitude every single year make it difficult to gain traction and jeopardizes our momentum to address the success of our students.”

Graff recommended cutting 219 positions, more than half of them teaching positions. Administration and support positions will also be eliminated.

Over the course of the past four years, the district has reduced its budget by nearly 500 full time equivalent positions which amounts to roughly 718 employees. That does not include the positions slated for elimination in the coming year. Graff says the district will also change the school day for high school and middle schools.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

“In an effort to offset the loss of teaching positions but still provide opportunities for students, the district is proposing to move comprehensive high school from a six-period to a seven-period schedule,” Graff said. “Middle schools are already on a seven-period schedule but teachers will move to teaching six of seven with the elimination of the middle school team planning time.”

Graff says the student-teacher ratio will go up. Specialty counselors, which were spared last year, are on the chopping block again. Non-staff cuts include sports travel and classroom materials, while student activity fees are expected to go up.

ASD School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler says the impacts of the budget shortfall are deeply concerning. She says the board is calling the community to action and explained that concerned citizens should press legislators to increase the base student allocation and find a long term formula to fund education sustainably.

“At the very least we would like to have the BSA inflation-proofed and help from the legislature on our biggest cost drivers which are health care insurance and the unfunded retirement liability,” Agosti-Gisler said.

Graff will present the proposed budget to the Anchorage School board in the Anchorage education Center board room Thursday at 4pm.

Public testimony will be taken and the school board will vote on the budget. Graff says he will issue pink slips in May.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage School District Set to Lay Off More than 200

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 16:57
Today (1/21 Tues) the Superintendent of the Anchorage School District announced how he will trim 23 million dollars from the district’s budget. The cuts are mostly the result of several years of flat funding from the State of Alaska that does not keep up with inflation and cuts to federal grant programs along with rising health care costs. The district will cut more than 200 positions, including classroom teachers. Everyone knew the cuts were coming. But they became real as Superintendent Ed Graph stepped up to the podium in the Anchorage School District Board Room to talk about the details. With a heavy voice he put it like this: “These reductions are unprecedented, unlike anything I’ve seen in my 23 years in the Anchorage school district. For the last two years we faced gaps of 19 and 25 million. This year we face a 23 million dollar funding gap. Having to restructure reduce and eliminate positions to address gaps of this magnitude every single year make it difficult to gain traction and jeopardizes our momentum to address the success of our students.” Graff recommended cutting 219 positions, more than half of them teaching positions. Administration and support positions will also be eliminated. Over the course of the past four years, the district has reduced its budget by nearly 500 full time equivalent positions which amounts to roughly 718 employees. That does not include the  positions slated for elimination in the coming year. Graff says the district will also change the school day for high school and middle schools. “In an effort to offset the loss of teaching positions but still provide opportunities for students, the district is proposing to move comprehensive high school from a six-period to a seven-period schedule. Middle schools are already on a seven-period schedule but teachers will move to teaching six of seven with the elimination of the middle school team planning time.” Graff says the student – teacher ratio will go up. Specialty counselors, which were spared last year, are on the chopping block again. Non-staff cuts include sports travel and classroom materials, while student activity fees are expected to go up.  ASD School Board President Tam Agosti-Gisler says the impacts of the budget shortfall are deeply concerning. She says the board is calling the community to action and explained that concerned citizens should press legislators to increase the base student allocation and find a long term formula to fund education sustainably. “At the very least we would like to have the BSA inflation-proofed and help from the legislature on our biggest cost drivers which are health care insurance and the unfunded retirement liability.” Graff will present the proposed budget to the Anchorage School board in the Anchorage education Center board room Thursday at 4pm. Pubic testimony will be taken and the school board will vote on the budget. Graff says he will issue pink slips in May.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Tuck, French Address Kerttula’s Departure, Legislative Priorities

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 15:01

Photo by Annie, Feidt, APRN – Anchorage.

With Kerttula’s resignation, the Democrats will have a new leadership team in the Legislature. Hollis French took over as Senate Minority leader from Johnny Ellis in a pre-arranged deal this session. And now Chris Tuck will become minority leader in the House. Representative Tuck says the Democrats are ready to move forward without Kerttula.

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Representative Chris Tuck, how surprising was it to learn about Representative Kerttula’s departure?

Rep. Tuck – We’ve had enough notice to get a caucus together and realign our visions with one another and be able to march forward.  We have a great team of people put together, with the new member that may be put on in Rep. Kerttula’s place, that will make us about 50% new members, so we have an exciting group of people with a lot of great ideas for the state, a lot of fresh faces and I think going forward you’re going to see a new type of caucus.

You mentioned realigning your ideas, your priorities, what would that involve?

Rep. Tuck – We want to make sure that we provide jobs for all Alaskans and not just any jobs, good paying jobs. We’re concerned about the deficits that we’re facing here in the future because that may cripple our economy so we’re trying to protect the revenues for the state of Alaska. We also want to make sure our economy continues forward and a big part of that economy is energy and a good solid education for future generations.

Senator French, you’ve been in the legislature for a long time, are you concerned with this shift that the democratic caucus may be ignored or not recognized?

Sen. French – Well let me just first say, I’ve worked with Beth since I first walked into this building 11 years ago. And so obviously we’re all going to miss her, she’s a source of positivity and people generally just like her because of those qualities. On the other hand, you know, life goes on. We’ve seen members leave, we saw Senator Elton leave in a similar way a few years ago and you know people adjust. You still have the same outlets of expression you had before and you just have to find new players to take those big shoes and fill them.

Will this change the priorities you have for this session?

Sen. French – You know I think we’re going to be coming back over and over again to the deficits, to education and to this proposed gas pipeline and we’ll be hammering on those until we gavel out.

Well let’s talk a bit about the deficit. Where do you think the state should be cutting?

Sen. French – It’s a constant exercise to keep downward pressure on the growth of government. I think we’ve lost some of those muscles in the last few years because of surpluses, you just lose some that ability to always look as hard as possible to look at every line in the budget. This year I expect the budget process to be as rigorous as it’s ever been.

Representative Tuck would you like to add to that?

Rep. Tuck – With the surpluses we’ve had the last few years in making sure we’ve got our fair share from the oil industry, we’ve been able to invest in our departments. In our administration to bring ourselves up to the 21st century. If you look at the Department of Motor Vehicles, how easy it is to get on line and renew your registration, where in the past we weren’t able to do that. So by investing when we were able to, we were able to be more efficient in delivering services to Alaskans so now maybe it’s time to draw a little of that back. Some of the departments we may still need to do some of that, invest a little more to be more efficient, but that’s it just finding more efficiencies within operating government.

The state has a new gas line deal. During the Murkowski administration, similar ideas of an ownership share were discussed. Do you think this agreement will be different?

Sen. French We’ve got a long way to go. I was here when that contract was negotiated. I have seen what happens when you try to negotiate your way to a gas pipeline deal with the oil industry and the results last time were so horrific they never even came up for a vote. Even the Republicans in the legislature saw that contract and couldn’t stomach bringing it to a vote, it was so one sided. So I hope we get a different result this time but I like I think many Alaskans have lost some faith in the Parnell administration’s ability to negotiate fairly on their behalf, having seen what happened just last year with the oil tax give away.

Do you have plans for what you might like to see and what you’ll suggest?

Sen. French – We’re going to go back to certain must haves. You have to have a structure that allows nimble new players to come to the North Slope, to invest there and then most importantly, to be able to get their gas into that pipeline down to the terminus on terms that are fair and allow them to make a profit. What we’ve seen on the oil industry side is some basin control that make it more difficult for new players to come and get their oil into the pipeline. The tariffs can be so high and so exacting on new players that it’s tough for them to make a profit. You’ve got to have those mid sized companies and smaller companies exploring aggressively beyond the big three to make it really work.

Do you have numbers you’d like to see in that regard?

Sen. French – It’s more about the open basin, open access to the pipeline. The terms of the access, that’s key. Everyone wants to see a pipeline built, that’s exciting, that’s fun, it’s job and people make money, but it’s a 50 year project so the structure of the deal has got to allow for an evolvement over time of new players to come to the north slope and for that player to get a fair tariff so they can make a profit.

And what would that look like in your ideal setting?

Sen. French – Well you’ve got to make sure there is room for expansion and the expansions are done in a way that doesn’t penalize the new player. The person who builds the pipeline wants to charge the next guy a huge amount to get in, to keep it less competitive. Most businesses aren’t really interested in competition. You’ve got to have a structure on that deal that allows for that. That’s where government is extremely important, is structuring the terms of that pipeline in a way that allows new entrants into that pipeline and down to the shipping terminal.

Representative Tuck, what would you like to see for terms in this new gas line deal?

Rep Tuck – Well, if Alaska is going to be investing its money into a new pipeline system, we need to make sure that we negotiate from a position of strength. We need to be at the board making decisions. I know the gas industry wants to minimize their risk as much as possible but we shouldn’t be taking on that risk. It should be equal risk and equal benefits so I want to see something that mutually benefits both parties.

There is a minimum wage ballot initiative, how would you react if a minimum wage bill was introduced in this session? Senator French?

Sen. French – With deep skepticism. My first year in the legislature was the year after the legislature had passed a minimum wage bill in order to get the minimum wage bill off the ballot back in 2002. And the legislature pulled a fast one, because they came back and changed the bill they had passed just the year before in order to negitavely affect the people they were supposed to help. So I would be in the odd position of fighting a minimum wage bill tooth and nail.

Representative Tuck?

Rep. Tuck – For those reasons stated by Senator French, I too would be very skeptical and would rather have the people be able to vote on the conditions as spelled out with this initiative.

You lost the fight to raise the base student allocation for four or five years, do you have any reason to think it will be different this session?

Sen. French – I think the negative effects of flat funding are now trickling into the classroom. In today’s Anchorage Daily News, we see that the school district is looking at a $23 milliondeficit and cutting as many as 200 jobs. You can’t get there cutting custodians and people that stock the storerooms. We’re down to cutting teachers and that creates an enormous constituency of parents who are extremely upset about the quality of their children’s education. When it’s just us politicians here in Juneau making noise that’s one thing. But when you have thousands of affected people from Juneau to Ketchikan to Kotzebue making noise, that’s different and that creates a political wave we hope to harness.

Are you hearing a lot from constituents? Are they coming in and sending letters and weighing in enough that you think that pressure will build?

Sen. French – Representative Tuck and I recently attended a pre-session caucus of the Anchorage legislators in the Anchorage assembly chambers and of the 100 people that testified, I think 90 of them mentioned increasing education funding so I think there’s a ground swell coming on this.

Representative Tuck, what do you think about how this fight will go with base student allocation?

Rep. Tuck – Well I hope that our members on the other side are listening to the public because as Senator French pointed out, we had overwhelming support. It wasn’t just parents and teachers, it was people in the community that don’t have children in the education system but understand the importance of how we all rely on the education of children in how we operate. After all, when you call 911, it’s someone’s child that comes to your assistance. So we all rely on that. So I’m hoping as we go forward, first of all that we have this discussion earlier rather than later and that we actually do something this year. It is an election year, you never know how people are going to react on this. The Governor did point out in his release of the budget that he wanted to work with the legislative body on education funding. I wish he would have put his money where his mouth is and actually put something in his budget but he’s relying on us to do that and I hope we do the right thing.

A recent task force report recommended cutting education funding. What’s your reaction to this?

Rep. Tuck – Well, I haven’t gone through the report, I did hear that they did recommend cutting, but you know one of the things we need to do is invest in early education. Because the remediation that we’re spending is costing so much. So once you start off early in a child’s education and once you get parents involved early, they tend to stay involved and their successes are much better off. You don’t wait till third grade to start remediating because by the time you get to third grade, the costs go up and once a student goes into remediation programs, you almost never get them out. The goal is to invest early and make sure the teachers have the resources they need to be able to start our students off right from the beginning.

Senator French what are your thoughts about this report that suggests cutting education funding?

Sen. French – I was very dismayed by that report and I was happy to see business leaders like Andrew Halcro who was a member of that task force speaking out against it. I think as Representative Tuck just said, business leaders can see the value in an educated work force and we’re just not getting the job done. I’ve talked to business leaders who say they have to turn back half the high school graduates they get because they just can’t fill entry level jobs. That’s not the right approach. I share Representative Tuck’s passion for early childhood education. One of the few bills I filed is for statewide voluntary pre kindergarten. I’m going to be pushing that. You could fund that with 1% of what the Governor has proposed to put into the PERS/TERS shortfall. 1% could fund annual pre K statewide.

Beyond BSA, what other ideas might you offer to help raise the graduation rate and get more kids into college that might not cost any money?

Sen. French – Representative Tuck for years has been pushing for something called parents as teachers and it goes back to the earlier years but you see so many benefits. If you think about the arch of a child’s life as shooting an arrow into the future, where can you change the trajectory of that arrow the most and for the least amount of money. It’s obviously at ages 2, 3, 4 and 5. So Representative Tuck is really gotten me excited about giving parents some tools. To pick up learning disabilities, to pick up some problems they may be having and doing things we may take for granted such as reading, singing and playing with your child in ways that stimulate that mind to make it grow into the biggest Alaskan brain you can make. I’m happy to co-sponsor that bill on the Senate side. It doesn’t cost much money to get parents to make a big difference in kid’s lives.

Representative Tuck, this is obviously a passion of yours, what would you want to see put forward to help in this regard?

Rep. Tuck – That’s one of the best investments we can make. Unfortunately when we passed this bill, it was 9 million dollars, 3 million over the next three years. Unfortunately that got cut to 400, 000 and then 200,000 last year. Well you can hardly serve very many families. With the remoteness of Alaska, with the small population densities so removed from each other, this is the most cost effective way we can deliver. And rather than educating the child, this is educating the parents on how you can take advantage of learning opportunities as a child’s mind develops from age zero to five years of age. When you’re three years old, that’s the best time to introduce a second language into someone’s life. I had no idea. It’s been a grear learning experience, RURALCAP has been promoting and overseeing the program but now what we’re trying to do is expand it to all Alaskan familes.

Thank you for your time, is there anything else you’d like Alaskans to know about what they should expect out of this final session, the second session  of the 28th Legislature.

Rep. Tuck – From the Democrats in the legislature, we’re going to do everything we can to protect and build Alaska’s future.

Senator French, thoughts on the second session of the 28th Legislature and what Alaskans should know?

Sen. French – Every session brings its own unique challenges and often times you don’t even know what they are on the first day, sometimes it takes a few weeks to develop. But I’m excited about this session, I’m optimistic, I think we’re going to get some great work done and we’re going to keep up pressure on the administration to explain what went wrong with the oil tax they passed last year and why we should support them on a gas pipeline they suddenly came up with in the interim.

Are you afraid the majority may not recognize you since you’ll be down to nine members?

Rep. Tuck – Last year, we had the unfortunate circumstance of Representative Guttenberg having to leave the legislature for a while. We were able to maintain and manage with nine of us and we did a very good job. We stayed united, we fought the good fight, we stood up for Alaskans. This year it’s going to be hard to see Beth go, she has a lot of institutional knowledge, she was a big part of who we are as a caucus, so was Representative David Guttenberg. We don’t know how long it will take for this process to get another member there. But in the meantime,  we have people prepared to take over those roles, and going down to nine members, there is that potential that the committee on committees under the guidance of the Speaker may remove us from committees or even a few of us off committees, but I don’t think so. I think it would be a disadvantage for the legislature and I think the leadership on the other side recognizes that. We should still have a voice, it’s important for us to have a voice to make the process go and make legislation as good as we can make it.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Minority Leader Beth Kerttula To Leave Legislature

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 14:59

Photo by Skip Gray – Gavel to Gavel.

House Minority Leader Beth Kerttula will be resigning from her seat.

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The Juneau Democrat has been chosen for an oceans policy fellowship at Stanford University, which begins this spring term. Kerttula made the formal announcement on Tuesday afternoon, during the first House floor session of the year.

“It’s really hard to leave this quickly,” said Kerttula. “It wasn’t the way I would have liked to do this. I know it’s going to cause some hardship, and it’s going to cause some hard feelings. My hope is that people will know that this seat will be filled by somebody incredibly capable. There’s a long line of people after 15 years.”

Photo by Skip Gray – Gavel to Gavel.

Her resignation is effective January 24, and she will start her fellowship in California on February 3.

The Democrats chose Rep. Chris Tuck of Anchorage as their new minority leader. He has previously served as the minority’s whip. Democrats are also expected to shuffle their committee assignments because of the vacancy, with Tuck leaving House Resources and Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks taking his spot.

Kerttula was first elected in 1998, and she has served as minority leader since 2006. During her time in the Legislature, she championed the now-defunct coastal management program and sponsored legislation curbing cruise ship pollution. She said the fellowship with the Center for Ocean Solutions fit in line with those interests.

“Oceans have been part of my life for a long time, from my work at the attorney general’s office to just living in coastal Alaska to being honored to sponsor the first cruise ship bill. And I’ve always had a special place in my heart for these issues,” said Kerttula at a press conference.

Juneau Democratic party officials will provide Gov. Sean Parnell with a list of nominees for Kerttula’s seat. Parnell then has 30 days to make an appointment.

The House Minority will only have nine members during the vacancy period, but they need 10 members to be officially recognized according to the Legislature’s internal rules. Official recognition means committee assignments, extra staff members, and money for travel.

House Speaker Mike Chenault said in an interview that the majority plans to keep the minority’s privileges in place, even though they are not obligated to.

“It’s my intention to still recognize them and still allow them to have their current seats on committees, knowing that hopefully in a short time the Democrats put someone forward that the governor can agree to that the Legislature can approve of. And they’ll be back to their ten,” said Chenault.

He reiterated those sentiments during a rare — and affectionate — bipartisan press conference, which concluded with the Speaker offering Kerttula a bag of goodies from his past campaigns.

This is the second Democrat the House Minority has lost during the 28th Legislature. Last January, Lindsey Holmes of Anchorage changed her party affiliation to Republican.

Categories: Alaska News

Coast Guard, ADEC Respond To Sunken Tug

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 13:43

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the U.S. Coast Guard are still monitoring the site where a tug boat sank and leaked diesel fuel near Wrangell last week.

The 60-foot towing vessel Silver Bay II sank in approximately 120 feet of water about five miles south of the city of Wrangell early last week.

The cause of the sinking is still unknown but it is possibly related to the winter storm that moved through the area that afternoon.

As of Friday morning, the vessel was leaking diesel fuel into the surrounding waters.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, or ADEC, estimates the amount of fuel onboard at 3,500 gallons, but the size of the spill is still unknown.

Sarah Moore is the ADEC state on-scene coordinator for spill response in Southeast.

She says at this time there are no beaches known to be contaminated.

“We haven’t gotten any reports of impacted shorelines, animals, etc. We did do several beach assessments of the Institute Creek area,” Moore said. “By Friday, we couldn’t find any sheen or indication of impact from the spill either on the beach or on the water off the creek.”

Institute Creek is a popular local shellfish harvesting area.

Scott Wakefield is a marine science technician, first class, with the U.S. Coast Guard.

He says divers were on scene by Friday evening to do an underwater assessment. They found the vessel upright and in good condition.

“It went very smoothly and everything was done in less than an hour,” Wakefield said. “Alaska Commercial Divers were able to cap off all of the fuel tanks as well as the hydraulic tank and they ended up closing the outlet valve for the hydraulic fluid that would supply the equipment.”

Wakefield says the Coast Guard reported very little sheening by Saturday morning.

The containment boom and sorbent material appear to be adequately containing the diesel.

Wakefield says what was left on the surface was mostly diesel that had collected near the dock earlier in the week.

Sarah Moore says the ADEC will continue to monitor the clean-up and recovery effort even though there doesn’t appear to be any more active leakage.

“And so the spill is more or less contained, however there’s still going to be an unknown amount of product in the vessel and various engine and lube oils,” Moore said. “So, we’re still working with the owner of the vessel to get it raised and we’ll continue working on the project until that objective has been met.”

Moore says there isn’t a set timeline for raising the vessel yet.

The tug is owned by Silver Bay Logging but hasn’t been used commercially in about five years.

Categories: Alaska News

Kensington Tops Coeur’s 4th Quarter Production

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 12:47

Nearly half of Coeur Mining’s 2013 fourth-quarter gold production came from Juneau’s Kensington Gold Mine.

Company gold production for the months September through December totaled 80,780 ounces.  Kensington produced 37,404 ounces for the quarter, a 29 percent increase over Kensington’s third quarter, due to higher grade ore.  Cash operating costs for the quarter are expected to be 24 percent lower than the third quarter at $746 per ounce.

The mill at Kensington Gold Mine. Photo by Rosemarie Alexander.

Coeur Mining, Inc. released its fourth-quarter report on Friday.

Fourth-quarter gold production at the company’s Palmarejo mine in Mexico also was strong. Coeur Mining’s 2013 fourth-quarter silver production totaled 4,340 ounces, the most coming from Palmarejo.

Kensington, which is about 45 miles northwest of Juneau, produces only gold.  For the year 2013, the  mine produced 114,821 ounces of gold, at an average price of $1,387 per ounce.

Coeur Mining estimates its Alaska mine will produce 105,000 to 112,000 ounces of gold in 2014.

According to the Coeur report, operating costs at Kensington are going down.

Coeur owns gold and silver mines in Australia, Bolivia, Mexico, and the U.S.

Categories: Alaska News

New Data Offer Few Clues To Declining Beluga Whale Stocks

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 12:31

Fisheries scientists gathered in Soldotna Thursday for a presentation on years-long study of Cook Inlet Beluga Whales. The information those scientists shared provides a baseline for future studies of Belugas.

Jennifer Dushane has a thing for Beluga whales. She’s a marine biologist based in Anchorage, and she’s one of many scientific minds who came together to produce one of the largest bodies of research yet on Cook Inlet beluga whales.

A stranding of several Cook Inlet Belugas in August had biologists concerned. All of the whales were able to leave the area at high tide and appeared to be fine.

“The purpose of this study was to provide a first description of this large catalog of records. That included how many [strandings], where were they, when did they occur, by live and dead stranded and by gender and age class when we had that [information],” Dushane said.

Dushane examined records of stranded whales. That’s one of the few areas of study with any real data. Very little exists prior to about 20 years ago, when Cook Inlet belugas were put on the endangered species list. But records of strandings go back to the 1940s. There are two types of strandings reported, live and dead. Dushane found that dead stranded whales were found basically all over the Inlet. But the live ones tended to be more concentrated.

“For the vast majority, when a stranding occurs or stranding events occur in a given year, they generally are occurring in the same area, the same region within that one year,” Dushane said.

Why that is is still up for debate. Like much of the research presented Thursday, it only offers some basic facts, upon which more questions can be raised. Dushane found that June, August and September tended to have the high number of reported strandings. There are a couple likely causes for that. One is that there are more eyes on the Inlet during those summer months. And the other is that strandings are statistically nonexistent in the winter months. We just can’t see them because of snow and ice. Dushane says an increase in reports of dead stranded whales is probably due to the same factors.

“It could be tempting to think perhaps there are more dead whales showing up. But the level of effort at (the National Marine Fisheries Service) to document these strandings has been increasing since the 1980s,” Dushane said. “The public has been getting more well informed about what’s been going on through the media and with the endangered species listing. NMFS has also reached out to the public and informed them about how to report beluga strandings. So the discoverability of these carcasses has probably increased over time.”

Keeping better tabs on what’s washing up on shore is just one angle for researchers.

An oral history was constructed by doing more than 200 interviews with people who had personal experiences in some ways with Belugas. Seeing huge pods of them in Homer years ago, or watching them feed for several days around the mouth of a river. All of those stories went into an exhibit currently on display at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward.

Researchers also looked at what is in Cook Inlet that could have some effect on belugas. That includes what they eat, and a variety of hydrocarbons, collectively referred to as PAH.

This work was done by the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, or CIRCAC. They wanted to see what hydrocarbons were present in the waters of Cook Inlet and where they were concentrated. CIRCAC also studied the prey of belugas for evidence of PAH’s. They looked at beluga blubber and liver samples for those hydrocarbons and found some interesting things.

“Often times, the large, long-lived males show higher concentrations than females, because females periodically get pregnant, and they can dump their toxins, unfortunately to their fetus. Through loss of milk and metabolizing a lot of the fat that they have, they tend to have lower concentrations of a lot of the contaminates,” CIRCAC’s Susan Saupe said.

Specifically, CIRCAC wanted to know what effect the oil and gas industry is having. A lot of these hydrocarbons occur naturally. Like in Kachemak Bay. Even though there’s no industry there, levels are high. Which stands to reason for an area that used to be known as Coal Bay.

But they found the highest concentrations in the industrial zone: that area of the Inlet between the forelands and Tyonek, where lots of drilling rigs are stationed.

They didn’t find much evidence of hydrocarbons in the beluga’s diet. Or at least what they know of as the beluga’s diet. What they eat in the winter remains largely unknown. But salmon turned up mostly clean.

“This study does not show that PAH’s are inhibiting recovery of the stock, but it does raise, we believe, sufficient concern about potential effects to reproduction that warrants further studies, especially on a population where recruitment of one or two whales can make or break things,” Saupe said.

Each researcher ended on a similar note. We’ve learned a lot of very basic information about belugas and their environment. But more research is going to need to be done to get a better handle on what all that information means.

This was the first presentation of all this research and it will be finalized and released as whole later this spring.

Categories: Alaska News

International Maritime Organization Working On ‘Polar Code’

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-01-21 12:13

A “polar code” for shipping vessels traveling in the Arctic could be agreed upon this week by a committee of the International Maritime Organization.

Right now, insurance for vessel owners sending ships into the Arctic can be very expensive, and an international agreement on standards for safety and construction would be expected to lower those rates.

Last year about 71 vessels traveled the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast but an estimated total of one thousand vessels ventured into Arctic waters.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislature Prepares To Gavel In

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 18:20

Tuesday, the Legislature gavels back in, and for lawmakers things look a lot different than they did last January. There’s no oil tax legislation to tackle, and the state’s budget outlook is not quite as rosy as it’s been in past years. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez will be heading up our capitol coverage, and she’s here today to talk to us about what’s at stake over the next few months.

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Categories: Alaska News

Begich Takes Stand Against Pebble Mine

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 18:19

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has taken a definitive stand against the Pebble Mine. He told the Anchorage Daily News over the weekend that he can’t support the proposed mine in Southwestern Alaska. In doing so, he’s broken away from the rest of Alaska’s congressional delegation and his three Republican challengers.

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Categories: Alaska News

Thayer Named Administration Commissioner

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 18:18

Curtis Thayer has been named commissioner for the Alaska Department of Administration.

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Gov. Sean Parnell named Thayer to the position Monday. Thayer had been filling in as acting Commissioner since last month following the resignation of Becky Hultberg.

Before that, Thayer served as deputy Administration commissioner. His responsibilities as deputy commissioner included the divisions of general services, personnel and labor relations, administrative services, and motor vehicles.

According to Parnell’s office, Thayer’s prior work includes serving as a deputy commissioner in the state commerce department, working for ENSTAR Natural Gas Co. and serving as a congressional aide.

Categories: Alaska News

Legislative Session Gives Juneau Businesses Temporary Boost

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 18:17

Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage.

Dozens of lawmakers and their staffers are relocating to the capitol city for Tuesday’s start of the legislative session. Lobbyists and reporters will also spend at least part of the 90 day session in Juneau. The temporary population influx provides an important revenue boost to many local businesses.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaskans Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 18:16

Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage.

Alaskans celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior’s birthday with songs and remarks from state and local leaders.

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Categories: Alaska News

Rohn Buser Crowned K300 Champion

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 18:15

Twenty-four-year-old Rohn Buser of Big Lake won the K300 Sled Dog Race on Sunday crossing the finish line in Bethel at 9:18 a.m.

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Rohn beat out Jeff King by seven minutes after battling out for the last 100 miles. Buser took the lead when King had trouble finding the trail in the dark where some markers were missing.

“I figured he’d try to catch me so I had to push a little bit myself because I know his team has a lot of speed too but my guys….they went fast,” Buser said.

While looking for the trail, 58-year-old King says his dogs tangled up on glare ice. But he says that can be the way it goes when you’re leading the race.

“Because that’s where you find out where the problems are and I ran smack into one and by the time we got her fixed I was a big knot and my snaps were all covered with ice and I couldn’t get them untangled and Rohn zoomed right on by,” King said.

Conditions were everything but cold this year with temperatures mostly above freezing. Teams traversed bare tundra, glare ice, and over 100 miles of water-covered river. Nearly all mushers called it a tough race including third place finisher Cim Smyth who is 37.

“The biggest challenge was all that water going from Bogus to Kalskag that first night, it was just horrendous,” Smyth said. “You never knew how deep it was going to be and you just had to go find out by going in it.”

“My feet are all clean now, I don’t have to wash them (laughs),” 10th place finisher Tony Browning who is 56-years-old said. “It was a tough trail all the way around. Swam all the way up and most of the way back. And then bounced across the moguls the rest of the time.”

Fourth place finisher Paul Gebhart lost the back part of his sled going over bare tundra in the first 25 miles. The 57-year-old says he saw other musher’s sled-parts along the trail too.

“It was really bumpy,” Gebhart said. “Fortunately I salvaged my cooler before it broke off and then I drug it along up to Tuluksak.”

But Browning says it’s just what mushers expect when they sign up for the K300.

“This is the best race going. You don’t just race your competitors, you got to race the weather too, all the elements,” Browning said. “That’s what cross country, mid-distance is all about.”

Twenty-four teams competed this year.

Categories: Alaska News

With Drop Bags Delivered, Yukon Quest Mushers are One Step Closer to Race Day

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 18:14

Mike Ellis spent more than a week organize food and gear for his drop bags. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

On Saturday, volunteers with the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race gathered drop bags from mushers in both Whitehorse and Fairbanks.

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Over the next two weeks, race personnel will deliver the bags to nine checkpoints along the 1,000 mile trail. Packing more than 1,500 pounds of food and gear for a remote sled dog race is a long, logistically-challenging process.

 

Fairbanks Musher Mike Ellis will run the Yukon Quest for the 6th time in 2014. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

“So you get your beef and your kibble and your snacks and there all the heavy stuff down there on the bottom,” Fairbanks Musher Mike Ellis said.

Ellis spent more than a week filling large white bags with all the things he needs along the Yukon Quest trail.

“And then a glove bag so I’ve got nice dry warm gloves,” he said. “I always throw some hand warmers in because it’s bound to be 50 below somewhere on the Quest.”

We’re standing inside his guest cabin.  Various piles of food and gear cover the floor and fill the corners.  Across the yard, boxes filled with all different kinds of things sit on the front porch of his house.

“That looks like the burrito box – about 10 different kinds of burritos made up – breakfast burritos,” Ellis said.

There’s been gear spread all over the place for a week or two.  Behind us, white ice cube trays were also stacked high along the outside wall of his house.

“Those are electrolyte cubes that get sent out for the dogs if it gets really warm,” Ellis said.

If it gets really warm.  Ellis and a team of charismatic Siberian huskies will start the race for the sixth time this year.  He’s run the Quest enough to know he should be prepared for anything.  It’s kind of a logistical nightmare.  When the weather is warm, dogs need more water.  If it’s super cold, they’ll want more fat.  So, Ellis has to pack two different kinds of food.

“Fish and chicken skins,” Ellis said. “If it’s warm, I’m feeding the fish and if it’s cold I’m feeding the chicken skins and one or the other of them is just going to get set aside and you know that right off the bat.”

Sled dogs also go through some big changes as they travel farther down the trail.

“In the beginning of the race, you’re feeding a lot more protein and then at the end of the race, or middle to end of the race you’re feeding  lot more fat because the dog’s metabolism changes and shifts to burning fat,” Ellis said.

So, drop bags Mike Ellis packs for the beginning of the race are different from those waiting for him at checkpoints near the end. There’s also human food in those bags.  Ellis says he’s learned over the years that there are some things he just can’t leave home without.

Cody Strathe’s gear bags are filled with firestarters and fist aid items for dogs. Photo by Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks.

“I used to go off coffee for the race and I find that messes me up way more than staying on it for the race,” Ellis said. “I eat a lot more bread and carbs on the race. I used to think I was a little more doggy, and able to just eat fat the whole way and that wasn’t very kind to my body.”

There’s also one food in particular that’s become wildly popular among mushers in recent years.

“Candied bacon.  Yeah I don’t even think it’s possible to go down the Quest trail without that stuff,” Fairbanks musher Cody Strathe said. “It’s so true.  Sometimes at the beginning of the race you don’t really want it, but by the end of the race you just crave it ,that’s all you want.”

He also spent the last week frantically piecing together his drop bags for a second run down the Quest trail.  He’s standing in front of a freezer in his arctic entryway.  It’s stuffed full of food prepared by friends.

“We’ve got peanut butter bars, and peanut butter cookies and smoothies!” Strathe said.

Outside the house, a giant meat saw ran all week.  Strathe and his handlers cut countless, 50-pound frozen blocks of beef, lamb and other meat into chunks for his dog team.  They also sliced up chunks of fish.

Aside from all the food, mushers also stuff drop bags with extra runner plastic and other parts for their sleds. They also have to pack required gear like dog booties.  According to the race rules, mushers must have eight booties for every dog on the trail.  Back inside, there are rows of bags stuffed with booties sitting on Strathe’s couch.  He’ll also bring along extra boots, boot liners and socks for his own feet.

“I’ve got enough socks to have a fresh pair of socks at every check point,” Strathe said.

Ziploc bags filled with first aid items cover Strathe’s kitchen countertop.

“I’ve got stuff for vet care in here,” Strathe said. “I carry homemade fire starters with wax and sawdust so in case I get in trouble, I can start a fire real quick; matches, lighter, lithium batteries for my headlamps.”

In the end, he packed roughly 40 drop bags for the Yukon Quest.  Mike Ellis says he usually sends out 35.  But neither musher wants to consider the cost of all this food and gear.

“This time of year, we try not to look at it because it’s too depressing,” Ellis said. “It’s a lot, I don’t even want to think about it really!”

Yukon Quest staff and volunteers will deliver drop bags from the 19 mushers signed up for the race to various checkpoints along the route.  The 31st Yukon Quest starts in Fairbanks on Feb. 1.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: January 20, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 18:03

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Legislature Prepares To Gavel In

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Tuesday, the Legislature gavels back in, and for lawmakers things look a lot different than they did last January. There’s no oil tax legislation to tackle, and the state’s budget outlook is not quite as rosy as it’s been in past years. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez will be heading up our capitol coverage, and she’s here today to talk to us about what’s at stake over the next few months.

Begich Takes Stand Against Pebble Mine

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich has taken a definitive stand against the Pebble Mine. He told the Anchorage Daily News over the weekend that he can’t support the proposed mine in Southwestern Alaska. In doing so, he’s broken away from the rest of Alaska’s congressional delegation and his three Republican challengers.

Thayer Named Administration Commissioner

The Associated Press

Curtis Thayer has been named commissioner for the Alaska Department of Administration.

Legislative Session Gives Juneau Businesses Temporary Boost

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Dozens of lawmakers and their staffers are relocating to the capitol city for Tuesday’s start of the legislative session. Lobbyists and reporters will also spend at least part of the 90 day session in Juneau. The temporary population influx provides an important revenue boost to many local businesses.

Alaskans Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

Alaskans celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior’s birthday with songs and remarks from state and local leaders.

Rohn Buser Crowned K300 Champion

Angela Denning-Barnes, KYUK – Bethel

Twenty-four-year-old Rohn Buser of Big Lake won the Kuskokwim 300 Sled Dog Race on Sunday crossing the finish line in Bethel at 9:18 a.m.

With Drop Bags Delivered, Yukon Quest Mushers are One Step Closer to Race Day

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

On Saturday, volunteers with the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race gathered drop bags from mushers in both Whitehorse and Fairbanks.  Over the next two weeks, race personnel will deliver the bags to nine checkpoints along the 1,000 mile trail. Packing more than 1,500 pounds of food and gear for a remote sled dog race is a long, logistically-challenging process.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Attorneys Give Free Legal Advice for MLK Jr. Day

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 17:45

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Anchorage attorneys provided free legal services at the Mountain View Community Center in Anchorage.

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Krista Scully is the Pro Bono Director at the Alaska Bar Association. She helps organize the event, which is in its fifth year.

“So what we’re looking at right now is room of about 30 tables and close to 50 attorney volunteers that are all meeting with clients that have issues ranging from family law, landlord tenant, public benefits, some criminal matters and various housing issues,” Scully said.

Photo by Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage.

The event is a public service project of the Alaska Bar Association, Alaska Court System and Alaska Legal Services Corporation. Attorneys meet with clients for free for 15 to 20 minutes to discuss legal issues.

In those five years, Scully says the event has served more than 1,200 clients. Jonathan Katcher is an attorney who has volunteered at the event all five years. He says it’s part of a trend to give back to your community on the holiday.

“As a national trend people are starting to consider this day not just as a holiday or a day off but as a day of public service that’s consistent with the philosophy and ideas that Martin Luther King represented that we’re all just trying to carry forward in our own way,” Katcher said.

Katcher says the event is a small way to help close the justice gap in Alaska. Booker Lenoir came to the event to get advice on a custody issue. He was pleased with the service.

“They gave me real good advice. You ask a lot of questions and they’re forward and on hand with you. And I like that about that. Cause most lawyers charge fees,” Lenoir said. “So this was a good thing to come actually not to pay for that sitting cost to talk to a lawyer.”

Similar events took place in Juneau and Fairbanks. There is more information about free legal resources around the state on the website of the Alaska Bar Association.

Categories: Alaska News

Panel Will Target Tongass Plan Rewrite, Timber Transition

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 12:21

The Forest Service is setting up an advisory board to help rewrite the Tongass National Forest’s management plan. It’s somewhat similar to another panel that shut down last year without completing its work.

Tongass managers have a couple big jobs ahead of them.

A dog explores part of the Tongass National Forest’s Treadwell Ditch Trail on Douglas Island, part of Juneau. Photo by Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska News.

They’re reviewing and updating the land-management plan for the 17-million-acre forest. They’re also working on a roadmap for a transition from old-growth to young-growth timber harvests.

So, the agency has decided to recruit 15 people for an advisory committee.

Tongass Supervisor Forrest Cole says they’ll take about a year developing proposals for the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the chief of the Forest Service.

“What we’re really trying to do is find folks who have experience working in collaborative groups, knowledge regarding Southeast Alaska issues and willingness to work closely together (and) come up with a solution,” Cole says.

They’ll include representatives of the industry, state and federal agencies, environmental groups and tribal organizations.

That sounds a lot like the Tongass Futures Roundtable, a larger group with a somewhat similar mission. It began around seven years ago and shut down last spring after some timber and environmental groups quit.

Cole says it broke ground that should ease the way for the advisory panel.

“We had never had all of the interests in Southeast Alaska sit down in the same year together. So it was a fairly lengthy process, probably three of the six years it was around, it took to get people to physically be able to sit in a room, have a conversation and listen to diverse opinions,” Cole says.

“Collaboration is the watchword,” says former Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho, who moderated the group and tried to keep it moving forward.

“Even though the roundtable did not perhaps achieve a lot of what it had initially set out to do, it created I think a climate of discussion between parties who needed to be talking to each other but historically did not,” he says.

Roundtable organizers hoped to develop a comprise to ongoing Tongass timber battles. But Cole says it did more than meet.

“There was a bridge timber proposal that was put together by Tongass Futures that got us out of a number of heavily-litigated projects and provided timber along the way to keep the current industry alive,” he says.

The Southeast Conference, a regional development organization, was part of the roundtable. But it joined the exodus of timber and state government representatives that led to its dissolution.

The conference last year proposed its own Tongass management plan. Leaders hope to advance that as part of the advisory group’s discussions.

“I’m excited about it. I guess I should say I’m ready for another round, because you just can’t stop trying,” says Shelly Wright, conference executive director.

She says the new panel has a better chance of succeeding.

“The roundtable really was not (an) official advisory group, so I think it may be a little bit different. The undersecretary has actually said this is for his information, so I think that’s going to give it a little more weight, so to speak,” she says.

Those interested in joining the Tongass Advisory Committee need to apply by February 27th. Details are here.

Cole says the Forest Service will chose members using its own standards.

“They’ll work among themselves to see if they can come up with a consensus-based recommendation that the Forest Service will take under advisement to further along the transition or the forest-plan modification,” he says.

But he doesn’t expect to make absolutely everybody involved in these issues happy.

“In fact there’s a number of federal advisory committees that have been established that never came to fruition. So there’s still a possibility that we can’t get a recommendation out of this group. And if not, we’ll proceed on.

He says the panel’s work will not delay the review of the land-management plan. That’s expected to be completed in 2016.

Categories: Alaska News

Southeast Commercial Halibut Catch Increased For 2014

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 11:52

Southeast Alaska’s commercial halibut catch limit is going up.

The International Pacific Halibut Commission concluded its annual meeting Friday in Seattle and approved catch limits for Alaska, British Columbia, and the West Coast of the U.S.

The combined commercial and charter catch for Southeast’s Area 2C will be 4.16 million pounds. That includes a commercial catch limit of 3,318,720 pounds, that’s an increase of about 11 percent from last year. Southeast is the only area that will see an increased catch from 2013.

The commission also approved a catch sharing plan recommended by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council and implemented by federal fishery managers for Southeast and the central Gulf. That’s a first. The catch sharing plan allocates pounds to the charter fleet and replaces the old system of a guideline harvest level for charter anglers. It’ll also allow annual purchases of commercial quota by the charter fleet.

That plan will mean a limit of over 761,000 pounds to the Southeast charter fleet for 2014. As a result, charter clients will have a one-fish daily bag limit in Southeast with what’s called a “reverse slot limit.” Charter anglers in the Panhandle can keep a fish up to 44 inches, or 76 inches and longer, but not anything between those lengths.

Coast-wide the commissioners did not go with the roughly 30 percent catch reduction as presented by staff in December. The so-called “blue line” numbers, presented to the commission by staff, applies long-standing harvest percentages to the estimated legal-sized halibut for each regulatory area. Instead the commission approved a larger coastwide catch limit of over 27 and a half million pounds.

U.S. Commissioner Jim Balsiger, regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries in Alaska, called it the toughest halibut commission meeting he’s attended.

“We’re in a trying position with the resource, the halibut resource not rebuilding as rapidly as we’d like it to,” Balsiger said. “We have some issues with that. I think it is important to note, and we went over this earlier but, the decision table which contains the blue line, the entire table contains recommendations from the staff on how to set the catch limits.”

“Where we operate in that decision table is really a reflection of the conservative nature of the various halibut commissioners, because they’re all valid positions it just depends on how much risk is deemed appropriate, how much conservatism has to be cranked into those tables.”

The commercial catch in area 3A, the central gulf, will see a big cut this year, about 33 percent, down to 7.3 million pounds. And the charter fleet’s limit in the gulf was set at 1.7 million pounds. Charter clients there will have a two fish daily bag limit with a 29 inch limit on a second fish.

The commercial and sport catch in British Columbia will see a small reduction, but not the 29 percent cut initially considered in the “blue line” number presented by IPHC staff.

The commission approved a season start date of March 8 and fishing will be open through Nov. 7.

Categories: Alaska News

Project Aims to Turn Homer Into Tidal Energy Testing Site

APRN Alaska News - Mon, 2014-01-20 11:36

Work is continuing on Homer’s Tidal Energy Incubator Project. Those involved, which includes scientists from around the state and University of Alaska engineering students, are trying to find out if they can turn tides into electricity sold on the market. They’ve been studying the tides near Homer’s Deep Water Dock.

Some of the equipment that’s been installed at Homer’s Deepwater Dock. Photo courtesy of the Tidal Energy Incubator Project.

“And the question is, why Kachemak Bay,” said State Representative Paul Seaton. “Well, we have strong tidal currents in here. Not the strongest in the world, but… they fit that realm where there’s docks all around the state that have the kind of tidal velocity that we have. So, if we can develop technology that works here, it will work in numerous places.”

And that’s the project in a nutshell. Seaton told the Homer City Council during its Monday night meeting that the hope is to turn Homer into a testing site for the technology and attract hi-tech industries.

Kris Holderied is a physical oceanographer with NOAA. She said the tidal conditions around the deep water dock could translate into a sort of cookie-cutter approach for other areas around the state and beyond.

“This provides the place to be able to test technology or to create things that we don’t even know about yet. We can’t even imagine yet. We’ve got the right place to do that for applications to a lot of places around the state and on the west coast and the northeast,” she said.

Seaton said the existing infrastructure in and around Homer also helps make this location attractive to researchers or companies.

Holderied said the existing data about Kachemak Bay concerning the shape of the bottom, the currents and the habitat also is a draw.

“So if you want to come and you want to develop something, you already have all this information,” she said.

Photo courtesy of the Tidal Energy Incubator Project.

She said the education component is key, too. After the Homer City Council appropriated a $100,000 reimbursable grant for the project, the city basically “hired” a group of UAA students and their professor to create a 35 percent design for the project. This will be used as part of the requirements for their engineering degrees. They were in Homer early last year to tour the dock and give a presentation at City Hall.

“This whole concept of bringing bright, excited minds to this challenge and creating something that does not exist now, you saw it when those students were in this room,” Holderied said.

Seaton said the group has enough information at this point to start seeking out developers to help gauge interest in the project. That includes the ability to show how fish interact with the devices.

“One of the biggest problems that we’re going to have, and you can’t do it in the Upper Inlet and you can’t do it in these muddy rivers, is see how whatever device is tapping the energy interacts with salmon,” he said.

He said without that information there’s no way to move forward with the project.

Categories: Alaska News

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