Story last updated at 4/8/2009 - 11:03 am
Alaskans have a rare chance next week to tell top decision makers that when it comes to the nation's "fish basket," oil and water don't mix.
New Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar is holding a day long hearing on offshore energy development on April 14 in Anchorage. Fishery advocates will urge him to reinstate a ban on offshore oil and gas sites that are smack dab in the middle of some of the world's richest fishing grounds - Bristol Bay and the eastern Bering Sea.
"This is the start of a very important education process with the new presidential administration, and there is a lot of work to do in conveying the importance of Alaska's fisheries," said Kelley Harrell, director of Friends of Bristol Bay.
Before leaving office, President Bush pulled protections that for more than 30 years had kept energy development off limits in the region's waters, home to the world's largest salmon runs, as well as Alaska pollock, crab, herring and halibut fisheries. The area is dubbed the nation's "fish basket" because it provides 40 percent of the total U.S. fish catch. Currently, a six million acre parcel including the prime fishing grounds is set for lease sales to oil and gas developers in 2011.
"There is such a direct overlap with the area proposed for leasing and marine habitat and fishing grounds - you couldn't design a worse place for drilling in terms of Alaska's fisheries," Harrell said.
The importance of the region's fisheries was overlooked in a report on offshore energy potential released last week by the U.S. Geological and Minerals Management Services, said Celeste Novak of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
"The report is fairly nebulous in terms of what the resource actually is in Bristol Bay, and what we could potentially lose were they to do oil and gas drilling," she said, adding that AMCC will testify at the hearing to fill in those "fishery gaps."
"For example, just one percent of the oil and two percent of the natural gas that this whole nation has to offer would come out of that area, compared to a multi-billion dollar sustainable, natural resource," Novak said.
Fishermen want Secy. Salazar to know that eco-risks extend well beyond drills and spills, said Dan Strickland, AMCC fisheries coordinator for Bristol Bay.
"There's the seismic testing, all the supporting infrastructure, onshore pipelines, underwater pipelines, huge docks and the associated tanker traffic," Strickland said.
He acknowledged that oil and gas development would provide jobs, and some believe that the two industries can safely co-exist.
"I believe there are alternative methods we can use that address jobs and energy needs besides oil and gas development in that area."
The Interior Dept. hearing on offshore oil/gas development takes place Tuesday, April 14, from 8 a.m. to 8p.m. at the Dena'ina Convention Center in Anchorage. Anyone can sign up at the door to testify - or register in advance at DOI_Events@ios.doi.gov/
Get more info at www.akmarine.org.
Halibut has slow start
Horrible weather has kept most of Alaska's halibut fleet from pounding the grounds since the fishery opened on March 21. By Friday, only 127 landings had been made and the catch barely topped one million pounds, compared to over 3 million pounds last year.
The low volume pushed up prices paid to fishermen to far better than expected. The economic crunch, combined with lots of holdover halibut in freezers, has hit the market hard. Rumors prior to the fishery pegged starting prices at between $2.25 and $3.50/lb, compared to over $5 in recent years. But the first fresh halibut of the season always fetches the highest prices and this year is no exception.
At Homer, prices started at $3.60 to $3.80 for a few small loads. Kodiak buyers were paying $3 to $3.30/lb, with few fish being delivered. In Southeast, halibut starting prices were called "shockingly high" at $3.40 to $3.50/lb.
As soon as larger volumes start crossing the docks, prices will inevitably head downwards. Alaska buyers said it's tough to get a real feel for the halibut market with so few fish coming in. Markets are interested, they said, but being really careful. No one is going to pay a huge price for halibut, and then get stuck holding it, especially when there is still so much fish in the freezers - halibut they bought for more than $5/lb last year before the U.S. economy really tanked. At 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage fresh halibut fillets were retailing for $12.95/lb. Frozen fillets at Costco were selling for $8.99/lb, compared to $15.99 last year.
Seawater washes exhaust-
The shipping industry, like the airline industry, is responsible for a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions, but it has been hard to regulate because standards need to be approved and enforced globally. Now sea water might be the solution.
Eco-Geek reports that a Singapore company called Ecospec has developed a method to remove carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulphur and soot from ship exhausts with seawater. The process, called CSNOX, uses electrolysis and ultra-low frequency waves to raise the alkalinity of sea water to a pH of 10 up from 8.1. The seawater is pumped into a tank, and then sprayed into the exhaust funnel of the ship. The dirty water is then collected, filtered and processed before being returned to the ocean. The higher alkaline water is actually to the ocean's benefit since the acidity of the world's oceans has been rising as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises. Ecospec's main objective was to create a process that did not use chemicals or create secondary environmental issues. The company said the method has been tested on a tanker and was shown to remove 75 percent of CO2 from the exhaust and up to 90 percent of other harmful emissions. The results earned them the support of the American Bureau of Shipping.
If the process makes it past the testing phase, it would cost $500,000 to $1 million to fit most ships with the sea water system. "A small price to pay for removing the cause of four percent of global fossil fuel emissions," the Eco-Geek article said.
Laine Welch has been covering news of Alaska's seafood industry since 1988. Her weekly Fish Factor column appears in a dozen newspapers and web outlets. Her daily Fish Radio programs air on 27 stations around Alaska. Welch lives in Kodiak.