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PUBLISHED: 5:21 PM on Wednesday, September 3, 2008
Seafood stakeholders eyeing exploration as state readies for oil, gas development
As Alaska gets primed for more oil and gas development on land and at sea, seafood industry stakeholders are warily eyeing exploration plans amidst the world's most abundant fishing grounds.

The U.S. government has scheduled sales in 2011 of offshore oil and gas leases in Alaska's North Aleutian Basin, a 5.6-million-acre "fish basket" that encompasses most of the southeastern Bering Sea and Bristol Bay.

Ask any Alaskan what they fear most about oil exploration and they will say 'oil spills.' But you'll get a different response from Norwegian fishermen.

"We are not so frightened of the oil coming up, from a blow out. We are more frightened of the seismic. It is something that is out of sight, out of mind," said Nils Mykelbust, a 40 year fisherman and spokesman for the Norwegian Fishermen's Association.

Long before the first drop of oil or gas is extracted from the ocean floor, seismic tests are used to gather information about where the fuels might be located. The tests use an array of air guns deployed from special vessels to send explosive shock waves into the sea bed, which can reverberate for thousands of miles. The shots are fired every 10 to 25 seconds, around the clock, for the lifetime of the drilling project.

Mykelbust says oil companies and the Norwegian government have done little research on long term seismic impacts on fisheries, especially on small fish.

"They don't know anything about how seismic is hurting the babies," Mykelbust said in a phone interview from Norway. "Fishermen are very frightened because we see how the fishery has left a big area and we don't know what that means for the future. At the North Sea, the fish are down 39 percent from the oil coming to this day."

Norway's fishing and oil industries have co-existed since the late 1960s, but the feverish quest for new oil sources has sparked territorial clashes. Last year saw a record area covered by seismic surveys on behalf of 21 global petroleum companies, according to the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs.

The fishermen argue that the increased activity is driving fish away from traditional grounds. Catches of Atlantic pollock in some regions, for example, dropped from 800 tons in 2006 and 2007 to just 83 tons last year.

Mykelbust said Norwegian fishermen are not 'anti-oil,' but he urges Alaska to broaden discussions to include seismic testing and other impacts on the marine environment as the state moves toward offshore exploration.

At Energy & Fisheries workshops convened by Alaska Sea Grant earlier this year in Anchorage and Kodiak, Gregg Nady of Shell Oil said "three dimensional" seismic testing was the preferred method in its "development scenarios" for the North Aleutian Basin area.

Offshore energy quests come with other cautions that, like seismic testing, are often overlooked by an unknowing public.

"The interactions include other operational noise and pollutants, drilling muds and cuttings that come from the platforms," said Bubba Cook of the World Wildlife Fund in Anchorage. "What falls by the wayside is all the associated infrastructure that has to support oil and gas development. All of that needs to be part of the discussion."

Risky Business

Commercial fishing is still America's most dangerous occupation, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's annual report, released last week. In 2007, fishermen had the highest on-the-job death rate at nearly 112 per 100,000 workers - 36 times greater than the rate for all other occupations. One-third (327) of all work-related deaths that took place in Alaska during 1990-2007 were fishermen.

Commercial fishing in the U.S. employs between 80,000-160,000 fishermen on 80,000 vessels, the report said. A further breakdown by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health shows that one-third of all fishing fatalities come from falling overboard; eight percent are from deck injuries. Fishing-related deaths represented less than 1 percent of last year's 5,488 total occupational fatalities, down 6 percent from the previous year.

Other dangerous jobs were loggers at 85 on the job deaths and pilots at 67 fatalities. More pilots meet their Maker in Alaska than anywhere else in the nation, with a one in eight chance of dying during a 30 year career. Most fatal crashes in Alaska come from losing visibility and flying into mountains.

The third most dangerous occupation was iron and steel workers at 45.5 deaths on the job. The 2007 occupational fatality rate of 3.7 per 100,000 workers was the lowest since the U.S. Labor department began collecting statistics in 1992.

Fish watch

For the first time in 15 years, Gunnar Knapp will be back in the classroom showing students how economics drives Alaska's seafood industry. The full credit course will be offered statewide starting this fall via the Internet. Knapp, regarded as one of Alaska's foremost fisheries economists, has been at the University of Alaska/Anchorage since 1981. Find out more about Introduction to Fisheries Economics and Marketing at www.iser.uaa.alaska.edu/iser/people/knapp or call Gunnar Knapp at 907-786-7717.

Alton Brown of Food Network fame is the latest to tout Alaska seafood. Brown clears up confusion about food safety and sustainable fisheries with two words: wild and Alaska. Check out Brown's five-minute, Sitka-based video from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute at www.alaskaseafood.org.


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