A large contingent of fishers opposed to the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay made up the majority of attendees in the Harbor Room at the Best Western Kodiak Inn on Thursday to hear an update from a Sen. Lisa Murkowski representative for ComFish Alaska 2019.
As part of the presentation, Murkowski provided a pre-recorded video providing updates on some of the issues she is working on in Washington, D.C.
“Commercial fishing is the life blood of this community and no doubt will continue to be,” Murkowski said. “Back in D.C., I’ve been working to ensure that the Alaska commercial fishing industry voices are heard and its needs addressed so it can continue to thrive.”
She noted that the Alaska Congressional Delegation, including herself, Sen. Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young, have requested the approval of the logical use of AIS to track and identify fishing gear. She said this will allow fishers to operate in a safer manner.
“We are going to keep pushing on this issue,” Murkowski said.
She noted that last year an exemption for permanent incidental vessel discharges for Alaska fishers was approved.
“I’m optimistic that this Congress will bring more common sense solutions to the issues fishers have brought to our attention,” Murkowski said. She added she is using her role on the Senate Appropriations Committee to secure funding for additional fishery surveys and management.
“We know that we have to maintain the strong data and science that is the foundation of our sustainable fisheries,” Murkowski said. She added that she’s trying to steer the budget National Ocean and Atmospheric Agency in a way that sustains the scientific work needed to properly manage Alaska’s resources.
She said she will continue to oppose the Food and Drug Administration’s recent decision to allow genetically modified salmon to enter the US market.
“It was a wrongheaded and bad idea, but I’m not done on this fight,” Murkowski said. “We are going to continue the effort to make sure any salmon product that is genetically engineered is labeled clearly. Americans deserve to know what they are purchasing and they are eating, if they want to eat that stuff in the first place.”
Following the short video, Murkowski’s representative Ann Robertson fielded questions from the public. Opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine project dominated much of the conversation.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has a 1,400 page Environmental Impact Statement in circulation for public comment on the Pebble Mine project. The comment period closes May 31.
Pebble Limited Partnership is proposing a mineral surface mine in Southwest Alaska near Iliamna Lake, about 60 miles west of Cook Inlet. The proposed project will last 20 years and would include the development of an open pit mine. Infrastructure to support mining operations would include a 270-megawatt power plant and a 188-mile natural gas pipeline from the Kenai Peninsula across Cook Inlet as the energy source for the mine.
Pebble Mine has been the subject of heated debate for decades. Opponents of the project say that it stands to impact the surrounding environment, which includes anadromous waters. As a result, those involved in the fisheries –– be it commercial fishermen or subsistence users –– have remained outspoken against the project.
Mike Friccero, one of the people protesting Pebble Mine at the event, said that the EIS was full of flaws and “junk science.”
“I took a look at it and it made me want to vomit,” Friccero said. “It’s full of assumptions and conclusions and, as a 40-year gillnetter, I can sit down and see the flaws in the (EIS) summary.”
He added that he couldn’t understand how Murkowski could ask people to trust in the comment and review process.
Robertson noted that Murkowski had supported a request for a comment period extension.
“She is currently reviewing the EIS, going through it and rereading it,” Robertson said. She added that when Murkowski concludes her review, she will have more to say on the matter.
Bristol Bay gillnet captain Lindsey Bloom said Alaskans need Murkowski to do more than just review the draft EIS.
“She has a responsibility to do more than read an EIS and give comments to it,” Bloom said. “She is the backstop for Alaska on Pebble Mine right now and is the oversight of that agency. She needs to relate to them that it is unacceptable to Alaskans and that this is a piece of garbage. We need to go back and do it right. Anything less is a failure.”
Murkowski chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
The most questions reurned to Pebble Mine, Paddy O’Donnell, president of the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, stressed the need for more funding on fisheries surveys.
He noted that surveys done every other year are insufficient because it doesn’t provide adequate data.
“I think we should have a survey every year,” O’Donnell said. He noted it was instrumental to all fisheries, and given the amount of money spent on programs, D.C. could spare additional funding.
“We’re talking an additional $1.2 million to fund additional vessel to that survey every second year,” O’Donnell said. “The entire cost for the program is $4.5 to $5 million for the entire Gulf of Alaska.”
He noted Murkowski should push to place the Gulf of Alaska on a pedestal even with that of the Bering Straits.
Roberston said O’Donnell’s comments were impeccably timed since Congress is getting ready for its budgeting season.
“Sen. Murkowski met with the new acting administrator of NOAA earlier this week and raised this issue of survey coverage,” Robertson said. “We really need to do right by our fisheries.”
Roberston encouraged fishers to provide feedback on what reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act should entail, the law gives the federal government authority over fisheries between 3 and 200 miles offshore
“While we don’t have an update on the status of that legislation itself, we really want to hear your ideas on what that Magnuson-Stevens Act should look like,” Robertson said.
Cook Inlet commercial fisher Georgie Heverly asked about Murkowski’s stake in the Young Fishermen’s Development Act legislation. The proposed bill would provide $2 million a year for training, education, outreach and technical assistance initiatives for young fishermen.
“It’s a great start to support the up-and-coming generations of fishermen,” Herverly said.
Robertson said Murkowski is a co-sponsor of the bill, along with Sullivan. She added that Congress attempted to get part of it approved last year to set up funding.
“I think the biggest area where we are trying to make a difference is simply supporting programs that currently boost up young fishermen getting started in the industry,” Roberson said.
She listed Sea Grant as one such program, which she said has been proposed to be zeroed out for the last three years in the president’s budget. Robertson said every time Murkowski sees that proposal, she blocks it due to her place on the Senate Appropriations Committee.