Monday, February 12, 2007

Mariculture vs ADF&G

Even though this mariculturist's testimony to the Alaska Legislature exudes pure frustration with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in the past, I see a real champion of doing things the right way in ADF&G now. And the better news is that he is the newly minted Commissioner of ADF&G.

Alaska is so diverse that it makes sense for there to be a system for fishermen to work closer with state biologists.

I saw him in action this weekend in Portland at the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council meetings. He made a series of motions, that were passed, that you couldn't refute the logic of, which saved the Council from shooting many fishermen in the OTHER foot too. But more on that later.

It is my hope too that the ADF&G will see the wisdom in working hand in hand with fishermen to manage and develop fisheries. Oregon fishermen take state biologists out on their boats to get information. Alaska could save a ton of money by just admitting fishermen know where the fish are, and a lot of other marine related things, better than desk jockeys. The old "We're from the government, and we're here to help you" mentality dies hard it seems. In the federal fisheries it's all different, but we're talking about near-shore stuff today. Following is the testimony of a life-long Alaskan fisherman who seriously wants to work WITH the ADF&G. I guarantee he isn't the enemy for wanting to see Alaska develop.


Seward, Alaska

Honorable Members of House Fisheries Committee

Regarding Testimony on HB 26

David J. Otness, Shellfish farmer

Dear Members through the Chair,

To those of you in particular who have not had extensive exposure to the politics inherent to mariculture, allow me to state as one with years of frustration under his belt, ADF&G has not been a good partner in encouraging the growth we have attempted to secure in this wonderfully promising industry. In fact this extends into other sectors of ComFish as I will demonstrate. This is and has been a state-wide problem for many years and hope-fully one we can finally address under this new administration. We will be watching closely as the new Commissioner makes his personal stamp evident.

My background in all of this represents 3 generations of commercial fishermen originally out of Petersburg. My grandfather fished out in the Gulf of Alaska in January in a 46 ft wooden boat as far back as 1917. They delivered fish into Seldovia and Prince Rupert, B.C.; Anchorage was hardly more than a tent town. There were no radars, radios, depth sounders or any means of rescue if things went bad. A good compass and good sea sense was what you had in your deck. I would not be writing if it were otherwise.

I first went to sea with my father at the age of five. This was salmon seining in the Territorial days of fish traps, I was working in the power skiff by the time I was 7 and running it by myself at the age of 9. That was also my first season commercial longlining. We used to pull the seine in by hand with what was called a turn table which was mounted on the stern with a center pivot pin, the roller on the outboard toward the seine as we hauled it in. It was a time of big arms.

Coastal Alaska in the 1950’s was characterized by hard times and pulling together.

Between the fish traps taking the majority of salmon and Japanese and Russian trawlers scooping up halibut nearly on our front porch we truly were left with subsistence as a major means of getting by. The winters were exceptionally cold and often the deer meat we had to eat was blue because the animals were starving. I remember my father getting 18 in 1day, feeding a lot of people in Petersburg. Clams were an important component to our diet as well, in many forms unimaginable today.Clam hotcakes for breakfast,anyone ?

I learned our beaches early.

When I was 11 my father’s boat, the Teddy J, was lost with all hands [5] off Prince Rupert. According to cousin Captain Richard Hofstad, one of the first skippers on the State Ferry System, she probably struck Alexandra Reef. This was my grandfather’s boat and eventually would have been mine. I was almost aboard that trip but had school. This event left my mother with 6 mouths to feed in April of 1962. Dad had just cashed in an insurance policy worth $70,000 for boat improvements. Bad timing.

I spent my first winter in the bush in 1968-69 at the age of 17. My trapping partner was Mike Potts, 18, just out of high school in Minnesota. We considered ourselves mountain men and I guess we were as no one once came to check on us in 4 months. We ended up eating 11 deer that winter and probably 75 lbs of Gravy Train dog food. It was one of the coldest winters on record and our clam shovels and smelt net were useless in the thick shore ice and no airplane could land to pick us up even if they had tried They didn’t try and so we spent an extra month waiting for the ice to go out. My partner’s Brittany spaniel didn’t know some of the thoughts extreme hunger will manifest regarding mans’ best friend becoming mans’ best meal. We had incipient scurvy when finally picked up.

The reason for this extended forward is to acquaint the reader with what I consider my extensive personal background in Alaska’s natural resources and partaking of them from Southeast to the Arctic and Aleutian Islands, all the way to their territorial terminus at Attu Island. FYI Attu is 7000 miles due north of the center of New Zealand. As a matter of fact, I’ve taken abalone in S.E., cockles 6 inches across on Unalaska Island, dug 5gallons of butter clams from 2 cubic feet of beach soil at Chernofski Harbor, taken Horse clams in excess of 4lbs [ea] in Kuiukta Bay on the Alaska Peninsula [shells as big as dinner plates]. I’ve dug on razor clam beaches where a shovel is not required, simply grabbing them [carefully] by their extended necks. I’ve seen miles of wave rowed razors on the beaches of Unimak Bight, brown bears feeding on them every 50 feet, after a big southeaster rolled them up ashore.

Port Moller, Herendeen Bay, Cinder River, Egegik. Togiak, Orca Inlet, Kayak Island Yakutat, Seymour Canal, Taku Harbor, China Poot,[the old-timers pronounced it “pot”], Constantine Harbor[s] Shelikoff Bay, Russian Harbor, Elrington Passage, Kamishak Bay, Silver Salmon Creek, Kukak Bay, Chignik, Aniakchak Bay. You get the picture. In the course of my 56 years in Alaska I have sailed virtually every navigable waterway all the way to Prudhoe Bay and whenever and wherever possible have gone ashore, whether hunting, fishing, but most of all, beachcombing. I have made it my business to be aware of food sources wherever I might eventually find myself shipwrecked. I make a point of looking for good anchorages and trying them out under good weather conditions. One outstanding feature of most of these diverse places is the commonality of bivalve species across this broad geographical range.

Regarding HB 26, I feel there is over-blown concern regarding species crossing boundary lines we have drawn when we attempt to determine why a certain area hasn’t supported a given species. And yet several miles, several hundred or one adjacent beach away there may have been spat deposition which took and did fine. There are so many variables as to how the spawning, travel, maturation {or not}, deposition of gametes{or not}, ever occurs in a given area.

The same thing is true in terms of survival of the adult animal. Was there a specific predator responsible for a beach being cleared; a series of predators, infestations, temperature variations, high or low? Excessive silt deposition, not enough nutrients, tsunami or storm damage, oil spills, earthquakes. Even beyond the “64”quake and the “89” spill there have been great numbers of undocumented temblors as well as shipwrecks going back to WW II.

An earthquake that doesn’t make headlines or even merits notice to the average Joe is big news indeed to ocean denizens if near the epicenter. The mud that covers shelving rock in the Gulf of Alaska can be several feet thick, providing favored and excellent habitat for Tanner crab. One earthquake can bare that shelf of mud and these are no longer productive grounds, let alone the mortality from the mudslide. I have observed this fishing crab. Ocean currents and gyres could easily be why areas are skipped over, populated or not. This does not rule out random deposition naturally.

There are so many variables to a species’ ability to adapt and thrive, but not necessarily ones precluding the feasibility being transplanted without harming a species which did manage to thrive before, during and/or after an ecosystem changing event. I have seen so many areas where these bivalve species co-exist, and with proper disease prevention protocols I sincerely believe geoduck transplantation will prove to be “much ado about nothing”.

The ocean is an ongoing/undergoing dynamic and we bear witness to it, particularly now with our increasing awareness of apparent climate change, and by being out on site shellfish growers are the sentinels of change, we know what is new, we observe everyday on the farm. Therein lies another issue, being charged excessively for PSP tests while providing the state with information for the public good. More on that to an appropriate committee.

Testimony such as Willie Dunn’s of Kachemak Bay Conservation Society [ or whatever the incarnation/acronym] reflects obstructionism masking as valid concern, one more permutation of “The sky is falling”. Honorable ladies and gentlemen of the Committee, the sky has always been falling and God willing, we will continue to survive it. The contemporary theme seems to be we must fear “fear itself.”

I maintain we should act with reason, courage and alacrity towards opportunity rather than falling prey to the notion that HB26 will some how undermine the foundations of life on earth. The opposite seems to be recurring throughout our society---- as a measure of what we allow ourselves to do as humans-------- just because we obviously have acted heedlessly in the past. Blatant past mistakes should not be allowed to tether us to that past. Alaska’s uncertain economy and unpredictable budget are crying out for a positive sign, particularly in the coastal economy. We have been striving to be heard for nearly two decades and unless we move ahead reasonably as well as prudently, the State of Alaska will have killed off an industry of world wide significance.

There is both humor and despair involved our shellfish growers’ community self - description as the “Gray Oyster Cult” and most of our bane originates from ADF&G. Some of this is personality, some is regulatory, it all adds up to a defensiveness of authority manifested as offensiveness from the Department, i.e. “the Culture”.

Of course there are good people in the system but I will reiterate: many of us will be watching the new Commissioner for expected change, particularly after finding the Joint Board procedure lacking in forwarding names to the Governor. I have observed and tried to work with the Department over the years in many different areas and fisheries with mixed success. The largest single ongoing problem is their refusal to work co-operatively with fishermen in data gathering, anecdotal information, and by extension, discounting valid information, even to the point of ignoring information provided by a Tech authorized to gather data on a commercial vessel.

This attitude is rampant throughout Alaska in crab statistical areas [Prince William Sound, Southeast and the Dutch Harbor small boat fishery to name a few] and unless there are recent changes it probably still prevails. Many of us have offered our boats and gear for free to the Department for survey work and as a rule it does not happen. There are fisheries that could be providing income to coastal communities but for ADF&G’s insistence on using Dept vessels which invariably come with the caveat “we don’t have enough funding to survey”. Many of us fishermen who know the grounds have seen time and again they don’t have the innate knowledge one gets from spending a lifetime on those waters.

Most recently the humpback whale killed in an ADF&G herring seine in Sawmill Bay provides a clue as to who should be doing survey work.. Another recent, most egregious case, involved the S.E. king crab fishery where the Dept vessel found CPUE’s of approximately 4 legal crab per pot. A separate vessel skippered by a professional crab fisherman documented approximately 40 legal crab per pot. The biologist in charge refused the documented information of the second vessel, refused to open the season, and by that act cost the town of Petersburg nearly $ 1,000,000 dollars to its November economy. She got moved sideways in the Dept. instead of out}.

These actions ripple across Alaska in towns like Cordova, Seward, Homer, Ketchikan and out to the Alaska Peninsula and Kodiak. Not all the time, but often enough to form a pattern of the “Culture”. We of the Gray Oyster Cult have been hammered by these guys even worse as we don’t have the economic clout nor stature enough to try to change this on our own----- except when the Legislature steps up to the plate as Representative Seaton is doing with this bill.

Members of the Committee, I implore you to take an honest look at what’s at stake here. I urge you to look at The McDowell Report on Alaska Seafood Economic Strategies [ Dec 2006], and also the NOAA Ten Year Aquaculture plan, also from last year. This industry is the future of Alaska’s fisheries. Please pass this bill. Thank you.