Industry Leaders Meet For Outlook Forum

Representatives from several state agencies and natural resources industries met in Kenai for the annual Industry Outlook Forum, sponsored by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District and The Alliance. The speakers were all optimistic about the prospects for Cook Inlet energy production in the coming year.

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It seems like the question isn’t “will we get more oil and gas out of Cook Inlet” anymore. But rather, how quickly can we get all the oil and gas that’s out there to market. And in the interest of all the local business leaders attending the forum, how many jobs and how much investment does that translate to.

The Inlet has shown big promise the past couple years and Cook Inlet Energy CEO David Hall says one of the challenges in seeing that promise kept is leaving taxes alone.

“I think number one, to keep the momentum going, I think the Alaska tax credit systems that are in place now, those are critical. Keep those in place.

Those incentives have enticed many small companies to come here, like Cook Inlet Energy. And that tax structure and its apparent success in getting gas fields developed was a model for Governor Sean Parnell’s SB 21 oil tax reform at the state level. He spoke to the forum Friday via Skype.

“Cook Inlet was the template for what we did on the North Slope. You folks there are kind of right in the epicenter of economic opportunity being created for Alaskans,” Parnell said.

Production of natural gas here was a big topic, but so was processing natural gas from the North Slope. Everyone seemed hopeful that a long-sought after in-state pipeline from the North Slope to Cook Inlet might finally be just around the corner.

 Parnell says getting that gas line to Nikiski is a top priority for him this legislative session.

“I’ve asked the Legislature to pass enabling legislation that gives us that start on pre-front end engineering and design. Really what I’m asking them to do, once they’ve fully vetted the gas line, is let Alaska control our destiny by owning or participating in the Alaska LNG Project.”

He says the project needs to happen in stages, with the state ponying up somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 to 90 million dollars for preliminary work.

“In years past, we’ve been kind of stuck in this story or narrative that the state has to put everything on the table at once and move forward with a gas line and kind of wait for it to happen. That’s not the way companies make decisions. And we’re going to participate in this Alaska LNG Project like a traditional, commercial party would.”

Time will tell if the Legislature agrees with that philosophy, and if those investment dollars will find their way to the Kenai Peninsula, but to the glass-is-half-full crowd, the whole project could be done within a decade.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


By The Numbers: What Escapement Goals Are

When the Board of Fish meets next week in Anchorage, a number of the proposals it will debate will be centered on escapement goals. Biological, optimal or sustainable, these are the numbers managers use to decide when people fish and how hard. Here’s a closer look at what those numbers are, and how they’re established.

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Nine-thousand. Fifteen-thousand. Thirty-thousand. High end, low end, in-river. SEG, OEG, BEG. If you don’t speak fluent fish management, none of that means much of anything. But for fishermen and managers, it means just about everything.

An escapement goal, in very basic terms, is simply the number of fish allowed to escape a fishery and go on to spawn. From there, it gets broken down into three sub-categories: sustainable escapement, optimal escapement and biological escapement.

ADF&G commercial fisheries biologist Pat Shields says the sustainable goal, or SEG and the biological goal, or BEG are pretty similar.

“What they attempt to do is the Department looks at how many spawners go into a river system, and then attempt to count all of the adults that are produced from that level of spawners.”

What managers are trying to do is create a harvestable surplus, so everyone can fish and be happy. They do this by figuring out how many spawners it will take to create a certain number of adults. In the interest of easy math, which is the only kind I can handle, we’ll say that in one system in one year there were 100 spawners. Over the next few years, we see that those 100 spawners produced 500 fish.

But of course, it isn’t quite that easy.

“When you’re harvesting tens of thousands, or millions of fish, where were all those fish headed? Sometimes, you’re not able to accurately estimate the return in one specific river. You might know all of the sources of harvest of fish that were coming back to that river. In that case, you’ll set what’s called the SEG.

And the BEG is calculated when managers can determine which fishery those salmon returned to; whether it’s a commercial, sport or subsistence fishery.

“Finally, the OEG, or optimal escapement goal, is the goal set by the Alaska Board of Fisheries. And the Board can change an SEG or a BEG for a system to take in other considerations. Perhaps some allocation. They want to add more fish to an in-river fishery, or some other social issues or other things that are going on in a particular drainage.”

At this point, you should be thoroughly confused. It’s okay, that’s normal. This is complicated stuff. And it’s made more complicated by the social or political factors that come into play during the Board of Fish process.

But here’s the main point: the BEG is the goal that tries to get as many fish back as possible. When nature is doing what we want, it returns the highest yield of fish. And managers would love to use just the BEG. But, when nature ISN’T doing what we want, we use the SEG. That’s the minimum number of fish we need to come back so we can fish again next year.  And the OEG is the number the Fish Board comes up with when it makes its policies on who will fish and where.

Some of the proposals call for increasing an escapement goal. Some call for lowering them. It all depends on what kind of fishing you’re doing. Extremely low king salmon numbers are driving the debate right now. The big task for the Board of Fish will be figuring out how, or maybe even if, to allocate them as the science continues to show smaller and smaller returns.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Project Leaders Optimistic About Pipeline To Nikiski

Some preliminary work is happening on a proposed natural gas pipeline that would terminate in Nikiski from the North Slope. Representatives from the Alaska Pipeline Project were in Kenai Wednesday giving an update at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

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The work that’s been done over the past year or so has been very preliminary. Lots of field studies on possible environmental impacts, and finding the right path. Just kind of feeling out what the possibilities are for running an 800 mile natural gas pipeline from Point Thompson on the North Slope down to Nikiski, with stops along the way to provide natural gas to interior Alaska.

The notion of such a project has been around in one form or another for decades, but the announcement last fall that Nikiski would be the preferred end of the line made a lot of headlines as a sign that some kind of plan was finally taking shape.

The project’s socioeconomic team leader, Michael Nelson, says at this point, they’ve confirmed that the pipeline would work with existing industry in the area.

“What that means to us is we know we can bring the gas down here without interfering with existing operations  and it makes sense for all the producers.”

Folks in the Nikiski area are cautiously optimistic about the project, having heard rumors about it for years but nothing substantial ever happening. Nelson says they’ve been in contact with landowners in that area, as they craft plans for a new facility that would take up some 500 acres and provide liquid natural gas exports to other markets.

Even if some North Roaders aren’t exactly holding their breath, Kenai mayor Pat Porter is excited about the opportunity.

“I think we need to be optimistic about it. I think it’s a very positive thing for this whole area; for jobs, to be able to have the children you’re raising be able to stay here if that’s the kind of field they want to go into. Whatever you can do to encourage that, it’s not just your children staying here, it’s more business, more revenues which allows for more services to be provided.”

She says the city has a lot to consider as these plans slowly move forward.

“I think some of the things our community needs to be cautious about are what kind of an infrastructure do we need to be able to handle, to support this kind of large-scale project coming into our area.”

Other projects and businesses there, like Agrium, haven’t held up over the long term. But Porter says better communication with the leaders of this effort make her more comfortable about the future prospects.

Another member of the socioeconomic team, Lisa Gray, said there will be a focus on hiring local.

“It’s not likely that every job we have will be filled by an Alaskan. But from a socioeconomic standpoint, the more Alaskans we employ, the less impacts there are on municipalities, local governments that we saw last time around during TAPS. It’s very important that we start to plan for and get our communities ready for the workforce we’re going to need.”

Those are the kinds of conversations that will be necessary to avoid the kind of boom-bust development in the past that followed the prosperity, then decline of the industry.

“What kind of a workforce are they going to have, how many new children and the impact on our schools, impact on our water and sewer systems, all of those things. They need to be partners, and I think they seem willing to do that. Have we always heard about pipelines coming? Yes, but I’m hoping it’s this time.”

A lot of financial and political hurdles stand between the basic concept as its proposed right now and a new addition to the industry. Not least of which is the $45-65 billion dollar price tag. But to the optimist, if those hurdles can be cleared, a finished LNG facility in Nikiski could be online within a decade.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Honor Band Performs In Soldotna

University of Idaho music professor Dan Bukvich conducts the Honor-Mass High School Band Tuesday in Soldotna. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Each year, some of the Peninsula’s most talented young musicians gather for two days to put on a concert at the Honor-Mass High School Band Festival. This year’s event features guest conductor Dan Bukvich from the University of Idaho. The band will be performing several selections, including one by Bukvich.

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-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Warm Days Boon For Moose, Bane For Bear Naps

More than a week's worth of above-freezing temperatures has left much of the Peninsula's snow pack running down the drain. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Unseasonably warm temperatures have hovered over much of Alaska for the past couple weeks and, the sneak peak at Spring isn’t going away any time soon.

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It feels a lot like April. Standing alongside the Kenai Spur Highway, it certainly looks and sounds a lot like April. But a quick check of the calendar confirms there’s a lot of winter left. The hero in this tale, or the villain, depending on your feelings about Old Man Winter, is a deep southerly flow pattern over the state.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jason Ahfenmacher  says it’s a highly amplified pattern, likely to stick around for awhile.

“That general pattern has shifted a large plum of warm air from the subtropics into Alaska and shifted all the cold air that’s usually over Alaska into the northeastern and eastern United States.”

So, you’re welcome lower-48’ers. Those are our sub-zero temperatures you’re enjoying right now. The polar vortex we’ve heard so much about.

“We’ve been getting this large ridge that’s been building in from the north east Pacific, which interestingly enough, is the main driver for the large drought that’s been going on in the western US including California,” Ahfenmacher said.

He says that means drier conditions for South Central over the next week or so. Which isn’t exactly what the winter outdoors enthusiast might like to hear. Despite the warm weather and lack of snow, things at Tsalteshi Trails are holding up alright.

“Even though the atmosphere is warm, it still cools from below because the ground is pretty cold, especially when (the snow) is compacted the way it is now,” said Bill Holt. He maintains the Trails. At least as much as they can be right now.

“It can be 36 degrees and the sun will be out, but it’s essentially re-freezing all that stuff on the surface. The good thing about that is that the base is solid enough that, even skiing on it right now doesn’t rut it up too much, so it’s not that hard to fix once it gets cold again,” Holt said.

A few areas have a lot of standing water. That’s caused cancellation of some youth ski events recently. But he says the snow shoeing is great and some have even transitioned back into running the trails using ice cleats.

If the April in January paradigm doesn’t do much for you, it’s a pretty safe bet the moose are digging it. ADF&G wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger says the suddenly low snow pack is saving them energy as they graze.

“The other thing that happens in this type of weather is food that would normally not be available to moose is now available.”

But, there’s a flip side.

“That is the stuff that is usually available to them in late winter once you get the snow melt but before green up. So if they’re eating that food now, it will not be available to them later in the year.”

And while hearty Alaskans might be taking a reprieve from the heavy winter coat right now, Selinger says moose don’t get to do that. And trudging around the woods when its 40 degrees can lead to overheating, but overall it’s shaping up to be a better winter than the past couple years.

He says Mother Nature’s psyche-out could work especially well on bears.

“If the snow pack goes away, light will penetrate the den that can trigger them to wake up. And also if moisture starts getting in there from snow melt, that can also trigger them, among other things. If they come out and they can find a food source, a lot of times they’ll stay out longer. But if they do not find a food source, they’ll den back up.”

So, keep the lid on the trash can, your eyes peeled for moose, plenty of washer fluid in the reservoir and wait patiently for the imminent return of winter.


Too Warm for the Tusty 200

Unseasonably warm weather the past week left mushing fans with an open weekend.

There simply wasn’t enough snow for one of the Peninsula’s premiere winter events and more than forty sled dog teams left this weekend without logging a single mile of the Tustumena 200, which turned 30 this year.

“Last night our Board of Directors took a report from our trail committee and decided we just don’t have enough snow. The conditions are not right and there’s way to much open water up in the hills,” said race director Tami Murray.

With no snow and cold in the forecast, she says they had to make the choice to let the racers move on to other things.

“Typically we will postpone one week and then make another decision, but with the forecast we’re seeing there’s no reason to do that. If we did that, the mushers are hanging out wondering what to do and they really need to be training for the Iditarod. The all had to head up north, even the teams that were in Anchorage and the Valley had to head north to find some snow.”

The Northern Lights 300, which is an Iditarod qualifier run in the Mat-Su Valley was also cancelled, but as of Friday, the Yukon Quest was still slated to start from Fairbanks on February 1st.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Federal Funding Could Be Available For Flooded Areas

With a relatively light agenda, the Borough Assembly wrapped up its meeting last week in short order, hearing some updates from Central Peninsula Hospital and the status of federal grant money.

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The big news out of the hospital is, of course, that it’s moving forward with a 40-plus-million dollar expansion in Soldotna. The state approved an amended certificate of need for the project earlier this month and CEO Rick Davis says the Borough finance department is going ahead with issuing the revenue bonds for the project.

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre reported he’d met with the Road Service Area Board to discuss expansion of the Kenai Spur highway north of Nikiski.

“I presented some historical information. We talked about where we might go in the plan going forward in the use of the money we got from the legislature last year to improve access to Jacob’s Ladder and also impediments for funding North Road extension from the grant that we got and earmark that we got in 1998.”

He says actually getting that funding from an almost 20-year old earmark is going to be tough, given the political consequences in Washington D.C. of legislators putting their name on earmarks.

“One of the good things that came out of the meeting was the representative who attended by teleconference from the state department of transportation did indicate that they would support a funding exchange if we are able to get the earmark changed at the federal level.”

Even though the fate of that money is still up in the air, Navarre says the federal government might have some help to offer following a disaster declaration by the President for flooding on the Kenai Peninsula this fall, especially for inundated areas near K-Beach Road south of Kenai.

“That was something that was not expected. It’s limited to public infrastructure, but what it does mean is that there will be potentially some federal funding available to help with mitigation projects as we move forward in identifying what we want to do to alleviate that situation.”

The Assembly meets again on February 11th.


Fish Talk: Panel Discusses Cook Inlet Fishing Issues

Representative from five different fishing groups and the City of Kenai had a panel discussion about the challenges facing Cook Inlet fisheries Wednesday at the Kenai Visitor's Center. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)

Representatives from nearly every fishing-related organization on the Central Peninsula got together for a panel discussion Wednesday at a joint meeting of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce. The message of the day was working together.

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The Kenai Visitor’s Center was filled nearly to capacity, as voices from just about every corner of the local fishing world discussed the topic du jour: king salmon runs. And more specifically, how should the effects of low runs be distributed among user groups.

The moderator, Merrill Sikorski, got started by asking how things have changed the past 10-20 years. Most of the panel talked about more competition, more pressure on the various fisheries, more participation. Paul Dale, of the Alaska Salmon Alliance which represents commercial interests, talked about how much better business has become for processors.

“We went through a period of low prices and consequent business consolidation. A few people left the area. That has, happily, completely reversed. New entrants are moving in, markets are more varied than they used to be and profitability is up.”

For the next round, the panel got into what’s making it difficult to solve the problems that have gone on for so long. For Josh Hayes of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association, it’s the dynamic nature of Upper Cook Inlet Fisheries.

“I think the most difficult aspect of management is that it’s a mixed-stock fishery. Traditionally, it’s been managed primarily for the sockeye and other fisheries have suffered at that cause. As far as meeting user expectations, I think it requires that all users in times of low abundance share the burden of conservation. But conversely, in times of excess that means we all share the rewards.”

That message was similar to Dwight Kramer’s, who spoke on behalf of private sport anglers as a member of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition.

“One word: cooperation. Cooperation among user groups to get together for the well being of the resource. All too often it’s about allocation issues and financial concerns between sport and commercial. A perfect example is the recent initiative attempt by a sportfishing group to end the livlihood of the east side setnet industry.”

The group Kramer was referring to is the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance. They were invited to have someone sit on the panel, but had a press conference in Anchorage instead, to announce a lawsuit against the Lt. Governor.

Jim Butler is an east side setnetter and a member of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association…You’re keeping all these groups straight, right?…Butler says the biggest challenges are faced by ADF&G managers, because they don’t always have the flexibility they need to fish these areas as efficiently as possible.

“I think one of the reasons, unfortunately, that’s driven by certain political influences outside of the region. But also, what’s becoming increasingly unreasonable expectations by a lot of folks. It might be news to some, but fish don’t read calendars. If the fish aren’t here on Saturday, it’s nobody’s fault. They just don’t want to be here on that Saturday. But if they’re here on a Tuesday, you shouldn’t mandate that you can’t fish them.”

Now, basically every salmon that swims through the Inlet is appropriated to one fishery or another, or to the rivers so escapement goals can be met. But some of those fisheries are growing in participation. Like dipnetting.

So when every fish is already spoken for, how do you facilitate more people trying catch them? Sport guide Josh Hayes says more and more of his colleagues simply aren’t catching anything, and closing down.

“Currently, I don’t believe there will be any growth in my fishery or my industry until we see higher levels of true abundance of Kenai kings in river. Increasing participation in any fishery within Cook Inlet I think will have a compounding effect of the issues the resource is already experiencing.”

Growth in the personal use fishery is of particular concern to Kenai city manager Rick Koch, who also sat with the panel. While dipnetters bring a lot of dollars into town, hosting them for three weeks takes a lot of dollars, too.

“We see a tremendous amount of revenue come in during a very short period of time. Of which, unfortunately, we see the same expense. It’s about a break-even for the city of Kenai.”

With increased participation and concerns about king returns in mind, the question was how do we preserve the overall fishing business and culture in Cook Inlet.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association executive director Ricky Gease says more research is the key to strong returns and a strong industry.

“I think there’s some exciting research that’s going on out in Cook Inlet in terms of acoustics and finding entry patterns for both adults and juveniles as they’re exiting the Cook Inlet system. Instead of the ocean being a black box, and not knowing when it’s up and when it’s down, we need to figure out…what happens in the ocean as a window into the productivity of salmon.”

As most of the panel agreed, cooperation will also be a key ingredient to maintaining the different fishing opportunities here. ASA’s Paul Dale said a panel like this one was a good start.

“As participation grows I think our challenge, again, is to quit beating each other up over allocation and start spending time talking about how we are going to move together forward in a way that respects each other.”

All of these groups will have more opportunities to meet and mingle when the Board of Fish meets next in Anchorage to address some of these same questions.


Sportfishing Group Sues Over Lt. Governor’s Decision

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance did not agree with the Lt. Governor’s decision this month to not allow its proposed ban on commercial setnetting on the 2016 ballot. They’re taking their case to court.

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The Alliance assembled some of its Directors and staff in Anchorage Wednesday morning to announce it was challenging Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell’s decision.

The group’s legal counsel, Matt Singer, said that decision was unconstitutional.

“I want to be clear; the decision by the Lt. Governor and the opinion of the Attorney General, on which the Lt. Governor relied, they’re wrong. They’re wrong on the law. And their decision, should it stand, is a dangerous precedent in Alaska.”

The Lt. Governor agreed with the Attorney General that the proposed setnet ban amounted to a reallocation of fish. Those decisions cannot be made by the public through a voter initiative. But the Alliance maintains the proposal is a conservation measure. It only asks that setnets be taken out of the water. How the fish are appropriated after that is up to the Board of Fish, but Singer says there’s not much confidence in how they do that.

“Because the Board of Fish hasn’t conserved kings. And the voters have a right to express their will.”

Severe restrictions to both commercial and sport fisheries the past two years have allowed king salmon to meet their escapement goals, but by a relatively thin margin. And this year doesn’t look much better. The bottom end of the escapement goal is 15,000 fish. The Department of Fish and Game predicts a return of a little more than 19,000 to the Kenai River.

The commercial setnet fishery is already as big as it can be. It’s a limited entry fishery. The Alliance’s president, Joe Connors, is a sport guide and a former setnetter. He says there has long been talk of a similar restriction to the guide industry, but the state constitution won’t allow for it.

“Certainly, if the state wanted to go to limited entry, that would not be an issue. I was in favor of doing a restriction, but we can’t do it because of the constitution.”

The often-mentioned but rarely quoted Bob Penney was also in attendance. He is one of the founders of the Alliance and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. He’s pushed king salmon conservation for years, and he lamented the recent low king numbers from his vantage point on the Kenai River.

“The last three years (from) my chair in my living room, I’ve looked outside, I haven’t seen one king rolled. Because they’re almost gone. You don’t wait until they’re gone and say ‘gee whiz, we should have done something.’ Now’s the time to protect the fish. The fish come first.”

The final decision about the legality of the Alliance’s voter initiative will be made in Alaska superior court in Anchorage.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


ADF&G Anticipating Another Low King Salmon Return

The Department of Fish and Game is predicting another below-average year for king salmon returns on the Kenai River.

The department is forecasting a total run of a little less than 20,000 fish. If those numbers are correct, it will be the lowest return in the 29 years for which records are available on the Kenai, and less than half of the average-sized run over that same time period. That number still falls within the Department’s sustainable escapement goal of 15-30,000 fish.

This year’s forecast is lower than last year’s pre-season estimate, however, total run size is anticipated to be about the same as 2013. King returns to the Kenai the past couple years have come in later than expected.  ADF&G Managers have indicated that they will be conservative in how they prosecute the Kenai River and related fisheries, as they continue to see weak returns.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-