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My Turn: Is Alaska letting cruise industry waste dumping damage the greatest fisheries in the world?

Posted: February 14, 2013 - 1:13am

Care much about the decline of Alaska’s king salmon and halibut? I do. You do, and protecting Alaska’s fish and clean water is why you voted in 2006 for strict water quality standards to prevent cruise ship companies from dumping poorly treated, damaging copper and by products from human waste — 20,000 gallons of inadequately treated discharge at a time — into our fishing waters. Unfortunately the Governor and GOP-led House passed a bill last week to weaken this voter initiative.

I’m not a big fan of reversing voter-passed initiatives, or of endangering Alaska fish, including king salmon and halibut which we are losing in numbers far too fast. The desire to protect Alaska’s world class fishing — from the Yukon to the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak and across the state — binds us together as Alaskans.

The next step is to hope the Senate won’t agree with what Governor Parnell and the House pushed.

I hope folks work across party lines, and that a GOP-led Senate will work with Democrats who have proposed rules I’ll explain below to protect our fisheries from poorly treated waste. And though this bill sped through the house with no commercial fishing member testimony, now fishing groups have organized to push for similar (and maybe better!) changes to the bill that I and others pushed on the House side.

As an avid fisherman, I don’t believe in trading wild fish for cruise ship waste.

So why did the Governor and his allies (with 2 dissenting GOP votes from Reps. Paul Seaton and Peggy Wilson) vote to roll back the 2006 citizens’ initiative water quality?

Well, let’s start from the beginning. Copper, and ammonia from treated human waste, damage fish — and especially King Salmon, which have been dwindling in numbers in Alaska’s most important rivers recently. Your voter initiative limited damaging copper, ammonia and other damaging discharges. It required human waste to be treated to high standards. Half the large cruise ships coming to Alaska meet these clean water standards by discharging at stationary waste plants where dumping doesn’t touch critical fishery habitat, or they dump 3 miles offshore where currents more easily dissipate waste. That won’t be required anymore.

I’m not a big fan of throwing babies out with bathwater. I’d rather keep pressuring companies to develop cleaner discharge technology, as the initiative has been doing.

Your initiative said clean water standards had to be met at the spot where the dumping occurred. Now the Governor lets ships spread their waste over large areas, called “mixing zones” — so the pollution in any one column of water is less, but cumulatively, a school of Kings will swim through that long swath of discharge.

We can do better.

Rep. Chris Tuck (D-Anchorage) proposed an amendment that would let fishermen know where ships had dumped — so they can avoid those areas.

I proposed an amendment saying that until the non-compliant ships can meet clean water standards, they should go 2 miles offshore to dump — in state waters where we can impose clean water regulations — and dump only in areas not dangerous to fish and shellfish. While the state has some regulations on protecting fish from wastewater, those can easily be eliminated by the Governor at any time, like past clean salmon stream regulations Governor Murkowski weakened with his pen. I proposed strong fisheries protections be put in statute where a Governor can’t meddle with them. And I pushed the 2 mile limit requirement that doesn’t exist in regulation — to maximize the protection of Alaska’s wild fish.

Rep. Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage) proposed an amendment to maintain the voter initiative, but give ships a few more years to meet the standards half our cruise ships meet already, instead of eliminating them.

I don’t believe in trading our wild fish, and our voter initiative, for the right of outside cruise ship companies to endanger our resources — ones sport, commercial and subsistence fishermen rely upon.

• Gara is an Anchorage Democrat. He represents Downtown, Fairview, Government Hill and Eastridge. You can reach him at rep.les.gara@akleg.gov or 465-2647.

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