State commission listens to testimony about problems caused by warming

Posted: Thursday, January 25, 2007

Paula Terrel has spent the past 25 years fishing in Alaska for salmon and halibut, but she recently has been eating a lot of tropical fish.

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Three years ago, Terrel's husband caught his first tropical species while salmon trolling in the couple's normal fishing grounds between Sitka and Yakutat.

"Last year he had so many that he could not catch king salmon because there were so many of these fish," she told a legislative-appointed commission on climate change during an all-day meeting Wednesday at the Capitol.

She attributed the catch to warmer waters in Southeast Alaska. While the fish may be tasty, she said she is concerned about what the future holds for the fishing industry with warming waters.

The Alaska Climate Impact Assessment Commission is charged with the task of figuring that out - or at least compiling a report that explores what a warmer climate means for industries, lifestyles and wildlife throughout the state.

It also has been charged with providing Alaska lawmakers with recommendations to address the impacts of climate change. This could include ways the state could benefit from such change.

Testimony was given Wednesday not only by members of the public such as Terrel, but also by experts from state and federal agencies and other organizations.

Southeast fishermen, including subsistence users and anglers, are among the first in the state to experience the effects of climate change, said fisheries expert David Bernard.

Another industry that potentially faces sizable problems is the oil industry. Tom Chapple, who spoke on behalf of the Department of Environmental Conservation, said many of the state's fuel farms are close to bodies of water.

"It makes them vulnerable to flood events," he said.

State fire officials are concerned about whether firefighters are suitably trained and compensated for the changing conditions.

Fires in the Fairbanks area during 2004 were the largest in memory, said Marc Lee, a Fairbanks area forester.

"We had strong northeasterly winds that we normally do not get," he said. Roughly 6.7 million acres burned that year in Alaska - more than any year on record.

Rick Steiner, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor and marine conservation specialist, recommended the creation of either a state office on climate change or a joint federal and state office on climate change as a "one-stop shop" for the issue. He also proposed that research, planning and response be funded with the establishment of a 10 cent-per-barrel tax on state oil.

Several people who spoke Wednesday commented on the need for local and state governments to take charge of finding out how to cope with a changing climate.

In December 2005, Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho launched a scientific panel to compile data on impacts of climate change for Southeast Alaska and Juneau. The report from the mayor's panel is slated to be released in late March.

The state commission will develop an overview of what global warming is likely to mean for Alaska, along with any steps that can be taken to deal with it. The commission will present its findings to the Legislature at the start of the 2008 session.

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