Alaska Digest

Posted: Monday, February 02, 2004

Scientists seek to keep whales from longlines

ANCHORAGE - Sperm whales have learned to pluck sablefish hauled from the black depths of the Gulf of Alaska, showing a dexterity that belies their enormous size and toothy, underslung jaws.

"They somehow just pick them off like grapes," said Sitka longliner Dick Curran, who has fished the gulf's deep waters for decades. "I don't know how they do it, and I don't know the depth."

No one knows how they're cueing into the sablefish, also called black cod, whose oily, rich flesh has become a lucrative product in Japanese markets. But a coalition of commercial fishermen and biologists have begun to investigate with about $200,000 from the North Pacific Research Board.

"We don't want the fishermen to have an economic loss, plus it's a biological loss, because we don't know how many sablefish are being taken," said Sitka-based whale specialist Jan Straley, a lead investigator in the project. "My interest is biological, and I really want to understand what these whales are doing."

What Straley and her partners have found after one season suggests that male sperm whales may patrol the edge of the continental shelf, where the water is 1,200 to 3,000 feet deep.

"For sure they know the sound of hydraulics engaging - the whales definitely know that it's like ringing the dinner bell for them," said Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen's Association, which is coordinating the study.

"But they've gone one step beyond that. They've learned that the flag and bag (of the buoy) in the water is all part of that dinner bell. Everyone knows whales are smart, and they're proving it."

Man charged with trying to take officer's weapon

KENAI - Five weeks after a Kenai police officer was shot and killed in the line of duty, a man charged with drunken driving attempted to take a Soldotna police officer's weapon, police said.

Joel K. Blatchford, 48, of Soldotna, was charged Friday with attempted assault and attempted escape after he tried to take Officer Gisele Webster's handgun while she was processing his arrest at Alaska State Trooper offices in Soldotna, according to charging documents.

Webster found Blatchford in his pickup truck stuck in a snow berm and arrested him on a driving under the influence charge.

Blatchford was taken to the trooper post and was being processed when he lunged at Webster and grabbed her .45 caliber automatic pistol, attempting to remove it from its holster, police said.

The two struggled and Blatchford was able to free one of three retention straps holding the gun in the holster.

The struggle continued and trooper Sgt. Craig Macdonald heard Webster yell for help, rushed to her aid and saw the 5-foot, 9-inch, 180-pound Blatchford struggling with Webster's weapon.

Macdonald used pepper spray and physical force to remove Blatchford from Webster, Soldotna Police administrative Sgt. Marvin Towell told the Peninsula Clarion.

Blatchford was jailed at Wildwood Pretrial Facility.

Former Fort Yukon mayor faces charges

FAIRBANKS - A former Fort Yukon mayor is one of two people accused of falsifying financial records at a local store where they once worked.

John Taylor, who served as mayor for five months in 2002, and Maggie John were indicted Thursday.

Taylor, 43, who has since moved to Craig, and John, 28, were charged in connection with trying to change records to cover up an embezzlement from the Alaska Commercial Co. in 2002, Fort Yukon police said

The two are charged with falsifying records, a class C felony that is punishable with up to five years in jail and a $50,000 fine.

Police Chief Reggie Flemming said the investigation began in July 2002 after an audit at the store showed money missing.

"It's a certain amount this day, and a certain amount this day," Flemming told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. "There was roughly at one point about $10,000, and then it was amounts here and there."

State high court rules in sovereign immunity case

ANCHORAGE - The Alaska Supreme Court has overturned a lower court's ruling in a case involving two Bethel families who say their children were injured at a Head Start program.

The high court ruled Friday that the plaintiffs have a legal right to sue the organization running the program, even though all 56 villages that make up that organization have sovereign immunity.

The villages' immunity does not extend to the Association of Village Council Presidents, the court said. The council is a nonprofit organization incorporated in 1969 to administer government and social service programs, including Head Start, for the Native villages around Bethel. It was sued several years ago by two Native families.

One family said its child was sexually abused by another child at Head Start due to negligence and poor teacher training. Another said its child's finger got sliced by a door at the Head Start building, also due to negligence.

But sovereigns usually can't be sued without their permission. Relying on a 1999 Alaska Supreme Court decision called John v. Baker, which recognizes tribal sovereignty, a Bethel judge threw out the lawsuits, saying the council was covered by the villages' immunity. The families appealed.

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