My Turn: Habitat concerns fishermen, governor

Posted: Sunday, February 09, 2003

No issue is of greater importance to the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA) than the vitality and reproductive capacity of Alaska's habitat and environment. UFA has a long history at the national, state, and local government levels of pursuing legislation and policies to achieve a healthy environment for fish and wildlife.

From the Tongass Land Management Practices Act in Southeast Alaska to offshore drilling in Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet, UFA has long sought to balance Alaska's need to develop the state's resources while defending and protecting the environment. This commitment to balanced management is one of the reasons why the UFA endorsed Frank Murkowski in last year's gubernatorial campaign.

During his State of the State address a few weeks ago, Gov. Murkowski stated his intention to streamline certain agencies and regulatory processes in order to enhance the potential for future resource development, including commercial fishing.

While there has been debate among sport and some commercial fishers across the state about the potential outcome of this "streamlining," I believe the governor will strive to achieve a reasonable balance between the economic needs of Alaskans and environmental protection. I'm also confident the essential environmental protections UFA helped gain and implement will continue to apply.

For instance, by transferring habitat permitting from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to the Department of Natural Resources, there will be a change in the process, but the requirements of the laws and regulations that protect fish habitat will remain the same. The experienced habitat biologists will be at DNR doing the same job they did for ADFG.

As a result of streamlining the permitting process, we should see an end to the long delays in processing permit applications, delays that have occurred while the commissioners of DNR and ADFG split responsibility. The balanced management Gov. Murkowski wants will be achieved, providing Alaskans both responsible resource development and protection of our essential fish and wildlife habitat.

This balance is important to the commercial fishing industry, which has been suffering under a weight of unintended consequences of onerous enforcement of environmental regulations and lawsuits brought by extreme national environmental organizations.

Trident Seafoods, for instance, recently was fined $1 million for alleged clean air act violations which purportedly occurred in Akutan - a town with some of the cleanest air in America. And, along with Trident, the now-defunct Wards Cove Packing Company suffered a series of fines for disposing of fish heads in a manner that has been followed since long before statehood without any negative environmental consequences.

There have been many Alaska fishermen who have suffered financially or even lost their jobs due to the price of compliance to regulations which do not belong or fit into rural economies, like many of the communities we have in Alaska.

The cleanest commercial fisheries in the world exist in this state, yet many of them are the object of litigation. Our major western trawl, pot and longline fisheries are still under the thumb of the series of stellar sea lion lawsuits brought by major national environmental organizations.

The salmon fisheries of Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska are under the gun of a bizarre lawsuit brought by a couple of major national environmental organizations that purport their intent is to protect marine mammals.

Alaskans care about the environment and recognize the need to adhere to responsible environmental protection. Alaskans also recognize the importance of balancing this concern with the needs of families to be able to make a living wage in commercial fishing and in other resource-based industries.

But that balance doesn't exist today. The process has swung too far in the direction of those who would take us away from our jobs. The United Fishermen of Alaska intends to stand beside Gov. Murkowski as he attempts to provide reasonable balance to better the needs of resource users, such as UFA's commercial fishermen, and the need to provide protection of habitat and the environment.

I'm confident his administration will accomplish this objective.

Bob Thorstenson Jr. is president of United Fishermen of Alaska

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