The rhetoric regarding permit reform in Alaska has gotten a little overheated. As might be expected, reality probably is somewhere in between the two extremes competing for space on the editorial page.
Some contend Alaska's fish and wildlife resources will be devastated by Gov. Murkowski's transfer of permitting functions from the Habitat and Restoration Division to the Department of Natural Resources, while others suggest the change could help turn around the state's sagging economy.
Gov. Murkowski is right on target when he criticizes the Habitat Division as being out of control and that it needs to shaken up. But, as they say, the devil is in the details and the governor's plan for reorganization cries out for better definition. As an industry totally dependent upon a healthy and clean marine environment, shellfish growers are very interested in those details.
What we hope does not get lost in the heat of the debate is the fact a serious problem needs to be addressed.
Shellfish growers have been engaged in a fierce struggle with the Habitat Division over a wide variety of issues for the past decade. This might seem strange to anyone familiar with our very low impact, environmentally friendly, industry. However, some members of the division are philosophically opposed to shellfish aquaculture and they have been able to manipulate the system to oppose shellfish farmers at every turn in the permitting process.
Since it is easy to provide sweeping generalizations, I'd like to provide a few specific examples of the problems shellfish farmers have encountered in dealing with the Habitat Division:
Inappropriate standards applied.. Reviewers with the Habitat Division recommended against approval of about a dozen intertidal clam farming operations in 1999 because they conflicted with "offshore" habitat standards of the Alaska Coastal Management Program (ACMP). These recommendations came despite confirmation by the division director that "offshore" starts at mean low water and extends three miles offshore. That division director declined to clarify the matter in a memo to the staff, saying he would overturn such recommendations upon appeal by the applicant.
Blanket denials issued with no review. Contrary to the case-by-case approach of the ACMP, Habitat reviewers initially recommended against approval of all 22 proposals for "on bottom" culture of shellfish during the 1999 biennial application opening, using virtually identical language. When questioned about the recommendations, the Southeast director of Habitat conceded the regional staff had not actually had time to review each application and simply used language developed by the Southcentral staff to recommend against the applications
Conflicts grossly exaggerated. One of the reasons used by Habitat to ban clam farming in Kachemak Bay was it would reduce harvesting opportunities for commercial and recreational clam diggers. However, ADF&G's own surveys of beaches proposed as clam farms showed clam diggers would have to excavate up to 1,111 square feet of beach just to fill a five-gallon bucket with steamers.
Habitat biologists as constitutional lawyers. Habitat biologists have continually used constitutional arguments against "on bottom" aquatic farms, despite the Department of Law's analysis that it meets all constitutional tests. Shellfish growers have repeatedly asked to no avail that Habitat restrict its reviews to issues within its jurisdiction and field of expertise.
Many of the problems we've encountered with Habitat probably could be solved with oversight, consistent review standards, and other management tools. If the Legislature decides to proceed with the systemic changes proposed by Gov. Murkowski, you can bet shellfish growers, fishing groups and other Alaskans who depend upon a healthy marine environment will be closely examining the details.
Whatever the outcome of the current debate, shellfish growers are hopeful the focus of the spotlight on the Habitat Division will put an end to abuses of the permitting process. Shellfish growers are trying to create environmentally friendly, year-round mom-and-pop businesses in rural coastal areas and we've been amazed at the amount of time Habitat has been able to focus upon our low impact operations. Perhaps, Habitat's resources would be better focused on thorough and efficient reviews of larger scale projects.
Rodger Painter of Juneau is a commercial shellfish grower, researcher, consultant and vice president of the Alaskan Shellfish Growers Association.