Ocean panel studies Alaska water policies

Commission's visit focused on two days of public testimony

Posted: Monday, August 26, 2002

Alaskans bragged about fisheries management to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy last week, and the commissioners took notes.

"In many ways Alaska set some good examples for the rest of the nation," said commissioner Paul Kelly, vice president of an offshore oil drilling company.

Kelly and several other commissioners were in Juneau on Friday after two days of hearings in Anchorage. The rest of the 16-member commission was in Dutch Harbor.

The commission is due to make recommendations for a national ocean policy in a report due next spring. The last time a national commission looked at ocean policy was in 1969, when the Stratton Commission issued a report.

While in Juneau the commissioners spent several hours touring the Dawn Princess, concentrating on the sewage treatment and shore power hookups. They were impressed by the level of technology, and the scope of the problem presented by cruise-ship waste.

"It's good to see that our country is forcing foreign vessels to apply these standards in our water," said commissioner Frank Muller-Karger, a professor of marine science at the University of South Florida.

After the cruise-ship tour, the commissioners met with Drue Pearce of the Department of the Interior to talk about management of off-shore oil resources.

"This is a state that wants to develop its oil and gas resources, both on shore and off-shore," Pearce told the commissioners before describing the eight off-shore lease sales planned for the next five years.

The core of the commission's Alaska visit was two days of public testimony in Anchorage, where U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, Gov. Tony Knowles and 25 representatives from the fishing industry, scientists, Coast Guard and environmental groups spoke.

Stevens told the commissioners that a distant and "unwitting" Congress, encouraged by environmentalists, had withdrawn much of Alaska's land from resource development and had all but killed the timber industry. He said he wouldn't want to see the same happen in the vast seas around the state, especially if Alaskans didn't have much say.

"I'm going to oppose anything that sets up a process of withdrawals off our shore that's not managed by the local people," he said.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1977, among other things, set up a system of regional councils to oversee fisheries. Many other speakers touted the act and the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which they said is working better in Alaska than in other regions.

"A recurring theme is the connection between the local people and the people that govern," said commissioner Paul Gaffney, president of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. "That seems to work quite well here."

However, several Alaskans testifying also said litigation by environmental groups was detracting from the council's and the National Marine Fisheries Service's ability to manage the fisheries. Environmental groups should be encouraged to work through the council process, said John Winther, a third-generation fisherman from Petersburg.

"I recognize it is not an easy process since the volume of data and information is considerable," Winther said, "however, nobody else gets a free pass from doing their homework."

At the same time, Alaskans told the commission there is a need to protect the oceans and increase research. Knowles encouraged the commission to create a policy protecting and restoring the oceans and marine resources. Knowles, who also serves on the privately funded Pew Oceans Commission, said development along American coastlines is polluting streams

"Oil running off our streets and driveways reaches our oceans in amounts equal to an Exxon Valdez spill every eight months," Knowles said. "Persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, produced worldwide are now condensing in the Arctic waters, posing an ever increasing danger each step up the marine food chain."

With almost 200 people in the audience, the Anchorage meetings were the best attended of any public hearings the commission has held, said David Roscow, a staffer for the commission. From 50 to 100 people attended the commission hearings in South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, California, Hawaii, Washington and Massachusetts, he said. The last regional meeting will be in Chicago in September.

"We learn a little bit more every meeting," Muller-Karger said. "We've heard about fisheries everywhere we go, but the situation in Alaska is unique because the management by the local people works."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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