Commercial fishing group opposes hoverbarge proposal

Concerns linger over effect Tulsequah Chief mine plan would have on fish

Posted: Friday, November 02, 2007

The largest commercial fishing group in Alaska has voted to oppose a plan to transport unprocessed ore on the Taku River using a hoverbarge until the group's concerns about fish habitat have been resolved.

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The United Fishermen of Alaska's board of directors passed a motion at its Oct. 26 meeting against a plan to carry ore from Canada's Tulsequah Chief Mine, 19 miles upstream from where the Taku River enters the United States.

The fishermen's concerns revolve around the use of a machine that has not been built or used before. Called an amphitrac, two of the machines would tug 300-ton loads on two hoverbarges about 4 mph up and down the Taku River daily.

"We don't believe that the Taku River drainage should be used as an experiment for an untried vehicle and technology," said Ken Duckett, a Ketchikan-based UFA board member and executive director of the United Southeast Alaska Gillnetters Association.

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"Until those concerns are addressed to the (Fish and Game) department's satisfaction, and to the commercial fishermen's satisfaction, we are not going to support the project," he said.

Duckett, who put forth the motion, did not recall any opposition to it at the meeting.

The multimetal mine is being developed by Canadian company Redfern Resources, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Redcorp Ventures.

Redcorp spokeswoman Salina Landstad said the amphitrac is in the construction phase and combines known technologies.

"We are taking known technologies and putting them together. Before we start using it for its intended purposes, it will undergo a series of testing. ... It is a proven technology. We know what we need to know about it," Landstad said.

She said the company is arranging informational meetings with those interested in learning more details about the plan.

The UFA approved a one-sentence motion opposing the plan until further reassurances are made.

"UFA opposes the Tulsequah Chief Mine transportation plan until such time that the issues raised by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have been resolved in favor of protection of the fishery resource and associated habitat," the motion said.

UFA is an umbrella group of 36 member organizations, and - depending on those groups' membership numbers - represents 5,000 to 10,000 fishermen at any given time.

The Taku River hosts a thriving salmon fishery, with commercial fishermen concentrating on sockeye and coho, and more recently king salmon, which have doubled in number there since the 1980s. The annual value of the fishery is $2.84 million, according to Fish and Game estimates.

There is currently no permit being considered by the state of Alaska, but area biologists at Fish and Game have said the barge plan should not be permitted because it will have dire consequences for fish spawning in the river.

The Department of Natural Resources, charged with permitting the barge plan, sent a one-paragraph letter to Canada's government saying it did not need further information for the purpose of Canada's permitting process and will continue to review the project until it receives a permit application.

Chris Zimmer is with the U.S.-Canadian group Rivers Without Borders, which opposes the mine on all counts.

"This is the wrong mine in the wrong place," he said.

Zimmer, a Juneau-based coordinator for the group, wants a moratorium on the mine's permitting until Canada and the United States agree on "bi-national watershed planning."

"We need to provide long-term certainty for Alaskans and enforceable standards for environmental protection and development," Zimmer said.

Redcorp hopes to begin mining copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold as soon as it finds a way to get the ore concentrate to market.

The Canadian government recently solicited public comment on the hoverbarge plan, which prompted responses from the U.S. Department of Interior, Department of Natural Resources, Taku River Tlingit First Nation and Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

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