Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Kulluk Dilemma Points Out Hazards to Alaska’s Oceans

By Margaret Bauman 

An environmental saga that began in late December when a tug lost its towline to a $290 million drill rig in rough seas south of Kodiak Island has raised new issues about the adequacy of these tugs to haul oil tankers in heavy weather.

As of Jan. 6, the US Coast Guard, Alaska environmental officials, and representatives of Royal Dutch Shell, owner of the 18,681-ton, 266-foot wide Kulluk, had determined that the vessel grounded on a rocky area offshore of Sitkalidak Island remained stable and upright, and fit to be towed, weather permitting.

Late on the evening of Jan.6 the Unified Command said theKulluk was refloated. By 3 a.m. on Jan. 7, the Kulluk was in tow by the tug Aiviq, traveling at 4.8 knots, and was 19 miles from land, the Unified Command said.

Inspections of the vessel by the salvage team confirmed there were no visible signs of a sheen, which would indicate leakage of any of the 143,000 gallons of diesel fuel, plus another 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products, including hydraulic fluid, on board.
Salvage inspectors who were airlifted to the drill rig said there was superficial damage above the deck and that seawater had entered some open hatches, and that water had knocked out regular and emergency generators on board.

At a news conference Jan. 5, the last before the Fishermen’s News publication deadline, US Coast Guard Capt. Paul Mehler III, the federal on-scene coordinator, said safety of response personnel remained the Unified Command’s top priority.

“The very nature of the recovery operations and the difficult weather conditions must be managed without compromising safety,” Mehler said. “Our timeline is still difficult to nail down, but we are committed to seeing this response through to a safe conclusion. Understand that as recovery operations develop, it may be necessary to alter our plans to address new issues or concerns.”

Steve Russell, the state’s on-scene coordinator for the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, said the Kullukrecovery operation did not pose an environmental threat that would preclude the opening of the tanner crab fishery set to open in mid-January. The DEC is consulting with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on a regular basis to monitor any impact that the recovery operation might have on the tanner crab fishery and other commercial, subsistence and sport fisheries, he said.
Kodiak Island’s local on-scene coordinator, Duane Dvorak, said that throughout the response, it has been important to Unified Command that they consider environmental concerns and cultural sensitivity in the recovery plan, to the greatest degree possible.
But Rick Steiner, an environmental consultant, and former professor and marine conservation specialist with the University of Alaska, said there was a much larger issue meriting citizen discussion: the adequacy of tugs used currently in Prince William Sound, to tow not only the drill rig Kulluk, but loaded oil tankers with tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil in heavy weather, including emergency situations, such as that involving the Kulluk.

“We’ve been there,” said Steiner, who was there when the Exxon Valdez oil spill created an environmental disaster in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989. “We don’t want that again.”

“Alaskans need to use the Kulluk grounding as an opportunity to reevaluate all emergency towing capacity for all Alaska waters, including Prince William Sound, the Aleutians and the Arctic, because obviously, Houston, we have a problem,” Steiner said. “We need to use this as an opportunity to fix what is broken throughout the system.”
Steiner also noted that while Prince William Sound has tugs in service, there are none available on short notice in the Aleutians or the Arctic. “This is the time to look at all the emergency towing throughout Alaska,” he said. “I think the Kulluk on the beach is the best thing that’s happened to environmental safety in Alaska in years, if it helps prevent Exxon Valdez Two.”

The Unified Command is keeping secretive the tow plan for the Kulluk and what gear is aboard the Aiviq, the tug assigned to tow the Kulluk 30 miles to shelter at Kiliuda Bay, a cove about 43 miles southeast of the city of Kodiak, Steiner said.

Steiner said that the Unified Command had confirmed that the Aiviq does not have onboard a Markey Asymmetric Render and Recovery towing winch, which mariners consider to be the best available technology in a towing winch.

Steiner pointed to a report to the Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory Council in Anchorage, written by a prominent Vancouver, British Columbia naval architect and marine engineering firm, received in August of 2012.

The writers for Robert Allan Ltd. said that the vast majority of operators agree that the electric-driven Markey Render-recover winch is the best winch technology on the market today.

Robert Allan Ltd. was retained by the PWSRCAC to conduct an investigation into the nature of the towing systems in use aboard the existing escort tugboats in use within the Ship Escort response Vessel System in Valdez, and to determine how those systems compare to what can be considered as the current best available technology in escort towing systems worldwide.

Meanwhile Royal Dutch Shell PLC, working with the US Coast Guard, state of Alaska and local officials, was making efforts to move the grounded drill ship out of the stormy waters south of Kodiak as soon as possible.

Sean Churchfield, incident commander for Shell, said during the news conference on Jan. 5, that the exact timing of a potential towing activity would depend on weather, tides and operational readiness. “Once Unified Command confirms that the operation is safe and ready to move forward, the recovery operation will begin,” he said.

The Aiviq, which has been assigned to tow the Kulluk, is the same tug that lost its tow to the Kulluk in December, in the midst of an effort to move the drill rig from Dutch Harbor to Seattle for maintenance.

The tow began on Dec. 21, with the ice-class Aiviq beginning what was anticipated as a three-to-four week trip hauling theKulluk to Seattle.

On Dec. 27, a buckle on a towline between the Aiviq, a 300-foot, $260 million vessel, and the Kulluk broke. Then four re-attached lines between the Aiviq or other vessels also broke in stormy seas.

By Dec. 28, the Aiviq had lost power to all four of its engines about 50 miles southwest of Kodiak Island and the Coast Guard cutter Alex Haley, which is based at Kodiak, came to try and connect a second towline, but lines from the Alex Haley got tangled in its port propeller and it was ordered back to Kodiak for repairs.

Other vessels were dispatched to the scene, power was restored to the Aiviq, but the Kulluk continued to drift. On the night of Dec. 28, Shell asked the Coast Guard to evacuate the 18 crewmembers aboard the Kulluk because of the roll and pitch of the rig. An initial attempt by Coast Guard helicopters to evacuate the Kulluk crew failed because of 50 mile-an-hour winds and 20-foot seas.

On Dec. 29, the Coast Guard was able to deliver needed engine parts to the Aiviq via helicopter and also evacuate all 18 Kullukcrewmembers. All four engines on the Aiviq were restarted and the tug Nanuq, from Seward, had established a tow line to theAiviq, which had a tow line to the Kulluk.

On Dec. 30 the towlines from the Aiviq and Nanuq to the Kulluk separated in stormy seas, stormy weather continued and the drill rig was drifting north from about 25 miles south of Kodiak Island.

On Dec. 31, the Kulluk was tethered to the Aiviq and the Alert, another tug from Prince William Sound, but in late afternoon the tow line from the Aiviq broke and the Alert was having engine problems, so the Alert was ordered to disconnect from the Kullukto avoid danger to nine crewmen aboard the Alert. The drill rig, again adrift, grounded that night on the northern end of Ocean Bay on the southeast side of Sitkalidak Island, where it remained on Jan. 6, as efforts to tow it continued.

Officials with the US Coast Guard and Royal Dutch Shell both said that in-depth investigations into the incident would be conducted. Plans at present are for the US Coast Guard investigation report to be made public. Royal Dutch Shell has so far declined to make public its investigation report.

No mention has been made of the extensive cost of the grounding of the drill rig to date, although Shell has said it would cover expenses.

Wild Caught Alaska Pollock Gets a Boost at McDonald’s

Wild caught Alaska pollock will get some name recognition come February in a new fast food chain promotion of sustainable fisheries.

The labeling on orders of McDonald’s USA Filet-O-Fish and Happy Meal Fish McBites will boast that the fish is “wild caught Alaska Pollock responsibly sourced from an MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) certified sustainable fishery.” The packaging will also carry MSC’s logo and website.

It’s good news for Alaska’s $1 billion pollock fishery, including Community Development Quota programs like the Coastal Villages Regional Fund, which attributes $50 million of its 2012 earnings to pollock harvests. In fact, said CVRF spokesman Dawson Hoover, the CDQ’s salmon and halibut commercial fisheries are subsidized largely by those pollock harvests.

While the McDonald’s campaign heralds the sustainability of the pollock fishery, which earned MSC certification back in 2005, the Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel is crying foul, saying the pollock fishery should not be called sustainable because its incidental harvests of wild salmon are adversely affecting commercial and subsistence harvests in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region. AVCP President Myron Naneng says restrictions placed on salmon harvesters make criminals out of people fishing for food rather than profit.

CVRF’s Hoover notes that the state’s six CDQ groups have jointly agreed to pay the freight to bring some of the bycatch salmon caught in pollock fisheries back to Alaska from SeaShare, which is the recipient of the bycatch salmon. Most of that returned salmon goes to the Food Bank of Alaska in Anchorage, which offers its food to affiliated food banks around the state. Still the affiliates must pay the freight to get the food to rural locations and the cost of shipping frozen salmon out to rural Alaska is so high that none of it gets to the western Alaska villages affected by restrictions on king and chum harvests.

Kerry Coughlin, America’s regional director for MSC, said that MSC is really sympathetic with the low Chinook runs in Western Alaska, ”but there is no real scientific evidence that the pollock fishery is responsible for the decrease in those runs.” The McDonald’s pollock promotion will be good for Alaska’s fisheries, because McDonald’s sells 300 million fish sandwiches annually in the US alone, Coughlin said.

Meanwhile, MSC is on the verge of certifying Russian pollock as a sustainable fishery, and many in the Alaska pollock fishery are concerned, saying Russian harvesters are not held to the same standards. MSC’s not commenting on this, saying that’s still a work in progress, and McDonald’s had no comment on whether they would consider using MSC certified Russian pollock in future promotions.

Reduced Halibut Harvests Proposed by IPHC

Officials with the International Pacific Halibut Commission have proposed to the governments of the United States and Canada a 7.5 percent reduction in catch limits, down to 31,028,000 pounds, from the 2012 quota of 33,540,000 pounds.

The recommendations still face approval by the governments of both nations.

The announcement from the IPHC came in the wake of its 89th annual meeting, which concluded Jan. 25 in Victoria, British Columbia.

Area 2C, in Southeast Alaska, which was hit with a 76 percent catch limit reduction over a three year period, got a 13 percent boost, to 2,970,000 pounds for the coming season, up from 2,620,000 a year ago. Area 3A, the central Gulf of Alaska, meanwhile got a proposed 7 percent reduction to 11,030,000 pounds, down from 11,920,000 pounds in 2012, and area 3B, the western Gulf of Alaska, was accorded a 15 percent drop, from 5,070,000 pounds to 4,290,000 pounds.

David Poluskin, a commercial fisherman in area 3A who attended the IPHC meeting, said he’s pretty confident the fleet he fishes with will not be hurt by this year’s cut, but he’s also anticipating another cut next year.

Linda Behnken, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, also was among the more than 250 halibut industry stakeholders in attendance at the meeting. Behnken said the view of the IPHC has changed dramatically since last year. “Last year they still thought there was a large biomass of small fish poised to recruit into the fishery and rebuild stocks,” she said. “They have dramatically revised that projection to say that stocks have declined for 10 years and there have not been any year classes that are above average in that time period, so that we are likely to see an ongoing decline in stocks, and potentially the need to reduce the exploitation rate, the amount of fish available that we an harvest to allow the stocks to rebuild.

“I can only hope that in the long run the fact that 2C is being more conservative in its harvest rate will pay off for rebuilding the stocks in this area, and be reflected in stronger catch limits in the future,” she said.

More information on the IPHC’s proposals is at

Alaska Releases New Chinook Salmon Stock Assessment

State fisheries biologists have a new plan to gather essential information to understand the root causes of widespread declines in Chinook salmon stocks and track population trends into the future.

It’s the finalized Chinook Salmon Stock Assessment and Research Plan, 2013.

The document is the result of collaboration by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game with the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Sustainable Salmon Initiative on similar planning efforts, and partnering with federal agencies and academia. Other information came from input of stakeholders at the 2012 Chinook salmon Symposium in Anchorage, and independent peer review solicited from three fisheries scientists familiar with Chinook salmon life history and population dynamics.

ADF&G hopes to use this plan to guide its near-term stock assessment and research efforts on Chinook salmon in Alaska. Their central objective is to create a consistent stock assessment framework across a diversity of indicator systems in Alaska that will provide improved information for sustained yield management of Chinook salmon for a range of run sizes and productivity regimes.

The core of the proposed plan is a stock-specific, life history-based approach to research focused on 12 indicator stocks from around Alaska, representing diverse life history and migratory characteristics across a broad geographic range.

The 12 indicator stocks, from Southeast Alaska to the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim, are from the Unuk, Stikine, Taku, Chilkat, Copper, Susitna, Kenai, Karluk, Chignik, Nushagak, Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.

Recommended stock assessments include enumeration of adult escapement and stock-specific harvest in all relevant fisheries, as well as estimates of juvenile Chinook salmon abundance during the smolt stage.

The plan is available in its entirety online at

Fisheries, Water Quality Issues on Tap for Alaska Forum on the Environment

Several seafood-related issues, from the Bristol Bay watershed assessment to marine debris cleanup and Chinook salmon run declines, are on the agenda for the 15th annual Alaska Forum on the Environment, Feb. 4-8 in Anchorage.

Michelle Ridgeway of Oceanus Alaska will discuss cruise ship routes, wastewater toxins and their effects on wild salmon and other subsistence food resources on the afternoon of Feb. 4.

Dennis McLerran, administrator for EPA Region 10, will deliver a keynote address to the forum on the afternoon of Feb. 5 at the Dena’ina Convention Center.
Earlier in the day the EPA’s Rick Parkin will offer a status report on the Bristol Bay watershed assessment.

Also on the forum agenda are several talks on cleaning up marine debris coming ashore in Alaska from Japanese tsunami, a fish and water quality report for Alaska’s hard rock mines, climate change impact outreach, air quality monitoring, and paralytic shellfish poisoning,

Rachel Lord of Cook Inletkeeper will present an update on the Alaska Clean Harbors program for improving waste management and reducing pollution at Alaskan harbors.

Also on the agenda is the semi-annual meeting of the Prince William Sound Oil Spill Recovery Institute’s advisory board. The institute was established by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 to fund and carry out research and development and education on Arctic and sub-Arctic oil spills; spill response technologies; and the assessment of impacts to the environment, economy and lifestyles of Alaskans.
The complete agenda and registration information on the forum are at

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