Kachemak Bay Critical Habitat Area celebrates 50 years

December 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Kachemak Bay’s federal classification as an established critical habitat area. The initiations for this designation began in October of 1973 following Alaska Gov. Bill Egan’s administration’s decision to put Kachemak Bay up for sale to oil without holding a public hearing on the matter.

Loren Flagg, area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish in Game in Homer at the time, addressed the issue directly at the time and has written extensively about it since then most notably in his book “Fish, Oil and Follies: Fish Wars and Oil Battles of an Alaska Biologist and Fishing Guide” published in 2009.

Flagg was first issued a memo in late October of 1973 and was given only six days to respond. Given the time it took to receive the memo by paper mail through the USPS, he had just one day left.

Flagg provided a copy of his response memorandum to the Homer News. It opened by stating that despite the lack of time to thoroughly respond to the oil and gas lease sale there was ample biological data to support closure of the entire Kachemak Bay area and that ADF&G staff would begin work on to assemble necessary supporting data.

The three main points of his response were:

that the Department of Natural Resources was negligent in the timing and handling of the sale and that the request should be delayed to allow for more sufficient input from state and government agencies as well from the public;

that formal meetings should be held among state and federal agencies to collect sufficient biological, oceanographic an other pertinent information and;

that extensive public meetings should be held to disseminate information to the public and provide the opportunity to collect public comment.

He provided several additional comments related to the value of the marine habitat and environment of the region in the letter.

The sale was held on Dec. 13, 1973, and, according to Flagg, was the second-most profitable in state history following Prudhoe Bay sale.

Top bidders in the sale were Standard Oil of California, which took 17 tracts and paid $16.6 million, and Shell and Texaco. Tracts were located right off Bluff Point in Cook Inlet, right in the middle of the most dense king crab breeding grounds, according to Flagg.

“When the Department of Fish and Game was managing the fishery, they would often close that particular area because of the density of stock located there,” he said.

Following the sale, the Senate Resources Committee did hold a well-attended public meeting in Homer and Flagg prepared testimony to be delivered at the event Alaska Department of Habitat Chief Mike Smith.

It was in this testimony that Flagg recommended proposing Kachemak Bay’s designation as a critical habitat area.

At the time, local commercial fishermen had high stakes in the Bay.

In Flagg’s November memo, he included a table of fisheries harvest data from 1963 to 1973 that included five species of salmon, king crab, tanner crab, Dungeness crab, shrimp and herring. Harvest was high. For example, the shrimp harvest in 1973 was 5,200,000 pounds.

In conversation, Flagg talked about his own memories of the shellfish density in Kachemak Bay. He recalled a research vessel hosting a California film crew and one of the first underwater film cameras documenting shrimp in Kachemak Bay that may have been 10 feet deep in some locations. The year was approximately 1969 and the commercial harvest for shrimp had not been initiated yet.

“I remember seeing those films and the extreme density of the shrimp. You couldn’t see the ground on the bottom of bay it was so heavily covered in shrimp,” Flagg said.

In the early 1970s, the commercial shrimp harvest began and was collected mostly by trawl with a daily quota of approximately 10,000 pounds, according to Flagg. Flagg recalled about a dozen trawlers based out Homer and approximately one dozen from Seldovia. “The boats would go out and harvest the quota in just about an hour. I may be off on what the quota was but the point is the density of the harvest available. It was thick,” Flagg said.

Flagg’s point in discussing the fishermen was the significance of the role they played in opposition to the oil development. They didn’t stop it immediately but they and other Homer community members did provide public commentary when the oil companies initially applied for permits to drill in Kachemak Bay. One hearing was held in Homer in May 1974 and another in January 1975. Around the same time a small group of Homer residents filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of the oil and gas leases in Kachemak Bay but despite the legal case.

Around the same time, the drill rig George Ferris was in Mud Bay ready for additional exploits, except it had gotten stuck in the deep mud environment where it was stationed. According to Flagg’s history, the legs of the rig buckled under tidal pressure and created an oil spill in Mud Bay. Days later the Alaska Legislature passed Marine Sanctuary Bill and it was signed by Gov. Jay Hammond. The state processed the repurchase of the oil lease sales.

Kachemak Bay was officially designated as a critical habitat area in 1974 and that restricts other uses not compatible to the protection and preservation crucial to fish and wildlife.

The Kachemak Bay Conservation Society will be celebrating the anniversary of the event and their recent personal watercrafrt lawsuit win on Dec. 15 at 6 p.m. at the Kannery Grill in Homer. Guest speaker will be Loren Flagg.