Commercial fishing and other boats are moored in the Homer Harbor in this file photo. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Commercial fishing and other boats are moored in the Homer Harbor in this file photo. (Photo by Michael Armstrong/Homer News)

Seawatch: Should state waters be expanded?

Gross proposes extending state waters to 12 miles

Alaska fisherman, doctor and former candidate for U.S. Senate Al Gross wrote an op-ed in the Anchorage Daily News on Monday proposing trading the land under the Pebble Mine prospect to the federal government for protection in exchange for extending state waters out to 12 miles from the current 3 miles.

Gross argued that the state “unintentionally but effectively drew an unproductive lot” when it chose Bristol Bay lands from the federal government, and is owed an opportunity to make good on the original intent for the state to be able to develop its resources.

He added that the state of Alaska would “thus assume management, control and taxation authority for fisheries, oil, gas and mining” out to 12 miles.

Therein lies the rub, according to Bob Shavelson, advocacy director for Cook Inletkeeper. He said that given the opportunity, the state would prioritize oil and gas development over fisheries, and that the federal government has done a better job of habitat protections. He added that the effects of climate change on the fisheries in Alaska have been dire, pointing to the closure of the Pacific cod season in the Gulf of Alaska in 2020, which studies have shown are linked to a warming ocean due to climate change.

“If you want to incentivize a set of activities that harm our fisheries, then it seems like you’re shooting yourself in the foot.” Shavelson said. “Why would you want to give the state those waters if they’re going to drill more oil and gas, and that would aggravate that problem?”

Gross responded that there will always be a push for oil and gas production in Alaska, especially given Alaska’s fiscal problems, and producing it here is better than somewhere else.

“I’m all in favor of renewable energy in any way we can, but there’s still a world-wide demand for oil and gas, and our state needs revenue, and any offshore permitting would have to go through the federal process,” he said. “I think the world-wide demand for petroleum based products is going to decline over time, and Alaska needs to have new sources of revenue,” referring to increased income from fishery taxes.

Shavelson said that the state has a poor record with political influence from large, and largely, foreign corporations that makes giving it jurisdiction over such a vast amount of potential resource development problematic.

“You’re opening up 12 miles offshore to a state that is much more vulnerable to manipulation from foreign corporations than the federal government is,” he said.

He conceded that the federal government does not have a perfect record, pointing to the recent Lower Cook Inlet oil and gas leases that he said former president Trump rammed through with a three month environmental impact statement. President Joe Biden signed an executive order putting that on hold, but there are other existing leases that can move forward, so there is still the prospect of drilling rigs at the mouth of Kachemak Bay.

In his Daily News article, Gross said “fisheries management out to 12 miles would be ceded to the Alaska Board of Fisheries rather than the North Pacific Management Council.”

However, in a follow-up interview Gross said the he envisions more of a collaboration.

“On the fisheries side, that’s obviously complicated, and the federal government through the Council would continue to manage those fisheries but Alaska could partner with them and have taxation authority out to 12 miles, which would be huge. It would allow us to expand our under 60-foot cod fleet which would bring jobs and revenue to the state. There would be a lot of details to be worked out, but I think it would be potentially a successful trade where we could avoid these lawsuits that the state keeps trying to file to pursue Pebble. I think state ownership of that land needs to change.”

Shavelson said that the state has a poor record of habitat protection, for example with the current administration trying to limit the rights to in-stream water flow protections. He derided both the federal and state governments on their record, saying that there is science on one hand and policy on the other, and neither side seems to be talking to each other.

However, he said that federal management is the lesser of two evils.

“The federal government at least has an arms-length perspective on managing our resources,” he said. “At the state level, it’s too easy for these large corporations to come in and buy and sell our politics. You have (Governor) Mike Dunleavy signing letters that were drafted by Pebble to send to Donald Trump.

“It comes down to who do you trust to protect our habitat? The state, which has done an abysmal job, or the feds, who are not doing a great job, but are doing a better job?”

Gross said that he is trying get the conversation started.

“I think it’s an interesting idea that’s worthy of discussion, and the 12 mile limit is not a new concept by any means, and it would give Alaska more autonomy over its waters to manage its fisheries, and obtain tax revenues.”

In his Daily News piece Gross noted that Texas, Louisiana and Alabama have all sought to expand their waters out to 12 miles.

Cristy Fry can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.

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