Looking Back: KDLG Recaps 2015's Biggest News

Jan 5, 2016

Obama picks fish, huge sockeye run comes late to Bristol Bay, the Pebble fight continues, and more: KDLG News takes a look at the big moments of 2015...

Credit Clark Fair

Obama dances, discusses fishery

For just a little while in early September, all eyes were on Dillingham when President Barack Obama began his tour of Western Alaska with a stop in Bristol Bay, where he danced with children, learned to pick a net from lifelong fishermen, and even stopped by N&N to grab a bite from the deli.

He had enjoyed sparkling clear weather for the first part of his Alaska trip, but the Dillingham stop was a little chilly. No mind, said residents: that’s what fishing weather is usually like in the region, and fishing was the main thing locals wanted the president to know more about while he was in salmon country.

Ex-presidents have visited Bristol Bay before, but Mr. Obama was the first sitting president to travel the region, and crowds were pumped as Air Force One landed at the Dillingham airport on Sept. 2. A group of about 150 pre-screened people waited in a hangar to greet the president.

The trip had begun as a quiet rumor. A letter of invitation, talk behind closed doors – the president might come to our town. And then the visit began to take shape. A pre-advance team visited to check things out.

Conversations got louder. What should Obama see? Would there be an event for the whole community? Who would greet him at the airport; who got coveted seats in the school gym; who would be standing on the beach at Kananak?

Finally, the secret service arrived. And then Mr. Obama himself, and despite the light rain, people waited on every corner and driveway to welcome the 20-car motorcade. Many waved flags and hand-painted signs bearing messages like "Hail to the Chief" and "Obama cared, our salmon are spared."

The first stop was a closed event on Dillingham’s Kanakanak Beach, a popular subsistence fishing spot on Nushagak Bay. There, at low tide, the president put on orange fish-picking gloves and helped pick some humpies from the net alongside subsistence fisherman Mae Syvrud and set-netter Alannah Hurley. As he held one up for a photo-op, he got a slimy surprise.

“Did you see that? Something got on my shoes!" laughed Mr. Obama. "It was spawning a little bit... He said he was happy to see me.”

That’s right: a Bristol Bay salmon shot its milt on the president’s hiking boot.

Set-netter Alannah Hurley and subsistence fisherman Mae Syvrud show President Barack Obama how to pick fish at Kanakanak Beach in Dillingham on Sept. 2, 2015.
Credit Clark Fair

Organizers wanted Obama to cut fish as well, but the Secret Service nixed the necessary sharp knives. Instead, he sampled some traditional salmon strips ("really good," he declared) and was gifted smoked salmon.

Drift fisherman Katherine Carscallen was standing on the beach that day. She told him about the different forms of salmon that come from Bristol Bay, and later reflected on their conversation.

“Truthfully I have no faith that the sentences I was putting together had any grammatical value and I'm just lucky they were coherent,” she wrote later. “President Obama's handshake, sincere eye contact and warm presence however did put me at ease enough to forget my "talking points," I'd been rehearsing in my head all morning, and have a real and frank chat with him, not only about the value and pride we in Bristol Bay have in the salmon we are providing to the world, but also some of the challenges we are facing.”

Mr. Obama didn’t take any questions from the press, but offered brief remarks from the beach. Emphasizing the importance of preserving Bristol Bay's subsistence lifestyle and commercial fishery, he called the Bay one of the United States' "most important natural resources."

That’s exactly the message the fishermen on the beach that day wanted to share.

“I have come to recognize and appreciate that I live an incredibly lucky life and I am thankful most days, but this one tops them all,” Carscallen wrote. “I have never been so inspired and thankful in my life with real hope that our country can take a turn for the better, and like Bristol Bay, prioritize the fundamentals of life like clean water, air and food above greed.”

But the visit didn’t end there. A larger crowd gathered at Dillingham Middle School, where the president watched traditional dances put on by the 4-H Native Dance group, then surprised them by jumping up to join for an encore.

President Barack Obama dances the the 4-H Alaska Native dance group at Dillingham Middle School on Sept. 2, 2015.
Credit Clark Fair

The president spent a few minutes mingling with students; selected teenagers from other Bristol Bay schools were in attendance along with the entirety of Dillingham Middle and High School. Dillingham's Caleb Kapotak was among them. "He shook my hand and gave me a high five," Kapotak said.

Mr. Obama then made an unscheduled pit stop at N&N Market, where he grabbed lunch from the deli, held a baby, and commented on the high food prices in bush Alaska.

The damp but enthusiastic crowd downtown got its last glimpse of the Commander-in-Chief outside the grocery before he headed back to Air Force One, bound for Kotzebue.

Many, like Dante Luckhurst, were happy just to witness the spectacle of the visit.

"We got to see a lot of cops," Luckhurst said. "We seen a lot of black cars and army men, and we seen a good plane flying by that the President was in."

A few people, never minding the drizzle, waved him off from atop boatyard shipping containers: a fitting sendoff from Bristol Bay.

Pebble Mine fight continues

Backers of the proposed Pebble Mine north of Iliamna fought in courts and Congress to keep the project alive in 2015, while the Environmental Protection Agency fell noticeably silent. Years of lively scientific debate on the impacts of a massive copper and gold mine in the Bristol Bay watershed ended, replaced by a tedious legal discussion on the actions and authority of the EPA.

The year passed with more money spent but little if any clear progress for either side. Pebble offered more developments and kept more momentum in the media, a source of frustration for its opponents.

Northern Dynasty Mineral’s stock price, valued at 40 cents per share at the start of the year, fell to 30 cents December 29. NDM has still not secured a major partner to replace Anglo American, which left the Pebble Partnership in 2013. In January, NDM announced the sale shares to private investors in an effort to raise $13 million to fund its efforts. Further investment strategies in the summer intended to raise another $15 million. For the second summer in a row, Pebble conducted next to no work at the mine site, and auctioned off surplus equipment including excavators, generators, and trucks.

Pebble’s FACA lawsuit is in the discovery phase, and a temporary injunction granted by Federal Judge H. Russel Holland at the end of 2014 has blocked the EPA from finalizing its preemptive wastewater discharge restrictions. Citing the injunction, EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran refused all requests for interviews by KDLG and the Bristol Bay Times in 2015.

The lawsuit survived an EPA motion to dismiss. In June, Holland ruled in Pebble’s favor, saying that the allegations against EPA are plausible enough to take the case forward. Pebble published hundreds of pages of emails it says show the collusion between EPA and Pebble’s staunch opponents.

Holland’s ruling extended the life of the case, perhaps as far out as the end of President Barack Obama’s time in office. A different administration’s EPA might take a different approach, if Holland should eventually reset the process by tossing out the Bristol Bay Watershed Assessment. Pebble opponents were deflated, but say they are in the fight for the long haul.

“It in no way changes the scientific fact that if the Pebble Mine is developed, it will harm the last great salmon fishery on the face of the planet,” said Alannah Hurley of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay. “It doesn't change the fact that the EPA has the authority to take this action to protect this fishery, and has had, and will continue to have, the full support of our region to do so.”

Meanwhile, Pebble CEO Tom Collier, in his second year on the job, drew on his decades’ of Washington experience to bolster the developer’s case in other ways. The EPA’s own Inspector General is continuing its own investigation of the agency’s actions. Two US House committees took up the issue, with Republican leadership using the occasion to blast EPA for regulatory overreach.

“The problem is, when a federal agency wanders off the well-worn pathway, there’s opportunity for mischief. And here that mischief has been extensive,” Collier told the House Science Committee. “EPA, in my view, predetermined the outcome with respect to Pebble. And they manipulated the process in order to get to that outcome. Just let us have due process.”

A report released by former Defense Secretary William Cohen in October called EPA’s use of section 404c of the Clean Water Act to preemptively block Pebble unfair. Cohen, who also served in both houses of Congress, suggested Congress should set more clear guidelines for the law, rather than allow EPA to test its jurisdiction with a project the size of Pebble. Cohen’s group was hired by Pebble to undertake the seven-month study. The report made clear it took no position on the merits of developing the mine.

As the year ended, two court cases continued. Former EPA staffer Phil North, believed to be at the center of the agency’s efforts to block Pebble preemptively under the Clean Water Act, cannot be found. He has been ordered by Judge Holland to appear for deposition, but is believed to be living in Australia since his retirement. Holland quashed, then Pebble withdrew, many of the subpoenas issued to dozens of its opponents. Bristol Bay’s RSDA shifted its focus more towards marketing sockeye rather than fighting Pebble, and elected Pebble supporter Abe Williams president of the board. The Alaska Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling against the Save Our Salmon initiative, which was replaced by the Bristol Bay Forever initiative adopted by voters in 2014.

And on September 2, President Barack Obama stood on Dillingham’s Kanakanak Beach on a rainy day, donned rubber gloves, and picked a humpy out of a subsistence net. The photographs of that moment were weightier than his brief remarks, but for at least the second time of the year, the U.S. President spoke of the need to protect Bristol Bay.

“Hopefully by us coming here, we’re highlighting the need for us to keep this pristine and make sure that this is there for the children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren of all these wonderful fishermen,” said Obama.

He never mentioned the Pebble Mine.

Bristol Bay sockeye come late, prices low, amid chaos

Asked for a one-word summary of the 2015 fishery, fishermen and fishery managers, cannery workers and the folks just waiting at home for loved ones, offered a wide-range of adjectives and nouns this summer: awesome, abusive, chaotic, crazy, exciting, hectic, unpredictable, and many more.

Credit Kaitlin Kramer/Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

In the end, the Bristol Bay sockeye run was large and late. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimated that 58 million reds returned to Bristol Bay this summer, and commercial fisherman harvested 35.7 million of them. All of the region’s escapement goals were met. But it was the latest return on record, which threw a wrench in management; on average, the department estimated that it was about seven days late.

There were some positive signs for the market, with Trident opening its new fishmeal plant in Naknek in spring (although initial reports were that it got off to a smelly start), Copper River ramping up processing (and buying) in the bay with a remodeled plant in Naknek, and several processors joining a new client group that would enable them to put a blue “Marine Stewardship Council” logo on their fish.

Credit Matt Martin

 But despite those signs and the large run, few fishermen left the Bay feeling like they had a good season financially, due to dismal prices and limits imposed by most processors on daily deliveries.

Prices hit a low compared to the past decade. Most fishermen reported round 50 cents per pound from the major processors, and while bonuses for quality-control measures helped a little, by late fall no one had received price adjustments.

And so, some fishermen signed petitions asking the state to intervene and provide mediation over low prices. Others signed a petition to defund the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association, which went through significant turmoil this year.

First, Robert Heyano resigned from his post as president in late March. He had held that role since the organization was started in 2005. Dillingham’s Fritz Johnson served as acting president, until Buck Gibbons was elected in June. Then he was replaced by Abe Williams after the fishing season ended, with little explanation for the change.

But it seemed the latest in a series of small changes that indicated the RSDA was moving its focus away from sustainability issues and shifting toward marketing and quality. Heyano was an outspoken opponent of the Pebble Mine; Williams has supported what he calls a fair process for consideration of the mine. And the RSDA also dialed down other anti-Mine efforts and handed off the Commmercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay effort; there were reports, at the end of the year, that it was looking at doing more to help fishermen market their catch, and also wanted to help improve quality.

BBRSDA Executive Director Sue Aspelund also announced in the spring that she wanted to resign after about a year in the job; her replacement, Becky Martello, came onboard in December.

As 2016 opens, the petitions remain open but unresolved. The BBRSDA board continues to develop its future plans, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has said the Bay could see another large sockeye run next year.

Credit Molly Dischner

 After the salmon fishery ended, preparations began for the triennial Board of Fisheries meeting. Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, Bristol Bay Native Association, and other local governments and tribal groups helped send a large delegation to Anchorage for the meeting. After hearing from dozens of residents, the board largely preserved the status quo in the fishery, voting down permit stacking, although it did sign off on requiring fishermen to register in any district before they put a net in the water.

Salmon were not the only fish caught in the Bay this summer.

Credit Kai Raymond

The Togiak herring fishery saw relatively weak participation; although the purse seine fishery exceeded its quota once deadloss was included, the drift gillnet fishery had just six participants, who caught about 14 percent of the available quota. That was likely driven by low prices, as the biomass was strong.

It was a good year for halibut in Bristol Bay; BBEDC estimated that 17 fishermen caught 45,000 pounds in the nearshore fishery, with a value estimated more than $220,000. That was a delight to many in Dillingham who purchased the fish right from the dock in May and June.

Credit Hannah Colton

Battle against drug abuse continues

In 2015, Bristol Bay continued its struggle with what many view as an epidemic of illicit drug use, mainly of heroin and other opioids like oxycodone. However, while law enforcement officials believe the problem is as pervasive as ever, Dillingham Police reported no drug overdose deaths in the past year. That, coupled with convictions of several key dealers and the public manner in which former users continue to testify about their recoveries, has given hope that a corner might be turned in 2016.

Credit KDLG News

The battle is far from won, and the impacts of state cutbacks to the Departments of Law and Public Safety have, and will continue to be felt. In the spring, WAANT investigator Wyatt Derner transferred from Dillingham, and the in-region position has been left vacant. That has resulted in a decrease in the number of drug busts and seizures locally. “We have to work a little bit smarter, we have to be much more efficient,” Jeff Laughlin, the commander of the statewide drug enforcement unit said in February. He said that his investigators will focus more on interdicting the supply, predominantly coming from Anchorage. The Bristol Bay WAANT investigator position is likely to remain vacant indefinitely.

In June, one of Bristol Bay’s two prosecutors was laid off, as well as one of two paralegals, in a first round of Dept. of Law cuts. In December, the department announced it intends to shutter the Dillingham district attorney’s office by next summer, and a week later the remaining prosecutor announced she was resigning. It’s unclear if she will be replaced before the office is closed.

That dealers have been able to traffic more freely on commercial flights has not been lost on PenAir CEO Danny Seybert.

“I am, without a doubt, the biggest drug runner in the state. I am hauling more drugs than anybody in the state and I don’t like it," he said at a public meeting in Dillingham in February.

On February 7, Ella Olsen, 55, was beaten to death at a home on Cessna Drive in Dillingham. The house was a known heroin trafficking point, and police say Olsen’s murder was drug-related. While many in town seem fairly certain they know who killed Olsen, police are waiting in a long line to have crime scene evidence processed at the state crime lab, and have not publicly named a suspect. The person who first discovered Olsen’s body that Saturday evening was Nicholas Tinker of Aleknagik, who has since been arrested for dealing heroin.

Troopers, police, and village law enforcement have continued to crack down on drugs, aiming their efforts at dealers when possible. DPD pressed charges against Tinker, Gust Romie, and Adrian Mark this year, all of whom allegedly sold heroin to a police informant. John Filipek III was arrested in Dillingham for selling fake heroin. Bristol Bay Borough Police made a large bust in June, some 38 grams of heroin allegedly in the possession of Jorden Bishop of Palmer, thanks to a tip from a watchful airport employee. Ivan Gabel was arrested in Egegik for shooting at imaginary figures he believed he saw in the bushes after smoking meth. And while marijuana use is now legal, authorities still enforce times when it isn’t: David Crow of Dillingham was arrested for selling joints to two teenage boys, and Brianna Brandon was charged after she was found to be growing more than the allowable amount of plants inside the manger’s apartment at Grandma’s House in Dillingham.

Nearly three years after his arrest, James Folsom, Jr., was sentenced in March to 18 months for dealing heroin in Koliganek. Folsom had hired some of the best defense attorneys in the state following his 2012 arrest, and the case was “hotly litigated” according to the judge.

Credit Hannah Colton

  Vaughn Clark, who had long dealt heroin and meth to users in the Dillingham area, was sentenced in December to four years of jail time after he pleaded guilty to reduced charges. Clark, who had beat similar charges a year before, was arrested in October 2014 for dealing, but his attorney argued again that the evidence was flimsy. Prosecutor Beth Oates stuck to her guns and got the conviction and maximum sentence.

“I’d like to apologize to the community for any problems I’ve caused,” Clark told the court. “I did have a drug problem, I admit it. I know I’m getting to that age where I need to clean myself up, not only for myself but for my kids.”

Bristol Bay communities finish major projects, starts new ones

Major construction projects in several Bristol Bay communities came to a close this year.

Credit KDLG News

On a bluebird fall day, it was the youngest residents of Aleknagik who took the first steps across the newly opened Aleknagik Wood River Bridge as they raced one another across it.

Fitting, as it’s the young people of Aleknagik who have faced daily crossings for decades just to get to school.

“I remember as a child in ’56, when I started school, the only transportation we had was to walk across the lake,” recalled Aleknagik Mayor Jane Gottschalk during the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Tuesday. “We walked through storms, below-zero weather. And it seems like it took forever to cross by foot. And when breakup came, there was always somebody to take us across in the skiff.”

About 150 people turned out to celebrate the new 440-foot bridge, 40 feet above the Wood River, a mixture of Aleknagik and Dillingham residents and visiting dignitaries.

The town has long been divided between the north and south shores of Aleknagik, with water or ice between. Elementary students crossed to the north to get to the Aleknagik School. Older students crossed to come south and take the bus to Dillingham.

The crossing can be deadly; more than a dozen people have died. And it’s been in the works for a long-time, making the October ceremony a little more notable.

In the early 2000s, an earmark from Sen. Ted Stevens helped spur action on the project, said state Department of Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken during Tuesday’s ceremony. Local lawmakers Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, kept pushing the project forward, according to those who spoke Tuesday, resulting in a $20 million appropriation from Legislature in 2008 that funded much of the actual construction.

“This is a great example of the coordination and consistency and collaboration, and really the tenacity, between the city, the tribes, the Alaska Native corporations, and probably most importantly, these two gentlemen over here, who have been really strong advocates for this bridge,” Luiken said, referring to Edgmon and Hoffman.

And Aleknagik wasn’t the only town celebrating this year.

Credit Dave Bendinger

Tiny Port Alsworth opened its new school in August, with a couple hundred coming from around the Lake and Peninsula Borough, and the rest of Alaska, for the opening ceremony.

The town of about 150 has a school with about 56 students, including its largest senior class in history.

It took just two years from the time Lake and Pen voters approved a $20 million dollar bond package, $15 of which was directed to this school, to see it completed.

The new school boats an open-design, with lots of windows, high ceilings, and unique classroom walls. Students also have lockers for the first time ever, and a functional gym for the first time in a while – during construction, the volleyball team practiced outside. This fall, they were able to host multiple tournaments.

Chignik Lagoon also celebrated completion of a big project, turning on a hydroelectric project at Packer Creek in spring, but it officially cutting the ribbon in August. The system provides 94 percent of the community’s energy needs, saving the town about $500 a day on fuel costs.

Credit Hannah Colton

Other community projects are just getting going.

The Bristol Bay Borough is working on a sewer upgrade that will allow area processors to increase their use of the sewer system. That’s funded in part by a state grant – one of few projects the state Department of Environmental Conservation funded this fiscal year – and will include a new lift system, to move sewage through the system, at the Peter Pan cannery in Naknek. The borough is hoping to complete the project in 2016.

And in January, the City of Dillingham decided to go back to the state and ask, again, to annex part of the Nushagak fishing district. That prompted another study of borough formation, which is still going, and a request from Manokotak to annex the part of the fishing district that’s closest to the village.

The state is now considering the competing requests on the same timeline, with an eye toward an October 2016 decision.