Alaska’s fishing industry on edge as Congress deadline approaches

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Fishing boats are moored in icy water at the small boat harbor on April 1, 2004 in Valdez, Alaska. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Fishing boats are moored in icy water at the small boat harbor on April 1, 2004 in Valdez, Alaska. (David McNew/Getty Images)
Federal lawmakers return to Washington this week for the final days of the 113th Congress.

They have to pass a budget or a “continuing resolution” by December 11 to avoid a government shutdown. Alaska’s fishing industry is watching another deadline approach: Dec. 18. That’s the date tough new EPA regulations apply to commercial fishing boats, unless Congress intervenes.

United Fishermen of Alaska and other industry groups have been trying for years to get a permanent exemption from part of the Clean Water Act that regulates what vessels discharge. UFA Executive Director Julianne Curry says the pending new regulations would apply to just about any liquid emitted from a boat shorter than 79 feet.

“Some of the components that are in this regulation are – they really don’t make any sense,” Curry says.

If the rule goes into effect, the EPA estimates it would apply to as many as 138,000 smaller vessels around the country, and about half them are commercial fishing boats. The rules would apply to, among other liquids, fish-hold effluent, bilge water, grey water, and, Curry points out, deckwash. Even runoff.

“It includes onerous regulations such as making fishermen catalog and make sure their permit is covering rainwater that falls onto the deck and therefore falls overboard,” she said.

A study by the EPA found some of these discharges may be harmful to the aquatic environment or to human health, particularly in  enclosed waters. Curry says UFA embraces appropriate regulation and doesn’t object to reasonable pollution controls.

“The fishing industry is already covered under discharge regulations that just aren’t as overly onerous as the ones that are potentially going to be implemented in December,” she said.

EPA wasn’t eager to adopt these regulations in the first place. It used to have an exemption for discharges that occur in the normal operation of a vessel. But an environmental lawsuit, aimed at keeping invasive species from hitching a ride in a ship’s ballast water, forced the EPA to act. Congress has passed temporary measures to keep the regulation at bay since 2008.

The U.S. House has already passed a bill calling for a permanent exemption for vessels under 79 feet. Several bills are pending in the Senate that would halt the regulation, for a year or permanently. They’re sponsored by Alaska’s senators, and senators as divergent as California Democrat Barbara Boxer and Florida Republican Marco Rubio. In Washington, I’m Liz Ruskin.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Is a fishing boom in the Arctic a sure thing?, Eye on the Arctic

Finland:  Finland: Seals gobble half a million fish – commercial fisheries report almost 500K in losses, Yle New

Norway: Norway-Russia fishery expedition finds abundance of cod, decline in other species, Barents Observer

Sweden:  Record numbers for Swedish wild salmon, Radio Sweden

United States: Unusual species in Alaska waters indicate parts of Pacific warming dramatically, Alaska Dispatch

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Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

Liz Ruskin, Alaska Public Media

For more news from Alaska visit Alaska Public Media.

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