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Alaska and Yukon Headlines

Judge Blocks Law Limiting Medicaid Payments For Abortion

Tue, 2014-07-15 18:58

A superior court judge has blocked a law restricting Medicaid payments for abortion from going into effect.

In an injunction issued on Tuesday, Judge John Suddock wrote that there are “serious questions of constitutional validity” of a new state law that puts limits on what qualifies as a “medically necessary” abortion. The state was supposed to start enforcing the law on Wednesday.

The law passed after similar regulations were put on hold by the same judge. The legislation was advanced by mostly Republicans, and went farther than the Department of Health and Social Services regulations by defining the term “medically necessary” to include only physical conditions.

Both the law and the regulations are the subject of a lawsuit brought by Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest.

Quaint Alaska town of Hope 'exploding' with outsiders, locals say

Tue, 2014-07-15 18:46
Quaint Alaska town of Hope 'exploding' with outsiders, locals say Old-timers in Hope say the town off the Seward Highway, on the banks of Resurrection Creek, has been exploding with outsiders -- but, then, "everyone is making money" off them.July 15, 2014

Managing 'community cats' should include every available tool

Tue, 2014-07-15 18:30
Managing 'community cats' should include every available tool OPINION: It is important that the dilemma of outdoor cats be understood within the context of the larger issue of the many non-native species transported and released by humans into sensitive environments.July 15, 2014

Wickedly tough Valley races over the weekend tested, tortured runners

Tue, 2014-07-15 18:26
Wickedly tough Valley races over the weekend tested, tortured runners The Hatcher Pass Marathon is tougher than the average 26.2-miler and the inaugural Pioneer Ridge Climb was a beast of a race.July 15, 2014

Photos: Legislative briefing on inmate deaths in Alaska

Tue, 2014-07-15 18:24
Photos: Legislative briefing on inmate deaths in Alaska

In the wake of a recent string of deaths in Alaska correctional facilities, the public and lawmakers on Tuesday called for establishing additional oversight of deaths within the corrections system.

July 15, 2014

After rash of Alaska inmate deaths, hearing prompts call for independent reviews

Tue, 2014-07-15 18:17
After rash of Alaska inmate deaths, hearing prompts call for independent reviews In the wake of a recent string of deaths in Alaska correctional facilities, the public and lawmakers on Tuesday called for establishing additional oversight of deaths within the corrections system.July 15, 2014

Attacks on Alaska’s fish and game habitat erode democracy

Tue, 2014-07-15 18:05
Attacks on Alaska’s fish and game habitat erode democracy OPINION: Democracy requires three things, transparency, accountability and participation, and Alaska's government badly needs to protect these three basic necessities in its process to regulate fish and wildlife habitat.July 15, 2014

Juneau drops a pair of American Legion games in Chugiak

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:38
Juneau drops a pair of American Legion games in Chugiak   Chugiak and Eagle River earned American Legion wins over Juneau on Monday. July 15, 2014

Questions Remain About Alaska’s Prison Deaths

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:34

A number of inmate deaths in Alaska prisons over the past few months have prompted state legislators to seek answers. But at a hearing hosted by Senator Hollis French (D – Anchorage) on Tuesday in Anchorage, few questions were resolved.

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In a hushed room, Constance Anderson held a photo of her daughter, Kirsten Simon aloft for all to see.

“So I have a lot of questinos, i want to know if the guards are trained, to know if someone is real sick and if it is the policy of the prison to send in a medic, who was five feet away from her cell… there was a medic five feet away from her cell, five feet, from what I understand as what I have been told. Do you know how painful that is? I love my daughter, she was an overcomer. She worked with people with disabilities and had a disability herself.”

Simon, age 33, was found dead in a holding cell in the Anchorage Correctional Center on June 6 of this year.

Anderson relayed Simon’s medical history, her troubled past, her drug addiction.. but she said she is not buying the explanation the Simon may have died from heart failure. Simon’s death was the fourth of an inmate this year, but not the last, and Anderson is not the only family member of an inmate who died in prison. [In a packed hearing room at Anchorage’s temporary Legislative Information Office, people sat on the floor, stood in the hallways, and listened to Vernisia Gordon, fiancee of 20 year old Devon Mosely, who died in an Anchorage jail in April of this year. Gordon read from a prepared statement, tracing the timeline of Mosely’s incarceration and sudden death. He died almost a week after his case had been dismissed.

“Six days after dismissal, still no phone contact from Devon, I’m asked to visit and stll told ‘No.” Four/four, (April 4, 2014) one week after dismissal, still no phone call from Devon. Devon dies at 1:44 pm. I go to the jail at 2:15, and I’m told to come back at 5:30.”

In both cases, officials say no foul play is suspected. But family members who testified said the bodies were covered with bruises. Gordon had the photos to prove that.

Senator French, along with fellow Democrats Senator Berta Gardner and Representatives Andy Josephson and Geran Tarr, heard testimony from Department of Corrections Commissioner Joe Schmidt and from Brad Wilson, who heads the Alaska Corrections Officers Association. Schmidt and Wilson are at odds, specifically over the issue of staffing in Alaska’s prisons. Commissioner Joe Schmidt

“One to five is the ratio. It stacks up well, nationally. If there was a certain number.. we do staffing analysis, we analyze post orders, we look at the work load, we look at the schedule and the hours we have to cover and we make decisions. No one has ever said what that magic number is, how many state employees we have to hire to guarantee nobody’s going to get hurt. There isn’t one. When the prisoners came home from Colorado, our prisoner population went up 27 and a half percent, staffing went up 28% in that same time period. What is significant here is that correctional officers went up 33%.”

Commissioner Schmidt says about a dozen inmates in the state’s prison system die every year.. well below the national average.

But Wilson says DOC’s staffing numbers are off.

“Yes, this is five to one, but four shifts. Three of them are on, but using his math, that means it’s twenty to one. Twenty to one. Three fourths of them aren’t even there. They’re off.”

Wilson says there needs to be an independent review of  the deaths.

Perhaps the most telling information to come out of the hearing dealt with the mental health of inmates on intake.  DOC’s Laura Brooks,

“We have a new report out from the Mental Health Trust Authority that says about 65 percent of our population are mental health trust beneficiaries. About 22 percent of those are what we would call the severely and persistently mentally ill. So those, that 22 percent, include those people with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.”

Jeff Jesse, director of Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, confirmed that 65 percent of inmates are mental health beneficiaries.

Jesse told the panel, that under the Murkowski administration, prison mental health programs were discontinued, but in recent years, the Trust has worked with DOC on improving programs for inmates who are mental health beneficiaries.  Wilson says corrections officers do not have the training to deal with mentally ill inmates.

“Unfortunately, the Alaska institutions are the largest mental health providers in the state of Alaska. And their main contact there is corrections officers. We need more training for corrections officers, they are not trained psychologists, but they are the ones that end up having to counsel these individuals, who work with these individuals.”

Perhaps the most notorious prison death in Alaska happened last year, when serial killer Israel Keyes took his own life while incarcerated. The corrections officer on duty at the time, Loren Jacobsen, was fired by the state but ACOA has defended the guard and said the state made him a scapegoat. An arbitor has said the firing was not justified.  




Residents protest home demolition, Knik Arm Bridge

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:33

Residents protest in front of a home slated for removal for the proposed Knik Arm Bridge. Hillman/KSKA

More than 50 people gathered in the Government Hill neighborhood this afternoon to protest the demolition of two homes. The state is clearing the land to make way for the proposed but not yet funded Knik Arm Bridge.

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“Stop the demolition now! Stop the demolition now!” chanted a group of Anchorage residents from across the city standing in front of a blue house in Government Hill. They waved signs reading “Haste Makes Waste” and “Save our Homes.” Anne Reddig was with them.

“This is my neighborhood,” she said. “I live three houses this way. I don’t want a big gaping hole waiting for something that’s not funded. They’re taking away my neighborhood. They’re ruining where I live.”

Two houses and the old Sourdough Lodge are being demolished in preparation for the proposed $1.6 billion dollar Knik Arm Bridge. So far the state has only secured about $150 million for the project. The protesters say the state is moving too hastily — why should the state remove homes when it’s unclear if the project will actually happen? Most of the federal funding the state is trying to secure has historically gone toward projects in much larger, congested urban areas.

96-year-old Margery Ellis built her home in Government Hill in 1950. It’s set to be demolished during another phase of the project. ”We don’t need terrorists when we have KABATA,” she said, referring to the project’s previous name. “Everything they’ve done is to destroy Government Hill, which is the oldest community in Anchorage.”

Before the protesters gathered, Department of Transportation spokeswoman Jill Reese and the property manager led a tour of the buildings.

“You probably just want to just wait,” the crowd of reporters at the bottom of the wooden stairs was told. “Have three people come up at a time. Because these are not very sturdy.”

The upstairs portion of the blue house was filled with sun from the skylights and soaring windows. But the musty ground floor had ripped up carpet and asbestos ceiling tiles. DOT’s Reese pointed out damage.

“Practically everything in the whole house would need to be redone. And as you’ll see there’s broken bathroom fixtures and those sorts of things.”

Reese said all three buildings are in the way of the bridge project. She explained the state moved quickly to purchase the buildings and relocate the tenants because that process can take a lot of time.

“You can’t wait until you’re ready with the financing to start building the bridge. You might be three or four years down the line just to get properties purchased. Also, especially in the Anchorage Bowl, prices aren’t going down.”

Reese said the state will pay for the removal of the buildings, which could cost between $500,000 to $1 million. Then they’ll be reimbursed if they get the federal grant. And the houses don’t have to be destroyed. Reese said they can also be moved to other parts of town. That’s what happened to some condos when Dowling Road was built.

Jill Reese talks about the project inside one of the homes slated for removal. Hillman/KSKA

“What we say is the market will speak. If there’s a dollar to be made on these properties in their whole form then I’m sure that is the route that will be taken. And if not then they will be demolished.”

All of the contractors who were walking through the properties during the protest declined to comment. They were examining the project before submitting bids by the 25th.

Some of the protesters said that it doesn’t matter if they tear down or relocate the buildings — it still leaves a hole in the neighborhood. And Lance Powell from Mid-Hillside said not only people in Government Hill should be concerned.

“Well if it can happen here, it can happen in any neighborhood in Anchorage.”

Powell says empty lots deter businesses and new residents from coming into the area. Others say large roads divide communities and cause deterioration, and that’s not what they want.

“What do we want?” cried a man over a bull horn.

“Homes!” responded the crowd.

“What do we need?” “Homes!” “What will we save?” “Homes!”

DOT has scheduled for the properties to be cleared by November and planted over with grass. They do not have a set schedule for when the bridge would be funded or built.

House Considers Bill To Provide Advance Funding To IHS

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:32

The CEO of Kotzebue-based Maniilaq Association on Tuesday urged a U.S. House subcommittee to pass a bill that would provide advance funding for the Indian Health Service.

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Tim Schuerch says the uncertainty and delays in federal funding makes it hard to run a hospital and hire health care professionals. He spoke in favor of legislation that would have Congress appropriate money a year in advance for the IHS, as it does now for the Veterans Health Administration.

“If I don’t know where the money is gonna coming from in October, November, December, how can I make those commitments to those health professionals, to hire them?” Schuerch said. “Our doctors have to know that they’re gonna get a paycheck.”

One way or another, the bills must be paid. And if the federal funds aren’t there yet, Schuerch says he must pursue other options…like asking a bank for a line of credit or a bridge loan.

“Inevitably, what’s gonna happen in that discussion is the bank is gonna ask me, “So, what is your plan to pay the money back? When are you gonna get the money and what is your plan to pay back the amount borrowed with interest?’” Schuerch said. “And the answer is generally, ‘I don’t know. It’s up to Congress.’”

Without concrete answers, Schuerch says borrowing is difficult, and advanced federal appropriations would help alleviate many of the current problems.

The Maniilaq Association provides health, tribal and social services to 12 federally recognized tribes and 8,000 people in Northwest Alaska.

Sullivan Reports Almost $1.2M In Donations In 2nd Quarter

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:31

In the U.S. Senate race, it appears Republican candidate Dan Sullivan is sustaining his fundraising momentum.

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He reports nearly $1.2 million in donations for the second quarter of the year. That makes three straight quarters for him where contributions exceeded $1 million.

Incumbent Senator Mark Begich reports raising only slightly more for the quarter. Sullivan’s contributions come primarily from out-of-state, but his campaign says he raised almost $200,000 of his money in-state during the previous three months.

Tuesday is the federal deadline for campaign finance reports covering April through June. Republican challengers Joe Miller and Mead Treadwell have not yet announced their totals.

World Eskimo Indian Olympics Start Wednesday

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:30

The Nulukataq event at WEIO in Fairbanks. Photo: Ronn Murray Photography, WEIO.

The World Eskimo-Indian Olympics start Wednesday in Fairbanks, with qualifiers for events like one-armed reach and the Race of the Torch ahead of opening ceremonies at 6 p.m. inside the Carlson Center.

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WEIO started in 1961 as a way to bring athletes and dancers from across Alaska together for competitions and celebration. Since then it has grown into a days-long event, comprised of tournament-style athletic competition, as well as pageantry showcasing skills like skin-sewing, and recognizing ongoing achievement in cultural practices.

WEIO has also served as an organizational body for establishing uniform standards for native games from around diverse parts of the state. It is one of the reigning authorities in the world on records for events played across the circumpolar North, like one-foot high kick, knuckle hop, and ear-pull–games rooted in testing and strengthening abilities necessary for subsistence.

This year’s WEIO tournament through Saturday, with the full schedule of events available here.

In Fight Over Marijuana, Alcohol Becomes Taboo

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:29

While alcohol is usually a fixture of most political fundraisers, there will be no wine or cocktails at events focused on the marijuana initiative.

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The opposition group Big Marijuana Big Mistake is hosting its first fundraiser Tuesday, and the only beverages available will be “delicious lemonade, sparkling waters, all kinds of fun pop and soda,” says Deborah Williams.

Williams is the former Democratic Party Chair, and she’s co-hosting the event alongside former Govs. Frank Murkowski and Bill Sheffield. Because the ballot initiative they’re fighting would allow the sale of marijuana, organizers decided weeks ago that they should make the event substance free.

“Former Rep. Alyce Hanley recommended that we make this event alcohol-free, and we all enthusiastically agreed,” says Williams.

But the group didn’t originally make it clear that their event was going to be dry. On Tuesday morning, sponsors of the marijuana initiative sent out a press release advising people who attend the fundraiser to “exercise caution” if offered alcohol because it is “more harmful” than marijuana. The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol also pointed out that Murkowski received nearly $20,000 in political contributions from the beverage industry during his last decade in the U.S. Senate.

Williams believes the attack was uncalled for, and described implication of hypocrisy and the comments on Murkowski as “nasty.”

But Chris Rempert, who is the political director for the pro-marijuana campaign, still believes the criticism of his opponents is merited, even if they’re not serving hard drinks at their event.

“Alcohol is frequently a major part of political events, and since their invitation was touting refreshments and since the event was being hosted by an alcohol friendly governor like Murkowski, we felt it was important to convey the message,” says Rempert.

For their part, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol does not plan on serving alcohol at any future events they host.

Hazardous Material Containers Cleaned Up In Galena

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:28

A state report on the response to the 2013 flooding in Galena says more than 5,000 containers of hazardous material scattered throughout the area during the disaster were collected.

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The containers ranged from aerosol cans to 55-gallon drums, with the hazardous debris strewn within a 15-mile radius of the Yukon River village.

An environmental program specialist with the agency estimated the cleanup cost at well over $1 million, costs that will be included as the state seeks reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mike Dingman: Let's act as if Alaska's living history is precious

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:28
Mike Dingman: Let's act as if Alaska's living history is precious OPINION: Alaska's history is falling away before our very eyes, and we can all have a small part in preserving it.July 15, 2014

Elise Patkotak: Prison system must be held accountable for deaths

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:28
Elise Patkotak: Prison system must be held accountable for deaths OPINION: It's too easy for most of us to shrug at deaths inside Alaska's prison system. That's wrong, for the Department of Corrections must be held accountable -- for everyone's sake.July 15, 2014

Sunken Barge Irks Kuskokwim Residents

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:27

The barge, Shanks Ark, sitting in Steamboat Slough.

Residents of fish camps along ‘Steamboat Slough’ near Bethel are calling for an abandoned barge to be removed. The barge has been sitting half submerged in the middle of the slough for more than a year.

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Barbara Anvil is furious the barge has been left in the slough, which serves as a highway for boats in summer and for snow machines and four wheelers in winter. She says the barge is right in the middle of that highway and it’s a safety hazard.

“This winter somebody got hurt with a four wheeler … In fact, my brother’s the one who came across his four wheeler over there by the barge. There was lots of blood and stuff around it,” said Anvil.

That blood was, then 28-year-old, Jason Fisher’s. He says he was driving his 4-wheeler around 10 o’clock on December 16th on his way home from Bethel to Kwethluk, when he hit the barge. He doesn’t remember much because the impact knocked him out. He had a head injury and was in the hospital for about a month. He had to have surgery to amputate nine and half of his fingers. Bethel Police and Search and Rescue officials confirm Fisher’s story.

The barge, named ‘Shanks Ark’, sunk in 2012 or 2013. Officials with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources say the barge is owned by Bethel-based Kuskokwim Lighterage and Trucking and was being leased and operated by Faulkner Walsh Constructors, also of Bethel.

Ana Hoffman is CEO of Bethel Native Corporation. She also has a family fish camp on the slough. She wrote to the Coast Guard, which she says identified the barge as a navigational hazard that requires no action on their part.

“I was pretty alarmed that the barge really is left there sunken in the middle of the slough. It seems to be a real hazard,” said Hoffman.

She called on Alaska’s Senators for help. Senator Lisa Murkowski met with residents about the problem. Murkowski’s office says they’ve been monitoring the situation and in touch with state officials about the barge. Still, nothing has been done.

Harry Faulkner, an owner of Faulkner Walsh Constructors says State Department of Environmental Conservation and the DNR have their facts wrong. He says he was done leasing the ‘Shanks Ark’ barge, which he was using to haul fish, by the time it was moored in Steamboat Slough.

“We put it away for the year and it decided to float itself out in the Spring of the following year. (Daysha Eaton: They said it happened while it was moored and you were still leasing it.) Faulkner: That is not correct. We had it leased for the year and we were done with it. (Daysha Eaton: Okay, can you send me the documents that show the time period for which you were leasing it?) Faulkner: No. (Daysha Eaton: Why not?) Because it was a verbal agreement between the fish manager and Dave Ausdahl, the owner of the barge,” said Faulkner.

Dave Ausdahl refutes Faulkers claim and says Faulkner Walsh failed to secure the vessel when they put it away after fishing season.

“I provided the barge to Faulkner Walsh for their fishery operations in exchange for them fetching and returning to storage each year and keeping it floating. So it was under their care, custody and control through the 2012 season when they were to put it away properly,” said Ausdahl.

But they didn’t put it away properly, claims Ausdahl, which caused it to float out into the middle of the Slough and get stuck. Neither Faulkner nor Ausdahl said they’d heard about Fisher’s terrible crash last winter.

Anvil says she’s not sure who is responsible for removing the barge, but she hopes it happens before someone else gets hurt.

“It’s gonna start getting dark pretty soon and at nighttime you can’t see that there’s a barge there … so I’m sure somebody’s gonna get hurt,” said Anvil

‘Shanks Ark’ is one of several rusting vessels that make the slough look like a graveyard for river going barges. At last count, state officials say there were 22 abandoned vessels in the Bethel area, 13 of them in Steamboat slough.

DNR officials say the company operating the barge when it broke loose is responsibility for removing it.

Faulkner Walsh has submitted a plan to remove their sunken barge near Kwethluk, and two vessels in Steamboat Slough, but never removed any of them. They have not submitted a plan to remove ‘Shanks Ark’ which remains in the middle of the channel.

Healy Frees Sailboat Trapped in Arctic Ice

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:26

The Coast Guard cutter Healy made a detour from its science mission in the Arctic last Saturday to rescue a sailboat trapped in ice near Barrow.

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The Healy broke through Arctic ice to reach the S/V Altan Girl near Barrow on Saturday. /Credit: USCGC Healy

The Altan Girl is a 36-foot steel boat, trying to sail the Northwest Passage from Vancouver to eastern Canada.

The vessel is Turkish-Canadian, according to The Nome Nugget. The newspaper says the boat’s skipper, Erkan Gursoy, plans to sail across Canada all the way to Turkey.

But the boat got stuck in sea ice Saturday, 40 miles northeast of Barrow. Weather conditions meant search and rescue couldn’t fly in from the North Slope — so the Coast Guard diverted the Healy to help out.

The Healy towed the Altan Girl through 12 miles of Arctic ice before they reached open water. The cutter’s crew did a safety check. Then they sent the sailboat back to Barrow to resupply and wait for better conditions.

The Healy is now back on track with its Arctic research mission, funded by the National Science Foundation.

Commercial Fishing Season Ramping Up In Cook Inlet

Tue, 2014-07-15 17:25

In the Southern District, the Port Graham Subdistrict opened July 14 to commercial set gillnetting for the first time this season. Returns haven’t been especially high, so that fishery has been closed so far, says Glenn Hollowell, Fish and Game Finfish Area Management Biologist for the Lower Cook Inlet.

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“We’ve been tracking the sockeye return to English Bay Lakes,” says Hollowell. “It’s been what I’ve called modest this year. We’ve just barely made our escapement goals with a subsistence fishery but no commercial fishery. Had we had a commercial fishery, I think it would have depressed escapement to the lakes below the level that we want to see. So, we’ve kept the commercial fishery closed and the subsistence fishery open.”

The sustainable escapement goal is 6,000 to 13,500 sockeye. As of July 11, about 6,700 fish had returned. Beginning at 6 a.m. July 14, it is open for regular 48-hour Monday and Thursday commercial fishing periods. The subsistence fishery will remain open.

Set gillnetting opened in portions of the Barabara Creek, Tutka Bay, Halibut Cove, and Seldovia Bay Subdistricts in early June. Those areas will remain open for two 48-hour fishing periods per week. Hollowell says it’s still early in the season to tell, but this harvest doesn’t seem to  match up to last year’s.

“It seems like we’ve been running slightly ahead of the 10-year average,” says Hollowell. “But last year was just an amazing year. We were way ahead of the 10-year average last year and we seem to be trailing that a little bit this year.”

The 10-year average for sockeyes is about 21,000 fish. The 2013 harvest was more than 29,000. So far this season, 22,000 reds have been caught by set gillnetters in the Southern District.

The purse seine fisheries in the Tutka Bay, Halibut Cove and Humpy Creek Subdistricts and the China Poot and Neptune Bay Sections are also open.

“Typically, those are very, very slow fisheries until about now and then they start to pick up as pink salmon come back through and as we start seeing coho and sockeye salmon,” says Hollowell. “And the sockeye salmon harvest has picked up quite a bit in the purse seine fishery in the last week and a half I would say.”

As of July 3, only 373 sockeye had been caught. By July 7, that number had jumped to more than 1,300.

In the Kamishak Bay District, the Chenik Subdistrict had its first purse seine opening July 12 through 14.

“Usually they go into Chenik Lake during high tide cycles,” says Hollowell. “But, apparently, they got in during a moderate tide cycle. So, we’ve got about 6,000 fish in the lake, which is within the sustainable escapement goal of 3,500 to 14,000. So, we’re doing okay there.”

Finally, in the Outer District, there are openings in Port Dick, and the Windy Bay, Rocky Bay, and Nuka Island Subdistricts.

Hollowell says as it is still early in the season, it will still take some time to identify this year’s trends in the commercial salmon harvest throughout Lower Cook Inlet.

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