Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer signed new regulations last week to ban shellfish farming on the beaches and sea floor of Kachemak Bay and the Fox River Flats.
Even so, the Administrative Regulations Review Committee, a newly revived committee that includes both House and Senate members, plans to continue its review of the rules during a hearing that starts today at 2:45 p.m. The committee will take public testimony, and there will be teleconference sites at the Kenai and Homer legislative information offices, said Jim Pound, of the committee staff.
Claudia Slater, a habitat biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the regulations, which take effect April 12, will still allow shellfish cultures in hanging nets and baskets. The ban on on-bottom farms is a reaction to shellfish farm applications the state received in 1999, the last time it took applications for Kachemak Bay, she said.
The 1999 applications included several to grow littleneck clams on state-owned beaches.
"They'd lease a beach through the Department of Natural Resources. They may or may not seed that beach with additional clams. If they seed, when they harvest, they would harvest both seeded clams and wild clams. Members of the public would not be allowed on clam farms," Slater said.
"The littlenecks in Kachemak Bay are fully allocated and utilized. Concerns were raised by the public and by the department that if we allow on-bottom mariculture of littleneck clams, that would require reallocating and taking clams away from commercial and sport users."
The Legislature created the Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats critical habitat areas to protect habitat and the fish and wildlife that need it. Slater said the nets clam farmers spread to protect their stock would eliminate habitat for clam-eating predators such as scoters, eiders, otters and starfish.
"A clam farmer may not care about a scoter, but the Legislature did," she said.
So, she said, allowing on-the-bottom clam farms would be inconsistent with the purposes of the critical habitat areas. Fish and Game also worries that privatizing public clam beaches would violate the Alaska Constitution, which reserves fish, wildlife and waters for the common use of all the people, she said.
Slater said the original management plans for the Kachemak Bay and Fox River Flats state critical habitat areas address shellfish farms, but when they were written, people thought only of suspended shellfish farms, and not of the on-bottom variety.
"So, when the department received the applications for on-bottom farms, we had some homework to do," she said.
Fish and Game began looking into on-bottom farms in September 1999 and took public comments and held public meetings in the winter of 1999-2000. In took public comments again last fall.
"A clear majority of Alaskans support these regulations to prohibit on-bottom farming on wild clam beds," said Frank Rue, commissioner of Fish and Game.
"Some shellfish farm applicants are not pleased, but in this case, these regulations are absolutely necessary and appropriate in order to preserve this critical habitat area for the public, wildlife and current commercial uses. Giving these clam beds to shellfish farmers would take these resources away from recreational, subsistence and commercial clam harvesters."
Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, said the statutes that defined the critical habitat areas did not address on-bottom mariculture.
"Now, they're trying to write the regulations after the fact. They're making it up as they go along, for political reasons," he said. "It doesn't matter what we do with the regulations. Fish and Game or (Gov. Tony) Knowles or whoever is making the decision is banning clam farming in Kachemak Bay."
In addition to the new rules for Kachemak Bay, Fish and Game has proposed regulations to clarify mariculture rules statewide, including the question of leases on public clam beds. Public comments on those are due March 27, Scalzi said.
Neither the Legislature nor the mariculture industry likes the proposed statewide rules, Scalzi said, and shellfish farmers, commercial geoduck clam divers and Fish and Game have been discussing them.
"They've gotten together and had meetings on rewriting them, and they've come to agreement on a lot of things," he said.
Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, introduced a bill last week that would require the commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources to offer for lease by July 1, 2002, at least 60 sites suitable for suspended culture of shellfish, 20 sites suitable for clam farms and 10 sites suitable for geoduck farms.
Under the bill, the commissioner would solicit nominations for mariculture lease sites and identify suitable sites in consultation with the departments of Fish and Game and Environmental Conservation.
Sites for on-bottom farms would have to be in areas where the farmed species does not naturally occur, or if it does, a farm would not interfere with existing commercial, subsistence or personal-use fisheries.
The bill also would require the state to consider the value of harvestable shellfish when it determines the fair market value for a mariculture lease.
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