Technology, government controversy highlight Unalaska's year in news
From new cell towers now rising, to the proposed high speed subsea Terra Aleutian connection to the rest of the world, GCI is making progress on improving cellphone and internet service in Unalaska, according to Vice President Dan Boyette.
One new cellphone tower has been erected, and was expected to be providing basic cellphone service by the end of November on Captains Bay Road. The 100-foot tower at Offshore Systems Inc. replaces a smaller hillside unit at the commercial dock and warehouse complex servicing factor trawlers, freezer longliners and other large fishing, cargo and research vessels.
Construction recently started on the other new tower, on East Broadway, in Unalaska Valley, he said.
In February, the new 4GLTE system is projected to start up across the entire community, allowing Facebook and other web access on phones, not now available with 2G service.
The local hardware buildup includes the two new towers, plus new antennae mounted on the landmark Haystack tower, which has been serving the community for years, and providing the framework for the illuminated apparition of a Christmas tree.
In a much bigger, three-year plan, the Anchorage telecommunications company is seeking, and getting, commitments from local organizations. GCI is proposing a $40 million "Terra Aleutian" underwater fiberoptic cable extension to Unalaska, 760 miles from Levelock on the mainland in Bristol Bay.
It would bring significantly faster Internet connections, compared to the pokey satellite-based system now in place. "Backups and updates will take minutes, not days," according to GCI.
Levelock is presently the end of the line for a cable extending across Cook Inlet and up and over a mountain range and then diving into the waters of Lake Iliamna and the Kvichak River.
The cable would also go ashore to the fishing hubs of Port Heiden, False Pass and Akutan.
Boyette said he is now seeking five-year commitments from potential customers in the fishing and transportation industries, and one local government. Already, the Westward and Alyeska seafood companies in Unalaska have pledged support, he said.
GCI has spent $2.5 million planning the project.
The project also needed commitments from Trident Seafoods, Peter Pan, Unisea, Matson Lines, American President Lines, and the Unalaska city government, he said. If the project finds enough customers, onshore work would start next year, and offshore cable laying would follow for the next two years. The planned completion date is Sept. 30, 2020.
Half the city council booted
All three incumbent Unalaska City Council members were defeated in the October election marked by a controversy over the resignation of the city manager.
Dennis Robinson ousted John Waldron, 313 to 273. Shari Coleman, in a 320 to 193 vote, defeated incumbent Rachelle Hatfield, who had been appointed to fill a council vacancy last year. In a three-way contest, Jim Fitch won with 320 votes to 151 for Jeff Treannie, and 111 for incumbent Yudelka Leclere, according to City Clerk Cat Hazen.
Voters defeated a proposal to double the three-percent city sales taxes on alcohol and tobacco to six percent. The failed tax increase would have also applied to marijuana, which is currently not sold locally legally, unlike other places in Alaska.
Controversy centered on whether former City Manager David Martinson was pressured to take disciplinary action against Deputy Police Chief Jennifer Shockley, since she circulated an online survey on the city council's performance which she said she did anonymously. The question in the community was, how was it learned where it came from?
The rumors were that Leclere had illegally hacked into Shockley's internet service, in her capacity as the manager of the local GCI cellphone and internet company. Leclere said at a city council meeting that her 12-year-old daughter was traumatically accosted by three people saying her mother was a crook and was going to jail. Leclere said later she was questioned by a local police officer, though she declined to provide details, citing an ongoing investigation.
But another explanation was offered by City Councilor David Gregory, who said that when the survey was first circulated, it contained a contact phone number, which turned out to be Jennifer Shockley's.
A phone message left with Shockley from the newspaper with that question was not returned.
Gregory said he first heard of the issue at an Ounalashka Corporation barbeque, from O.C. staff who were upset with what they saw as an attack on the city council launched by the police department.
All three city council members defended the city council's handling of Martinson's resignation, which they said came at his emailed request as he was negotiating a severance package. However, at an emotional city council meeting attended by about 80 local residents last summer, Martinson said he had never offered to resign.
A public records act request from the Dutch Harbor Fisherman for copies of those emails was effectively denied by City Attorney Brooks Chandler. The newspaper did receive outlines of the emails with all the contents blacked out. Chandler said the communications involved personnel issues exempted from the Alaska Public Records Act.
Small boats land cod
Sometimes, a short and wide fishing boat can hold as much cod as one that's twice as long.
In the state waters fishery, the Dutch Harbor small-boat pot cod fleet landed 33. 2 million pounds in the two-month fishery in early 2017, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Unalaska.
The boats can fish a maximum of 60 pots per vessel, and typically haul each one twice per day, said ADF&G
biologist Ethan Nichols in Unalaska. The small vessels bring the pots to the fishing grounds in multiple trips, unable to fit all of them on deck at the same time.
Some of the small boats were specially built to pack the cod, known as "Super 8s" or very wide 58-footers. Longtime Bering Sea fisheries biologist Krista Milani, who once manged crab for the state and now does federal groundfish, said it's amazing to look at a Super 8 tied up bow-to-bow next to a 125-foot crabber, creating an illusion of equal size. At least until you catch a sideways view, and see the crabber's twice as long.
"It's interesting to see them side by side," she said. The fishing vessels Cynosure and Cerulean are both Super 8s.
And that Super 8 might pack as much cod as a 125-footer, she said.
"These days, a lot of the small boats can catch as much as the big boats," Milani observed.
Fishermen were pleased with the performance of the Dutch Harbor cod fishery, now in its fourth year.
"We had good weather, and there was abundant fish," said Unalaska's Dustan Dickerson, owner of the vessel Raven Bay. Not only were the fish plentiful, they were also very big, he said, weighing as much as 45 to 50 pounds.
A typical cod weights about 8.5 pounds, and Dickerson said this year he's seen the most very big cod in a long time. Fishermen were paid a base price of 34 cents a pound, with bonuses based on the size of the delivery. For every 250 pounds, fishers received an extra half-cent, up to a maximum of 37 cents, he said.
The pot cod fleet delivered to processors including Icicle, Westward, Alyeska and Unisea, he said. The fishing trips lasted between two and three days, two days if the fishing was really good. But no longer than three, to deliver fish of the highest quality, he said.
"We want to keep a good product great," he said. The fish are kept cool in the holds with temperatures between 33 and 35 degrees.
The Dutch Harbor subdistrict state waters P. cod fishery is limited to pot gear, pots of the same size used for crab, though rigged differently. Pots, he said, are "a very efficient way of catching fish, and you basically have zero bycatch." Some 24 boats less than 60 feet long pursued the 33.7-million-pound quota in the Bering Sea. The season opened in early February, and closed April 8.
Dickerson said the fleet was spread out from Cape Cheerful to Makushin Bay on Unalaska Island, all the way to Umnak Island, staying within state waters, three miles from shore. One open area where they didn't fish was Unalaska Bay, because there are hardly any Pacific cod in the waters closest to town, he said.
While most boats had good seasons, one had a very bad time. The Unalaska-homeported pot codder Saint Dominick grounded in March on Unalaska Island with 75,000 pounds of Pacific cod onboard, which was discarded as unfit for human consumption.
Shipwrecks aren't the only bad things that can spoil a load of fish, according to Milani, of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Unalaska.
"There are various reasons something like that can happen," she said, among them, fuel oil contamination of the catch and the failure of the cold water circulation systems that keep the fish cool. "Unfortunately, we do see it now and again. It happens across the board, in all species," she said.
The quota for the Dutch Harbor subdistrict Pacific cod is 6.4 percent of the federal offshore cod fishery. State waters extend three miles from shore. The subdistict is east of 170 degrees west longitude, and west of 164 degrees west longitude.
Tustumena repairs stretch into August
Ferry service throughout the Aleutian Chain took a hit this summer as one of the Alaska Marine Highway System's biggest providers, the Tustumena, canceled sailings along a 500-mile sweep of Alaska from Kodiak to Akutan.
The 53-year-old ferry, which was originally scheduled to be out for a couple months, was found to have far more rusted steel than initially expected, and sailings were canceled into August. With no back-up ferry to fill in the gaps, the residents along the Tustumena's route had to make do with more cancelled bookings.
Repairs to the aging ferry cost an estimated $2.9 million, while a replacement ferry is estimated at $244 million; most of which will be paid for with federal money.
Some in the region fear that the state's dire financial circumstances mean the balance the state would pay for — about $22 million from a vessel replacement fund, according to the DOT — won't come, and the Tustumena won't be replaced or will hang in limbo.
"It's a little doom and gloom," said Candace Nielsen, who is on the city council in Cold Bay. "Especially with the state budget as it is, we understand what it costs to operate it."
Meanwhile, subsidies to rural air travel were also under scrutiny. Funding for the Essential Air Service program were on the chopping block in President Donald Trump's budget. In Alaska, the program helps defray costs for serving 61 communities and costs $21 million.
That, coupled with the announcement that major air carrier for the region, PenAir, was filing for bankruptcy, caused concern throughout the region.
Bogoslof repeatedly blows its lid
Bogoslof volcano put on quite a show starting a year ago and continuing to erupt some 40 times in 2017. The island, located 60 miles from Dutch Harbor, tripled in size after several months of eruptions, and continued to remain active for most of the summer. While the ash clouds caused concern for flights in and around the region, it did little damage to any surrounding communities.
As the year came to a close, alert levels for Boboslof were downgraded after three months of inactivity, but activity was ramping up at Shishaldin Volcano on Unimak Island. The volcano showed signs of unrest in early December, causing scientists to monitor the volcano more closely.