Local News

Otter committee formed, Manager looks for police station options and more borough business

Petersburg has a new ad-hoc committee on Sea Otters. The borough assembly appointed the ten members Monday. They include several local fishermen, a retired fishery biologist and fishing industry advocate, a wildlife biologist and a tribal representative. In addition, assembly member and fisherman Kurt Wohlheuter will service as chair. The group is tasked with reviewing Petersburg’s current position on sea otter management and making recommendations for changes. Town leaders have previously urged the state and federal governments to address the impacts of the growing otter population on Alaska fisheries.

Wohlheuter said he had recently discussed the issue in an informal meeting with the Sealalaska Heritage Institute:

“And it looks to me that probably one of our best directions to go in is to work with the Sealaska Heritage Institute and try to get some funding so that they can go into the communities and teach classes on how to handle the furs after they’ve been shot and then what to do with the furs after they’ve been shot. They had a three-year program already with the state but the Senate this year decided to pull their funding after year one. So, through the form of a resolution that we can’t vote on this time around but next time around, we’ll put our voice behind encouraging the indigenous people take more sea otters.”

Sea otters are a federally-protected species and only Alaska natives can hunt them. Some native hunters and artisans have complained that federal rules on the use of otter pelts have discouraged hunting.

The Russian fur trade nearly wiped out Alaska’s otter populations by the by the early 20th century. The state reintroduced the animals to Southeast in the 1960’s and they have since thrived. However, their big appetite for commercially harvested shellfish has put them in direct conflict with fishermen, many of whom who blame the animals for the loss of productive fishing grounds.

The local assembly decided to form the ad hoc committee after choosing not to endorse a bounty on sea otters that Sitka Senator Bert Stedman proposed in legislation this year. Petersburg’s otter committee was scheduled to have its first meeting Friday at noon in the borough assembly chambers.

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Petersburg’s borough manager has been trying find a cheaper option for a new police station building. Steve Giesbrect told the assembly Monday that he had been working with Police Chief Jim Agner, project architect Wayne Jensen and others on the issue.

“I hope to have a formal recommendations of various options to the assembly by the first meeting in May. That’s just a lot dependent on how fast we can get a lot of this information back from some of these vendors. You know, I have not ruled out, we still have spoken to Wayne Jensen. You know we may still use him. We might use somebody else. It just depends a lot on, once we get rid of some of the alternatives, what we’re left with, do we find, you know, at that point do we need an architect or not and what type of architect and what kind of experience. So, I want to narrow that down. The goal is to provide very specific instructions to whoever we use. We want this building remodeled or this type of building construction of this size and that’s the piece that we don’t know yet.”

A much-higher-than-expected cost estimate last month prompted the borough assembly to put the current design process on hold while the manager looks for less-expensive alternatives. The architect’s initial plan for a two story, 13 thousand square-foot building was estimated to cost up to nine million dollars.

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And in other news, Petersburg has a large pool of applicants for Police Chief. According to Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht, a total of sixty people made this week’s application deadline. That includes six who have prior experience as police officers in Alaska. Giesbrecht says the borough’s recruiting consultants, Brimeyer Fursman, will interview about 18 candidates for the job. Then the firm will work with borough officials to narrow that list down to a handful of finalists who will be invited to Petersburg for further interviews.

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Meanwhile, Petersburg’s harbor department is seeking a couple of grants for float improvements through the state’s Chinook Salmon Fishery Mitigation Program. One is for a troller work float and the other would improve the fish cleaning station at the South Harbor boat launch. Borough Manager Steve Giesbrcht described the projects to the assembly this week:

“The Troller work float, by salvaging some North Harbor transient float, redeck it into a 40×40 foot troller work float. The grant amount on that one that’s available is 50 thosuand that we’re looking for. And then the fish cleaning float, which is a much bigger project, is a complete replacement of the fish cleaning float that we have today that’s too small that’s staged at the end of the South Harbor launch ramp…Grant money available is 250 thousand.”

The grant program was established in 2009 to help mitigate economic impacts of a reduction in Chinook harvest levels in the region under the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

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