December 12, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 49

Harbor 3rd in state to get 'clean' rating

A “gut trap” that kept fish waste out of the Small Boat Harbor last summer helped Haines become the third community in the state to earn certification under the Alaska Clean Harbors program.

The trap, attached beneath fish-cleaning tables on the harbor floats, allows the borough to divert to the ocean volumes of fish waste that for decades piled up on the harbor floor. Such piles attract unwanted animals to the harbor, harm marine life by depleting oxygen levels in water and mix with old oils there, potentially becoming contaminated waste, said Rachel Lord, Alaska Clean Harbors coordinator.

“Fish guts in a harbor can create major problems. For not a lot of money, (harbor staff) built a trap that keeps them out of the basin,” Lord said.

To win the rating, the harbor was scored on 88 best management practices related to pollution prevention and waste management. Haines scored a 92 percent on the program’s eligibility test, of a required 85 percent for certification.

Harbormaster Phil Benner, who started efforts toward certification 18 months ago, said it was important to create a centralized system for handling waste generated by boats in the community.

“We didn’t have anything like this available in the community, a place where fishermen and boat owners could take old batteries, oil and antifreeze. It’s about educating people about where the facilities are available to get rid of waste, to make it easily accessible, and to educate the public on best practices,” Benner said.

The borough spent $3,000 on certification, including for signage. One sign at the harbor “grid” outlines policies for use. The grid is a timber frame at tidewater where boat owners can work on the undersides of their vessels when tides go out. They’ve been identified as a significant source of marine pollution, owing to the type of work done at them, and have been removed in some harbors.

For small communities like Haines that lack mechanical haul-outs, grids are “the only realistic way of getting boats out of the water,” Benner said. Lord said posted guidelines are an improvement. “There had been policies. Now there’s signage. We’re looking for people working within what they have going on to make things as clear as possible and a cooperative effort to reduce marine pollution through these activities.”

Lord also lauded a new sewage pump-out at the harbor for emptying marine toilets, purchased with fisheries funds. An old pump-out had fallen into disrepair and disuse. The new system pumps sewage from vessels to a city sewer line and is offered to boat owners free of charge.

The borough also recently installed a “smart-ash incinerator” for burning objects like oil absorbents, filters and five-gallon buckets. The device, the size of a 55-gallon drum, burns at 2,220 degrees F. and reduces wastes to an inert ash, Benner said. It’s operated only by borough employees at a Lutak Inlet site.

Steve Fossman, a 33-year commercial fisherman, said the borough’s efforts are worthwhile, given the increase in harbor users. The fish-cleaning tables, for example, are now used by subsistence fishermen and gut piles have sometimes nearly reached the water surface, he said.

“I think everybody has to get a little more aware of taking care of things (in the marine environment). Times are changing. The more people, the more impact,” Fossman said. Recycling bins for wastes are “handy” and “help everyone do a more environmentally friendly job,” he said. “That’s what you have to do to be a harbor these days.”

Benner said the level of contamination of the harbor floor should soon be known, with samples that will come next spring with dredging of the harbor for breakwater improvements. Results will be known in the fall. (Dredging is expected to start in 2015.)

Those samples will become baseline information, to monitor the health of the harbor floor, Benner said. “Twenty years from now, our kids may know how we’re doing. But the way the harbor is set up and flushes, I don’t expect (contamination) to be high. We have good circulation.” An object floating near the gangway makes its way out of the harbor in about six hours, he said.

Benner said it’s also encouraging that Alaska’s Congressional leaders recently sent congratulations to the borough for gaining “clean harbor” status. Lord said U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials also look favorably on such efforts. “Federal and state funding sources can see we’re trying to do the right thing with our harbor,” Benner said.

Program coordinator Lord said she expects the effort will save Haines the cost of improper disposal – like when oily bilge water is dumped into oil-collection tanks – but also will help the town attract boats while making the harbormaster’s job easier.

Her program is supported by the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program, Cook Inletkeeper, Green Star, Marine Exchange of Alaska, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, NOAA, and the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators.

It grew from a renewed push in Alaska since the mid-1990s aimed at addressing small-scale spills of marine contaminants, the kind, “that come with just doing business.”

Seward and Homer are the only other harbors in Alaska to receive clean certification.