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Environment

Doug Jones introduced bill to protect red snapper population in Gulf

Eddie Burkhalter

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Recreational and commercial fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico may soon have to have on board their boats devices that could help ensure the population of reef fish remain healthy for generations to come, thanks to a bill introduced by U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Ala.

 Jones and cosponsor Sen. Bill Cassidey, R-La., introduced a bill that would require boats to carry on board venting tools and descending devices, which reduce barotrauma in reef fish, such as red snapper, a condition that kills fish when their brought to the surface rapidly from deep water. If a fish is too small, nor the correct species or over a fisherman’s limit, they release them back into the water, but without the use of these devices many of these fish die, unable to return to the deep water where they thrive. 

The Direct Enhancement of Snapper Conservation and the Economy through Novel Devices (DESCEND) Act has a companion bill a companion bill recently introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressmen Garrett Graves, R-La., and Jared Huffman, D-Calif.

“I’ve been fishing all my life, so I know how important it is to protect Gulf species like red snapper. The use of descending devices and venting tools is one way we can help maintain healthy populations of reef fish, which is crucial for the economy of Alabama and for ensuring that future generations can continue to enjoy red snapper season,” Sen. Jones said in a press release. 

“For charter fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, fishing is more than a pastime – it’s our way of life,” Johnny Greene, Owner, Intimidator Charters in Orange Beach and Former Gulf Council Member, in the release. “Charter fishermen such as myself have been using descending devices for some time, and we hope that this legislation will encourage the use of these devices among all sectors of the Gulf fishing community. I’m also pleased to see that this bill mandates further study into the role that descending devices and venting tools may play in reducing discard mortality and preserving the health of Gulf reef fish species.” 

According to the Pew Charitable Trust of the six most-caught reef fish species in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, about 11 percent of fish that are thrown back die after release.  Those fish amounted to 3.1 million fish from 2012 to 2016, according to the nonprofit. 

Blakeley Ellis, Executive Director, Coastal Conservation Association Alabama,  said the legislation is greatly appreciated by recreational anglers in the Gulf of Mexico, who understand first-hand the frustration associated with releasing a reef fish back into the water, only to watch as it fails to make it back to the bottom.

“The DESCEND Act will ensure that fisheries managers have every tool at their disposal to help return these fish to depth and minimize post-release mortality. Fewer wasted fish will result in increased access to fisheries like red snapper in the long run. We appreciate the leadership by Senators Jones and Cassidy to enhance marine resource conservation with this common-sense measure,” Ellis said. 

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“While Gulf of Mexico red snapper has historically been a highly contentious policy issue, it’s heartening to see such strong support for this effort to reduce mortality rates of discarded reef fish,” said Mike Leonard, Vice President of Government Affairs, American Sportfishing Association. “Thanks to the bipartisan work of U.S. Senators Doug Jones and Bill Cassidy, the DESCEND Act of 2019 will make meaningful progress in improving fish survival by requiring proper gear be used to release fish caught in the Gulf federal waters. The more fish that survive, the healthier their populations will be in the future, therefore providing better fishing opportunities.”

Chris Blankenship, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the agency provided hundreds of descender devices to Alabama fishermen a couple years ago. 

“The program showed that the use of descender devices was very effective in decreasing release mortality of reef fish. I am appreciative of this legislation that will increase use of descender devices that will contribute, along with other initiatives and sound management, to rebuilding our reef fish populations,” Blankenship said. 

The legislation has been endorsed by the American Sportfishing Association, Center for Sportfishing Policy, Coastal Conservation Association, Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation, National Marine Manufacturers Association and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

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Environment

Alabama’s drinking water is safe during COVID-19 crisis, ADEM Director Says

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Alabama’s drinking water is safe, so there’s no need to hoard cases of bottled water during the coronavirus crisis, according to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

“With so many things Alabamians have to worry about – their jobs, social distancing, the welfare of loved ones, gathering food and other necessities – the safety of their drinking water shouldn’t be one of them,” said Lance LeFleur, ADEM’s director. “The water they get from their tap, whether it’s from a large municipal system or a small, rural utility, is 100 percent safe due to the proven safety requirements they are required to follow and that ADEM enforces. People don’t need to fear the coronavirus as far as their water is concerned.”

LeFleur in a statement from his office points out that the disinfectants used in the water systems—as standard operating procedures kill viruses, including COVID-19. It is also a standard operation of municipal wastewater systems to kill any viruses before the treated water is discharged into Alabama’s rivers and streams.

“ADEM, through its permitting and inspections, is making sure the drinking water systems, as well as wastewater systems, abide by the appropriate, stringent clean water standards,” LeFleur said.

In a letter sent to Gov. Kay Ivey, on Friday, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew R. Wheeler emphasized the importance of the public having confidence in their water supply during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

“Ensuring that drinking water and wastewater services are fully operational is critical to containing COVID-19 and protecting Americans from other public health risks,” Wheeler said. “Handwashing and cleaning depend on providing safe and reliable drinking water and effective treatment of wastewater.”

Wheeler also said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security recognizes water and wastewater treatment workers and their suppliers as essential critical infrastructure workers and urged state and local officials to “ensure that these workers and businesses receive the access, credentials, and essential status necessary to sustain our nation’s critical infrastructure.”

LeFleur agrees with Homeland Security’s designation of essential workers.

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“From an environmental standpoint, nothing is more important than maintaining clean drinking water,” he said. “While coronavirus does not in itself pose a threat to our drinking water, nor to our wastewater treatment systems, it would be impossible to fight the virus without clean water. Our water systems and their employees are essential, and from our standpoint, so too are the people, our people, whose job is to make sure those systems are safe and well-maintained.”

Aubrey White heads the drinking water branch of ADEM’s Water Division, which oversees municipal and rural water systems as part of the agency’s authority delegated by the EPA to carry out the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act in Alabama. ADEM does this through enforcement of regulations, construction and operating permits, robust monitoring and reporting, and frequent inspections of the nearly 600 public water systems in the state.

“Obviously, this is a huge responsibility given us, and we take that responsibility very seriously,” White said. “Even as a lot of business and state agencies have curtailed activities due to COVID-19-related mandates, we must continue the monitoring, inspections, reporting and enforcement of the regulations that help ensure our water is clean and safe and will remain clean and safe.”

An example of ADEM’s continuing efforts to safeguard public health is the State Revolving Fund (SRF), through which the agency provides low-interest loans to public water, wastewater and stormwater management systems to pay for infrastructure improvement projects. Three such projects recently were awarded funding by ADEM totaling millions of dollars and are currently in the public comment period – $1.25 million to the Grand Bay Water Works Board in Mobile County for a new wastewater treatment unit; $1.2 million to Phenix City for a sanitary sewer lift station; and $462,000 to Spanish Fort to restore and improve a drainage canal.

“Some of these projects might not be possible if not for the financial assistance we help provide,” said Kris Berry, chief of ADEM’s State Revolving Fund section. “These projects were proposed by the local authorities based on what they need to maintain and improve their safe water managing systems, reviewed by our staff and opened to the public to weigh in.”

Created by 1982 Law

Making sure our drinking water is safe is just one of the many vital roles ADEM performs. Protecting the state’s air, water and land by enforcing state and federal rules and regulations is why ADEM exists.

ADEM traces its roots to the Alabama Environmental Management Act, passed by the Alabama Legislature in 1982 to create a comprehensive program of environmental management for the state. The law created the Alabama Environmental Management Commission and established ADEM as the vehicle to absorb several commissions, agencies, programs and staffs that had been responsible for implementing environmental laws.

 ADEM, with 575 employees at its headquarters in Montgomery and regional offices in Birmingham, Decatur and Mobile, administers all major federal environmental laws. These include the Clean Air, Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts and federal solid and hazardous waste laws.

During the current health crisis, LeFleur said his agency is following the new mandates issued by Gov. Kay Ivey and the state health officer to curtail the spread of COVID-19, which means some employees are working remotely. However, ADEM offices are operating under normal business hours while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

“All essential functions of the department are being performed,” the director said. “All citizen complaints received by ADEM will be investigated, and they can be submitted and tracked electronically. In addition, ADEM staff is readily accessible, and public contact is available seamlessly by phone and email.”

ADEM’s website, www.adem.alabama.gov, provides plenty of useful information, LeFleur said. Website visitors can keep up with current issues, including notices, comment periods and contact information, as well as enforcement actions.

If past public health and public safety crises are an indication, ADEM could be called on to help in another way. ADEM trucks and vehicles are available to the Alabama Emergency Management Agency to transport medical supplies and other uses. LeFleur said those vehicles helped transport supplies following the Gulf oil spill as well as in the aftermath of hurricanes and tornadoes that struck the state.

Helping Protect Jobs

LeFleur said ADEM continues to work with local economic development offices concerning new industry. These efforts help protect current jobs and provides assistance to industry that create new jobs. In addition to the current SRF loan projects, other programs through which ADEM provides assistance include scrap tire cleanups, unauthorized dump cleanups, recycling grants, water and air quality monitoring, weather forecasting, underground storage tank monitoring and cleanups, anti-litter campaigns and brownfield cleanup program.

“The fact is, we are doing a lot that the public is not aware of to assist businesses and local governments,” LeFleur said. “That is especially important now when everyone is eager for the coronavirus crisis to end and for people to go back to work.

“That is not to say, however, that we are going easy on them. To the contrary, if they violate their permits and regulations and cause environmental harm, rest assured we are going to hold them accountable. Our job one is protecting Alabama’s water, air and land resources, and by extension public safety. That is what we are continuing to do.”

 

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Environment

Department of Conservation says most state parks will stay open

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said last week that most of their outdoor facilities remain open for recreation.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ADCNR has made a number of temporary changes to its business operations for the safety of its employees and the general public. The changes will be in effect until at least April 6, 2020.

Alabama State Parks and associated facilities remain open with the exception of cave tours at Rickwood and Cathedral Caverns state parks.

Some dining operations will be modified to limit close contact of guests.

The Alabama Political Reporter was in Eufaula on Thursday and ate breakfast at Lakepoint Lodge’s formal dining room, but by that night the restaurant had become carryout only and the seafood buffet scheduled for Friday night was discontinued.

“Park visitors are encouraged to follow all current hand washing and social distancing guidelines,” ADCNR wrote in a statement. “For updates, please follow Alabama State Parks on social media.”

ADCNR said that all state public fishing lakes remain open as well as all ADCNR shooting and archery ranges.

ADCNR Wildlife Management Areas and Special Opportunity Areas remain open.

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“ADCNR’s state and district offices are closed to the public with the exception of the Marine Resources Division offices in Gulf Shores and Dauphin Island,” ADCNR said. “Those offices will be open for commercial license sales only on Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

ADCNR Law Enforcement Offices are also closed to the public but remain staffed to answer questions by phone. More information is available here.

To report hunting or fishing violations, please call (800) 272-GAME.

Conservation Enforcement Officers will continue to patrol state land and waterways and render aid to the public. Forever Wild tracts remain open for hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, paddling, and hunting — as permitted.

The 5 Rivers Delta Resources Center facilities are closed, but the grounds remain open to the public during regular business hours for trail use and kayak launching.

Hunting and fishing licenses are still available online, through the Outdoor AL mobile app, or at various license agents located throughout the state.

Due to the evolving nature of the pandemic, ADCNR recommends calling individual state parks and other facilities if you have questions about reservations or operational hours. Contact information can be found here.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources promotes wise stewardship, management and enjoyment of Alabama’s natural resources through four divisions: Marine Resources, State Lands, State Parks, and Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

 

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Congress

Democrats reject coronovirus bill, saying more is needed for working people

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, said he voted Sunday evening against moving forward a $1.6 trillion emergency rescue package during a procedural vote because it doesn’t go far enough to help working people who need relief the most.

“We need a strong, bipartisan package that directly assists our workers, our health care providers, and vulnerable folks who need it most,” Jones said in a statement. “We have no time to waste, so I am hopeful that this failed vote reiterates the message to Leader McConnell that the time for games is over and we need to move tonight to a bill that can receive broad support from the Senate and also pass in the House. We’ve got more work to do on this bill to make sure we’re not leaving working families behind.”

Democrats say the bill too heavily favored corporations and their executives, and does too little to help working people. Democrats also said the package didn’t include money for state and local governments,  and only provided three months of unemployment insurance, according to Politico.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. had postponed the vote earlier on Sunday when it became clear not enough Democrats supported it to move it forward.

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Environment

“It’s their choice. Individual freedom:” Alabama beaches to remain open for now

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism president said that the families and college students at Alabama’s beaches this week are there by “individual choice.” 

As beaches in some parts of Florida closed in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Alabama’s coastline this week remained busy. 

Photos shared widely on social media show a crowded Orange Beach, with college-aged people lying close to one another on beach towels, and splashing in the surf. 

Public health officials caution against standing within 6 feet of others, or risk exposure to the virus that’s infected more than 7,000 in the U.S. and killed more than 100. The Baldwin County Commission on Saturday declared a local state of emergency due to the pandemic. 

Herb Malone, president of  Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism, said during a press conference Wednesday that people visiting the beaches during spring break this week are making an “individual choice” to do so. 

Malone said the area is in the middle of spring break and is running at about “70 percent capacity.” 

“We do have families with children. We do have college kids who are very pleased to be here…so we welcome them this year,” Malone said. 

“Our questions are, why are they still here? Because it’s their choice. Individual freedom,” Malone said. “People have spent money to get here. They’ve made reservations some time ago.”

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The remarks Wednesday came as a leader of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force urged young people to take the virus seriously. She urged young people to heed the advice to socially distance and be wary of the coronavirus pandemic even though they do not fall in the highest risk groups, CNN reported.

“There are concerning reports coming out of France and Italy about some young people getting seriously ill and very seriously ill in the ICUs,” Birx said.

“We think part of this may be that people heeded the early data coming out of China and coming out of South Korea of the elderly or those with preexisting medical conditions were a particular risk,” she continued. “It may have been that the millennial generation … there may be disproportional number of infections among that group and so even if it’s a rare occurrence it may be seen more frequently in that group.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday declined to issue an order to close the state’s beaches, and instead ordered beachgoers refrain from gathering in groups of 10 or more. 

“What we’re going to be doing for the statewide floor for beaches, we’re going to be applying the CDC guidance of no group on a beach more than 10 and you have to have distance apart if you’re going to be out there, so that applies statewide,” DeSantis told reporters. 

Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach announced they would close their beaches this week, however, and the City of Boca Raton followed and also closed beaches.

Joining Malone at the press conference Wednesday was the Baldwin County Emergency Management Agency Director Zach Hood, and Alabama’s assistant state health officer Dr. Karen Landers, who joined by phone. 

Neither Hood nor Landers spoke about the beachgoers or the threat they faced from contracting COVID-19 by congregating in large numbers. 

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon has asked Gov. Kay Ivey to close the public beaches, Al.com reported Wednesday. 

Asked at an earlier press conference on Wednesday if she was considering closing the beaches, Ivey said, “Certainly that’s under consideration, but we’re exploring efforts to protect the people of Alabama, but, if we decide to make that announcement we’ll do that at a later date.”

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