Just under $1 million was cut from the commercial fisheries division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game under Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget vetoes, leaving it with an $85 million budget, half from state general funds.
“To give the governor credit, he recognized the return on investment,” said Doug Vincent-Lang, Fish and Game commissioner. “It’s a theme I had all the way through the Legislature that we take a $200 million budget of which about $50 million is unrestricted general funds and we turn that into an $11 billion return to our state. And I think he got that.”
Vincent-Lang added that Dunleavy also did not veto the travel budget for the Board of Fisheries and its advisory committees.
It’s indefinite still how the budget cuts will play out, and Vincent-Lang said he is trying to avoid staff cuts to the 700 commercial fisheries positions.
“I suspect we may have some but we will try to do that through vacancies and a variety of other things as we have retirements,” he said.
Also set to get axed is funding for research projects, such as salmon inseason sampling and Tanner crab surveys at Prince William Sound, and five salmon weirs at Kodiak and Chignik. Salmon counting is likely to be reduced at the Yukon River’s Eagle and Pilot Station sonars, along with various stock assessment surveys for groundfish.
“I’ve asked my staff to look at their overall program, and not necessarily cut the projects, but take the ones that have the least impact on the management of our fisheries across our state in terms of economic value back and cut those,” he explained, acknowledging that the cutbacks could lead to more cautious management.
“Clearly, any time you reduce your forecast ability you become more precautionary in your inseason management approach until you can become more certain,” he said.
Vincent-Lang said the state hopes to form local partnerships to help fund shortfalls, “like the Bristol Bay Science Initiative and Yukon River tribal groups to try to find ways that we can replace that money to ensure that we minimize the impact to our ongoing management programs.”
Those partnerships “are the path forward” for Alaska’s fishing industry to jointly fund research, he stressed.
“If we are going to be continually dependent on state general funds, that presents a challenge,” he said. “We need to look for ways to partner with different groups to get a diversified funding stream.”
Partnership also will be important to fund Fish and Game’s special areas management, which is facing a $280,000 budget cut for its oversight of 12 game refuges, 17 critical habitat areas and three wildlife sanctuaries. Vincent-Lang said using hunting dollars with matching grants in some areas will help make up for that budget shortfall.
“The rest of the department, like the sportfish and wildlife divisions, are largely funded by federal funds that are dedicated to those activities and we match them with hunting and sport fishing license dollars. There’s very little state general funds in those divisions,” he explained.
The Habitat and Subsistence Divisions will remain under the auspices of Fish and Game, despite reports that two director-level positions and associated funding would move to the Office of Management and Budget. Vincent-Lang said those two positions were open when he took the job and he opted not to fill them.
“I didn’t want to lose actual staff members in those divisions that were equal to a director position,” he explained. “If a director position cost $200,000 I would have lost three or four staff members in both divisions to make up for that. I willingly gave up those two positions to OMB because they needed them, but the activity they were doing remains under the supervision of ADF&G.”
The total budget for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is $200 million.
College produces state workers
Several hundred of Alaska’s fishery managers are graduates of the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, an arm of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The college offers degree programs in fisheries, marine biology and oceanography, and of its nearly 1,000 graduates over half have come out of the fisheries program and work in the state.
“That is a remarkable number. I don’t know any other fishery department in the country that can say half of their graduates still work in their home state,” said Brad Moran, dean of the college, adding that the college has seen steady year-over-year increases in enrollment of undergraduates.
Moran is awaiting the fallout from Gov. Dunleavy’s evisceration of the university budget. The College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, which has a staff and faculty of about 140, also operates campuses in Juneau and Kodiak and its collaboration with Alaska Sea Grant extends its reach to a dozen more locations. Moran said nothing is safe.
“There’s not any faculty, staff, student or location that will not be impacted should the veto for the university budget not be overridden, “he said. “That has to be crystal clear. There is nothing that will be left untouched,”
With the number of incoming state dollars driven by the university, Moran said he just doesn’t get it.
“It’s been shown that for every dollar the state spends, we’re bringing in about $6 university-wide to the state. I don’t see how you cannot say that’s a great turn on investment,” Moran said.
Moran pointed to the college-operated research icebreaker Sikuliaq, homeported at Seward, as an example.
“We are entrusted to operate a $200 million federal asset in that vessel, which is owned and paid for by the National Science Foundation. All of the funding for that ship is externally coming into the state. That’s only one example of state dollars driven by the university,” Moran said.
He added that Alaska’s university teachers and researchers are at the forefront in the world in terms of rapidly changing ocean and Arctic conditions.
“All require basic research and those investments from the federal government are leveraged by the state one dollar on six,” he emphasized.
“You can always look for economies of scale and improvements in cost efficiency,” Moran added. “What you cannot do is drop the hammer overnight to this extent and expect an organization to deliver the same kind of value to the state. But we will do our very best.”
Alaskans Own delivers
Alaskans Own, a Sitka-based seafood delivery service, is celebrating 10 years of providing local fish not to Outsiders, but to other Alaskans - the majority of whom can’t get their hands on the best fish out there.
“It’s a crazy statistic that just 1% of the seafood that is caught in Alaska stays in Alaska, so 99% is exported,” said Natalie Armstrong, outreach assistant for Alaskans Own, a Community Supported Fishery project of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.
The CSF follows a more well-known agriculture model that bridges the gap “from farm to table.”
“We’re bridging the gap from ocean to table and connecting more communities to their seafood,” Armstrong said.
Alaskans Own has over 300 subscribers who from May to October can choose different sized packages of portioned halibut, salmon, lingcod, shrimp, sablefish and more. The fish is shipped to hubs in Sitka, Anchorage, Seattle, Juneau and Fairbanks and also to Outside customers.
“Anyone can choose what they want. They can get a mixed bag or 40 pounds of coho and we ship it right to their door,” Armstrong said.
A fleet of 100 boats fish for the CSF, and all profits go to the Fishery Conservation Network, an ALFA offshoot that partners fishermen with scientists in local research projects.
Armstrong is hopeful other Alaska fishing towns will create CSFs to promote their small boat fleets and protective fishing practices.