Prioritizing scientific research will help Alaska adapt to approaching change

There are big changes afoot in our waters and lands. This is, of course, obvious, especially to those who have lived so closely linked to the land. Perhaps it's obvious everywhere — in California, where rain has finally fallen after months of drought, and in New England, where snowplows have struggled to plow through unprecedented dumps.

But in Alaska, things are happening very fast indeed. Patterns in place for so long that no one questioned them — weather patterns, migratory patterns, currents — are all changing. Those of us not intrinsically involved in the science of Alaska may have caught wind of these changes through news stories or witnessing dramatic events.

But scientists have front-row seats on this movie of change playing out in Alaska. These people have enough knowledge to know what a few degrees difference in water temperature can mean for a fish, or the impact a new species can have in an area. They see weather pattern shifts with concern rather than pleasure at sunny, 80-degree days in a land where none were before. In short, they have the perspective to interpret the implications these changes have for all of us.

But here's the rub — at a time when these people should have every resource at their disposal to help understand these changes and perhaps prepare in whatever way possible for the ones to come, state funding for research and observation has been cut.

One example of this is in fisheries, so vital to Alaska's economy, not to mention subsistence larders. Last year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game took an estimated 18 percent budget cut, according to a report by staff to the United Fishermen of Alaska this fall. This year, it's looking at another 10 percent cut.

As a result, many programs studying stock assessments, even for the state's most revered species, salmon, were significantly cut back. That means less information about changes, stock assessments or anomalies during a time when anomalies seem to be the norm.

And there's no budget, absolutely none, to investigate the many strange happenings in statewide waters. Species are turning up, seemingly from nowhere, in areas that they haven't been seen in for many decades. All the fisheries biologists can do is shrug their shoulders and guess. They can't tell you why the fish aren't where they usually are, or where these new fish came from, or why. They can't tell any of us because we aren't making funding their efforts a priority.


When you start asking biologists things, like why a species is exhibiting a certain behavior, or even simple things, like how long a humpback whale lives, you would be surprised how little concrete knowledge we have about our natural world. That's unfortunate, because it limits our capacity to see changes when they occur.

If we had any common sense, we would throw every resource we had at the feet of Alaska's biologists, scientists, researchers and those with a firm grasp on the natural world and ask them to help us. We no longer have decades to study changes to our environment; we have months, maybe years, to prepare for the changes coming at us. Imagine you are driving a car down a freeway and another driver just veered into oncoming traffic and punched the gas pedal.

Science is arguably the only force that will help steer us through the maze, help us evolve at a speed matching our changing world. As Alaska grapples with its fiscal crisis, Alaskans need to rethink the priority science has been given in our fiscal structure. We need things like roads and police, but we also need now, more than ever, research and monitoring and the resources to aid scientists in their efforts.

Carey Restino is the editor of Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and The Arctic Sounder, where this commentary first appeared.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com.