With recent vacancies in the Pacific Northwest Research Station, Alaska’s senators and U.S. Forest Service officials are pushing for a fish habitat scientist to be brought to Juneau.
“It only makes sense that fisheries research in Alaska should be conducted by staff in Alaska, not from a remote office located in another state,” Sen. Mark Begich wrote to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in July. “Further, the U.S. Forest Service has a number of pressing issues and initiatives that justify an Alaska-based fisheries position.”
Begich said the most pressing issues were climate change vulnerability research, watershed restoration and monitoring, fish stream crossings and the Tongass Land Management Plan Amendment scientific assessments.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski agrees that any scientist conducting research on Alaskan fisheries should be based in the state.
“Given the importance of Alaska’s fisheries to the region, it’s usually preferable to have a biologist actually stationed in Alaska to ensure they have firsthand knowledge of the specific issues facing southeast fisheries,” Murkowski’s spokesperson Robert Dillon said.
According to Yasmeen Sands at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station, no recent research vacancies for the station have been filled. The committee is still reviewing applications and determining placement.
Sands pointed out that the most recent fisheries research for the Pacific Northwest has focused on how stream temperature affects salmon populations.
“We have the looming issue of climate change,” said Wayne Owen, a director for U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region. “We’d like to know what it takes to keep (fisheries) intact.”
The Tongass National Forest provides about 28 percent of the state’s salmon production every year, but the healthy and sustainable fisheries here may face threats in the future, Forest Service officials argue.
In addition to climate change, effective watershed and stream management is also important to understand, as the Forest Service management plan moves toward young growth harvesting of timber, said Ron Medel, a fisheries program manager for the Tongass based in Ketchikan.
“We are falling behind in terms of protecting on the ground,” he said. “We want to keep this thing healthy.”
Medel is hopeful that the researcher may still come to Juneau.
“This is a federal issue,” he said. “I don’t think it’s done.”
The fisheries research position in Juneau has been vacant for several years, according to Sue Alexander, program manager of the Juneau Forestry Sciences Laboratory. Alexander said she would not be surprised if the position didn’t come to Alaska because it is easier for the Forest Service to fill a position that has just been vacated than one that has been empty for at least five years.
“Typically, the scientists work across state boundaries,” Alexander said. “There are a lot of needs across both states.”
Acknowledging the needs for researchers in Washington and Oregon, Owen said the U.S. Forest Service cannot ignore the importance of the salmon industry, which provides about 10 percent of jobs in the Tongass and has major cultural significance for the communities and tribes of the region.
Salmon in the southeast “permeates so much of everything we do,” he said. “It’s a billion-dollar industry, and not just for the fishermen.”
In 2013, southeast Alaska harvested a record of 272 million salmon from the region, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The value of the harvest was at $691.1 million, second only to the $724 million harvest in 1988.
“The bottom line is that the Forest Service, the State of Alaska, and their partners would greatly benefit from having a research biologist based in Juneau to whom Alaskans could directly address aquatic resource questions — and who could work on Alaska issues in Alaska,” Begich said.