Chinook research funding a casualty of Walker budget cuts

Research biologist Jim Miller chats with a group about the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's sonar projects on the Kenai River August 15, 2013 in Kenai. Several in the group had questions about the veracity of the department's chinook salmon measuring programs on the Kenai River.

Gov. Bill Walker’s plans for Alaska involve a lot of budget cutting, and a vital research project for king salmon is on the slab.

 

As petroleum prices dive and Alaska finances look grim, the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative is one of many items Walker cut from former Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposed capital budget, potentially halting several ongoing programs and complicating an Alaska fishery regulatory item.

Parnell introduced the $30 million initiative into his budget in 2012 to study declining Alaska chinook salmon stocks. Parnell’s plan gave an initial $10 million to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, and was to include an additional $20 million over the subsequent four years for a total $30 million, five-year effort. To date, the state has given $15 million of the planned $30 million in two payments of $7.5 million. Parnell had proposed $5 million in the fiscal year 2016 budget.

State legislators from rural districts have a stake in continuing the research on chinook runs. Subsistence communities in the Yukon and Kuskokwim river valleys use 85 percent of the salmon subsistence allocations, and the commercial revenue from other salmon species has been an important offset to fewer kings. State Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, says he definitely plans to lobby for the chinook research money to be put back in the budget.

Others are doubtful that the state has another $15 million to spare. Sen. Mike Dunleavy, R-Wasilla, said through his office that he doesn’t plan on fighting to get the money back considering the fiscal climate.

“It’s a big ticket item,” said Dunleavy spokesman John Wood. “I don’t see us fighting to get that put back in. It’s a lot of money. We’re just in dire financial times.”

Until the state Legislature decides on a final budget and Walker approves it, the research will continue as planned with existing funds.

Ed Jones, who oversees the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative for ADFG, says the department has only spent about half the allocated $15 million from the last three years and should have plenty to see them through their current project schedule.

“The $30 million over five years is still the game plan,” said Jones. “We have enough money to weather the storm another year. Next year at this time, if we don’t see any more money, then that’s when the alarm bells will be going off. But we’re not there yet. We have a cushion for now.”

Most of the supplies and plans for the 2016 fiscal year’s chinook initiative have already been secured or are in the process of being secured. More than 30 projects will go into the water from the Yukon River to Southeast Alaska. ADFG will tag juvenile salmon in the Kenai River and continue on adult mark-recapture programs in the Yukon, Kuskokwim, and Nushagak rivers. ADFG has already ordered boats and tags and has begun hiring crew.

The uncertainty will kick in depending on the final fiscal year 2016 budget, which takes effect July 1. If ADFG doesn’t see a continuation of the chinook initiative funding, directors will have to pull resources off most projects and focus on the three biggest chinook runs: the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Nushagak.

ADFG has only recently been able to undertake the best available research on the three western Alaska rivers using chinook initiative funds. Up to this point, surveys of salmon swimming upriver have been made mostly with weirs and sonar, which lack accuracy and efficiency due to river breadth and chinook behavioral patterns.

The most accurate method is an expensive and labor-intensive mark-recapture system, where researchers tag downriver salmon and measure the percentage of marked salmon upriver later in the season. This research could prove critical for clarifying the chinook decline causes and effects, which remain complex and shadowy after a jarring seven-year decline.

It also could effect a proposed action by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. At its December meeting, the council reviewed several options to reduce chinook and chum salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea pollock fishery.

One alternative includes lowering the pollock fleet’s bycatch allocation in “years of low abundance,” the definition of which would rely heavily on an abundance index from the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Nushagak rivers.

Up to this point, that kind of science hasn’t been used in determining Bering Sea bycatch limits, which worries the commercial fishing industry. Most public comment on this option expressed anxiety about imprecise science and untested methods. If the chinook initiative money doesn’t come through and the abundance indices suffer in quality and scope, the three-river index’s credibility could be undermined.

Furthermore, the cuts could put existing projects under the chinook initiative’s scope and dwindle its resources. Parnell’s administration rerouted $2.5 million of the first two planned $10 million chinook initiative payments to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough for salmon drainage studies, for a two-year total of $15 million to ADFG and $5 million to Mat-Su Borough. The $5 million for Susitna salmon will run out in 2016. The chinook initiative will take over responsibility Susitna drainage studies, spreading thin what would already potentially be a slashed operation schedule.

Jones of ADFG is hopeful about some or all of the money making its way back into the budget, considering the amount of focus the ADFG has put on the chinook initiative since its inception. When the Parnell administration began the payments, it emphasized that king salmon should be ADFG’s number one priority. The department did prioritize, and now worries that some of those efforts could be wasted.

The amount of time needed for certain studies exceeds the three-year window the chinook initiative opened for the ADFG. In-river surveys are instant, but marine survival studies of juvenile salmon require long timelines and the resources to back them up. The causes behind king salmon declines are unknown, and a large-looming unknown factor could be what happens while the salmon mature in the open ocean between spawning and their return to natal streams.

“You get pushback (from staff),” Jones said. “A lot of these projects, you need a decade to really establish a good time frame, and they’re skeptical about anything ever being long enough term to do what it’s supposed to do.”

• DJ Summers is a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

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