Fish and Game could get 10% boost

Part of state spending would help get SE Alaska biologists off federal funding

Posted: Thursday, December 29, 2005

Some spending items tucked into the governor's recent state budget proposal are getting cheers from commercial fishermen.

After many years of stagnant funding, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game could get an increase of nearly 10 percent, or an additional $10 million, in state general fund allocations during the next state budget cycle, beginning July 1.

The increased state funding could provide a major boost to fisheries management in Southeast Alaska, which now relies heavily on federal funds.

About a decade ago, the state began using federal grants to pay a large chunk of the salaries of commercial fisheries managers and researchers in Southeast Alaska. It's been the status quo ever since.

"We have quite a few of our biologists who have been on federal funding for at least 10 years," said Denby Lloyd, the department's commercial fisheries division chief in Juneau.

"Truthfully, a lot of us would like to see less reliance on federal dollars because that money isn't coming forever," said Kathy Hansen, a Juneau salmon fisherman who also runs the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance.

In fact, federal spending on Alaska fisheries funneled through the U.S. Commerce Department is expected to decline from $58 million to $51 million next year, according to Fish and Game officials.

"This (budget) request comes just in the nick of time," Lloyd said.

Without adequate funding over the years, "many (statewide) fishery programs have languished," added Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska in Juneau.

"It all starts with the science. We have to support the biologists on the fishing grounds," Vinsel said, noting that it has been hard for Fish and Game to retain top-level biologists in recent years.

The governor's proposed budget would allocate $400,000 to fully fund the salaries of 11 existing regional management biologists in Douglas, Ketchikan, Petersburg and Yakutat with state general-fund dollars, Lloyd said.

The budget proposal also would replace about $600,000 in federal funding that pays toward the salaries of six other Fish and Game employees who work on regional and international fishery issues.

The proposal also would increase the statewide salmon stock assessment program spending by $1.1 million. That's after previous spending cuts that decimated the program and resulted in the closure of fish weirs across Alaska.

That's just a few of the spending increases - totaling $4.9 million - that Gov. Frank Murkowski has proposed for the commercial fisheries division's operating budget.

The governor's budget also would increase Fish and Game's wildlife conservation division's operating budget by $4.4 million. The sportfish division would receive a $3.5 million increase.

Many other state departments would get increased funds for their operating budgets. For example, the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities would get a 13.7 percent boost and the Department of Public Safety would get a 9 percent boost in their proposed operating budgets.

The proposal to increase Fish and Game's budget will bring some needed relief, said Sarah Gilbertson, spokeswoman for the department.

Without the proposed spending, the department would have to chip away funding from existing projects to pay escalating administrative costs, such as payments to the state retirement system, Gilbertson said.

Roughly $4.4 million of Fish and Game's proposed budget relief would be devoted to salary increases and the retirement system, Gilbertson said.

House and Senate Finance committee co-chairmen could not be reached for comment about the proposed increases for Fish and Game on Wednesday afternoon.

In the past, they haven't always been receptive.

"Over time, what has happened is that the Legislature really has been stingy with the Fish and Game budget," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.

Some past controversial management decisions have caused the Legislature to retaliate against needed budget increases for Fish and Game, Elton said.

Elton predicted there would be debate over the increases for all of the departments, but he said he hoped the Legislature "isn't going to micro-manage based on what has happened with Fish and Game in the past."

"It's better to look at the big-ticket items and let the state managers get the dollars they need" for their jobs, Elton added.

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at elizabeth.bluemink@juneauempire.com.



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