Fisheries projects throughout the state would receive a boost in the Alaska Legislature’s budget.
The Legislature’s fiscal year 2014 capital budget included more than $12 million to study Alaska’s fisheries, much of it for work in Cook Inlet including drainages in the Matanuska-Susitna borough.
Topping the list of projects was $7.5 million for Gov. Sean Parnell’s Chinook Salmon Research Initiative. In Parnell’s version of the budget, that item came in at $10 million. Parnell’s research initiative included an additional $20 million over the subsequent four years, for a total $30 million, five-year effort.
The initiative, which was a response to declining king salmon runs throughout the state, is meant to look at what was happening to the salmon. As proposed, the undertaking would look at 12 indicator river systems from Southeast Alaska to the Arctic, gain a better understanding of the factors affecting salmon, and offer strategies to enhance viability and increase returns.
The budget would also include $2.5 million to look at Susitna River drainage salmon and $2 million for king salmon in Northern Cook Inlet.
Those projects would be undertaken by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Fish and Game’s Susitna drainage project would look at research, restoration and enhancement, while the Northern Cook Inlet funding is specifically for enhancement.
Fish and Game Deputy Commissioner Kevin Brooks said additional research would receive funding in the Legislature’s operating budget, as subcommittees added money for certain work that wasn’t part of the department’s request. That research includes sampling, salmon enhancement, monitoring escapements and genetics work.
The Matanuska-Susitna Borough would also receive $2.5 million for fisheries and fish protection in the capital budget. That was on top of the $4.5 million the Legislature would give Fish and Game in the capital budget for work on stocks that eventually return to drainages in the Matanuska-Susitna, and $250,000 in the operating budget.
The Mat-Su was the only borough to directly receive fisheries funding in the capital budget.
Borough Public Affairs Director Patty Sullivan said she attributed the successful bid for funding to the borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission and to the legislators who listened.
The borough asked for fisheries funding in its legislative priorities at the start of the session, and the commission spent time in Juneau talking about the plight of area stocks.
The commission’s pitch focused on the status of current stocks, and what it means for the borough’s economy. In 2012, 13 of 17 goals for king salmon escapements were missed in Mat-Su waterways, and sportfishing had its lowest participation in 35 years. That’s a change from prior years, when the area welcomed much of the state’s sportfishing. In 2007, anglers spent $733 million, generating 8,056 jobs and $55 million in local and state taxes.
The money would be used to look at both the biological and economic sides of the area’s fisheries that have been impacted by recent shortfalls.
Funding would go to the borough’s culvert replacement program, genetics sampling, Board of Fisheries preparations and a socio-economic analysis of fisheries.
The borough has been working on replacing culverts to enhance fish passage where roads cross streams, and the funding would increase the rate at which that work was completed. The money would also enable the borough to hire a fisheries biologist to prepare for the upcoming Board of Fisheries cycle, which will deal with Cook Inlet, including the Mat-Su area, issues.
Support for the borough’s request also came from a coalition of Cook Inlet advocates including Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Alaska Salmon Alliance, Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and the borough’s commission. The coalition supported the borough’s request to do genetics work on coho salmon, as well as other research.
Brooks said the Legislature also added funding for several items on the operating budget side. Those additions came largely in subcommittees.
The department’s commercial fisheries division would receive $273,000 for mixed stock sampling in Upper Cook Inlet, $200,000 to study salmon enhancement efforts in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, $250,000 for genetics work in the Susitna drainage and $165,000 for aerial surveys in Southeast Alaska.
The budget also included $238,500 to monitor coho escapement at five weirs in the Matanuska-Susitna region. The weirs are currently used for king salmon enumeration, and the additional funding will allow them to be used for coho work, too.
Alexander Creek would receive its own funding to the tune of $300,000 for salmon escapement monitoring.
Brooks said that those items were determined in the conference committee, after the House and Senate came up with different versions of the operating budget.
This soon after the Legislature adjourned, he said it was possible the department had not yet found every item in the budget. They will be looking line-by-line to ensure they spotted everything, he said.
The budget is still subject to Parnell’s approval, so not every item is guaranteed yet.
The fiscal year 2014 funding kicks in July 1, so some of the fisheries research will begin this summer, while other projects will wait until the summer of 2014, Brooks said.
For the weir projects, most will already be operational, and it would simply be a matter of extending the season, he said. But for Alexander Creek, where there isn’t a weir, the equipment would likely be purchased this fall, but it wouldn’t be operational until April or May 2014.
Fish and Game is still trying to determine how exactly the projects will be executed, Brooks said.
The Legislature also added certain reporting requirements to the operating budget.
Provisions in the operating budget require Fish and Game to report to the Legislature about its work in the Cook Inlet area on escapement monitoring, genetics work, mixed stock sampling, and other studies. The first report is due in January 2014, with the next two due in January 2015 and 2016. The contents of each, including what work should be done at each time period, would be prescribed in the budget.
Brooks said that such a requirement isn’t usual, but it also isn’t unheard of. He said it was sort of a culmination of all the interest in upcoming fisheries research projects. The information is largely compiled in other reports, so it would primarily be a synthesis effort, he said.
Not every effort to fund salmon research passed this session.
Bills in the House and Senate to create a king salmon endowment did not pass.
Sen. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, introduced House Bill 49 to create that endowment as a prefile bill.
The Chinook Research and Restoration Endowment was a fund, grant account and oversight body to benefit king salmon in perpetuity.
HB 49 received support from a statewide mix of representatives and was heard in the House Fisheries Committee, but it did not move after being referred to House Finance in March.
SB 69 was a parallel effort introduced by Sen. Donny Olson, D-Golovin. That was heard in Senate Resources, but did not gain traction after it was moved to the Senate Finance Committee.
Those will remain active when the Legislature convenes next year.
The capital budget also included $5.5 million for wild/hatchery management tools. Brooks said that money doesn’t represent any new state funds for the project. Last year, $3.5 million was appropriated. This year, the number is just being updated to show that an additional $2 million in other funds have been added to the project. That $2 million is from seafood processors, he said.
The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute would also receive $300,000 for a canned salmon, herring and protein powder research project.
The Legislature would fund other enhancement work in the form of money for several regional aquaculture associations, or RAA. That money goes directly to the RAA, and does not fund Fish and Game work.
The Yakutat RAA would receive $100,000 for an update to its salmon plan and other work, the Southern Southeast RAA $500,000 for water supply infrastructure, and the Kodiak RAA $3.3 million for work at the Kitoi Bay Hatchery.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.