Gov. Sean Parnell's 2012 budget for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is more about maintenance than an arranged marriage between divisions of sport and commercial fishing.
Parnell's statement Nov. 18 in Anchorage that he was interested in exploring better coordination and perhaps even consolidation between the two divisions in the interest of ending the Southcentral "fish wars" raised anticipation for his first budget as an elected governor.
The 2012 fiscal year budget released Dec. 15 shows that Parnell plans on working on the department culture first before considering changing its structure.
"I'm going to wait for (acting commissioner) Cora Campbell and the other members of leadership to make those recommendations to me," Parnell said. "That's one of the things about this budget. It has been in development since July. It was with prior commissioners in some instances.
"I have given direction that we'd like to see better coordination with the data sets. If there is a suggestion in how to do that and a promise of results for Alaskans, I'd be supportive of that moving forward."
Campbell, who took over as acting commissioner Dec. 1, has been approved by the joint boards of fish and game. The full Legislature must now confirm her.
Like the rest of state agencies, the total increase for Fish and Game was capped at 1.8 percent for a total of $197.1 million for the 2012 fiscal year beginning July 1, 2011. Unrestricted general funds for the department increased 7.5 percent, or $4.8 million, to plug funding gaps caused by declining user fees in the sport fishing and game divisions.
The sport fishing division, with a total budget of $48.4 million for 2012, expects a decline of $1.82 million in revenue from licenses and other user fees. An additional $1.05 million in unrestricted general funds is a 21.8 percent increase versus 2011 to narrow the division's overall funding decline to 1.7 percent.
Subsistence, a unit within the department's administration and support division, also saw an overall 1.7 percent decline in its total budget to $5.8 million, a difference of $99,800 attributable to the loss of a one-time appropriation for $270,000 in 2011 for Yukon chinook salmon disaster research.
Commercial fishing, the department's largest division with a budget of $66.1 million, has a 3.8 percent increase in 2012, mostly because of required cost of living adjustments and health benefits for personnel.
The wildlife conservation division has a 3.4 percent overall increase to $43 million, about $24.1 million of that in federal funding. The total Fish and Game Department budget includes $62.6 million in federal funding, a 0.7 percent increase versus 2011.
The habitat division budget increased 3 percent to $4.2 million, mostly with a $103,000 appropriation for the addition of a new staff position in Fairbanks to coordinate planning and permitting for gasline projects. Two other personnel were transferred to the habitat office in Fairbanks to handle planning and permitting for gasline projects.
Multiple factors preclude an easy consolidation of sport and commercial fishing divisions. For one, federal funding streams have dedicated purposes and required state matches. The same goes for user fees on fish and game licenses.
"None of that negates us from doing the best job we can of being good public stewards and spending public money as efficiently as we can," said Kevin Brooks, the new director of administrative services at Fish and Game. Brooks spent 10 years at the department before spending the last six with the Department of Administration.
"We want to look at those research programs and confirm we're doing the best job we can," Brooks said. "There isn't a legal restriction on doing that. There is more of a legal mandate, a responsibility, that we do things as best we can."
The differing data sets referenced often by Parnell are also not easily reconciled according to sport fishing division director Charles Swanton.
An example of different data sets would be the fish counters at different locations on the Kenai River. One counter is for measuring sockeye and another counter is for chinook salmon. It is an easier task to discount the chinook numbers when counting sockeye, but a tougher task to count chinook that number in the tens of thousands while discounting the sockeye that number in the hundreds of thousands.
"If there was a reasonable technical way to count all species with one crew, we'd be doing it," Swanton said.
Campbell said talks are continuing internally about what improvements can be made. She said projects like the Kenai sockeye counter, operated by the commercial division but generating data for sport and personal use fishing, "could be completed cooperatively to ensure alignment."
Regardless of technical challenges, though, Swanton said the department has room to do better in its relations with the public.
"The thing we've struggled with, and what we need to improve, is communication with the public," Swanton said. "Some of these decisions are very complex and it doesn't align itself with writing a justification and sending it out on one piece of paper.
"The demands on staff during the heat of fishing season doesn't afford a lot of daylight hours, even though we have 18-hour days. It's hard to do justice to explaining to the public what went into the decision and that truly this is the best information we have available to us."
Newly appointed assistant commissioner Kelly Hepler, Swanton's predecessor as director of sport fishing and most recently special assistant to previous commissioner Denby Lloyd, said "the primary thing we're trying to do is improve public trust."
"You need tolerance, you need the ability for users to stand in each others' shoes for a while," Hepler said. "You need the ability to compromise. We need a healthy commercial fishing industry in Cook Inlet, as well as we need sport fishing and families to be able to go get their fish. I think there's enough fish to make that happen."
Allocating fish between user groups is a zero-sum equation. Additional fish for one means less for another, so ending years of acrimony between user groups will not come easily.
That doesn't mean it cannot be done, Swanton said.
"I'm always the eternal optimist," Swanton said. "If we weren't, the way things go day-in and day-out would cause us all to be skeptical. I think we can all do our part. Are you going to completely remove it? Probably not. But can we address it and get it to a manageable level? I'm willing to put my shoulder behind it as much as anybody else."
Andrew Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.
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