University cuts could damage fisheries, Arctic research

  • Researchers with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Science check a pop-up satellite tag on a chinook salmon. The University of Alaska system cuts proposed in the Legislature would largely come out of research funding, which could create a ripple effect that damages state and federal fisheries management. Photo/Andy Seitz/UAF School of Fisheries and Ocean Science

A state fiscal crisis looms, and some of the Legislature’s budget cuts could send ripples into Alaska’s largest private employer and international political affairs.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, passed a series of university budget cuts out of her subcommittee on March 4 that would lop $50 million from the university budget, largely from research and outreach funding.

The subcommittee ended up with a final university unrestricted general fund budget of $300 million, a $50 million cut from last year’s budget. The equivalent Senate subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, proposed a $325 million budget. The House and Senate will likely make amendments to the budget during a conference committee later in March.

University of Alaska research functions reach far into trade and key political discussions. Alaska research plays a vital role in state and federal fisheries management as well as Arctic research, now in the political spotlight as the U.S. holds the chair of the eight-nation Arctic Council.

Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, an industry group that represents 70 percent of all crab harvested in the North Pacific, penned a letter to both the House subcommittee and the House Finance Committee urging legislators not to cut research funding.

“If the proposed subcommittee recommendation is adopted,” the letter reads, “it will seriously jeopardize UA’s continued ability to support fisheries in Alaska. Everyone in the state will suffer as a result. Commercial, recreational, and subsistence users will have fewer harvest opportunities.”

Mark Gleason, the organization’s director, calls the university research cuts a “one-two punch” combined with Alaska Department of Fish and Game budget reductions — proposed at 15 percent less than last year.

Together, the cuts to fisheries management and research spitball into more conservative management, he said, resulting in lower fishing quotas in a time when Alaskans need income the most.

Gleason said the cuts seem far too broadly focused, and didn’t solicit industry input.

“I think the legislators pushing for this aren’t taking a targeted approach, they’re just slashing,” said Gleason. “No one’s talking about being creative. It’s just cut, cut, cut.”

Fisheries management has private funding components; to partially fund the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, fishermen pay a voluntary landings tax. With general funding to ASMI cut and the state running a negative balance sheet for fisheries management, fishermen could consider what they can pay voluntarily to compensate for state reductions.

Gleason, however, said he hesitates to go too far down that path, as science and industry politics make bad bedfellows.

 “It would be somewhat problematic to do this,” said Gleason. “It’s important to have independent science. If the industry is funding scientists to be involved in the fisheries management process, at what point is that going to cease to be independent? When you start having industry fund scientists, you open up a can of worms. You don’t want the cure to be worse than the disease.”

Federal matching funds in peril

The University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Science is a leader in marine research, regularly ranked in the top three nationwide according to Gordon Kruse, director of the school’s fisheries division.

As director, Kruse said most of his research concerns industry, not academics.

“All of my work is focused on the commercial industry in Alaska,” said Kruse. “There’s nothing I do that isn’t related to them.”

Most of the university’s research funding comes from Outside grants. A 2012 study by Juneau-based economics firm McDowell Group linked $1 billion in competitive grants to the University of Alaska system in the decade between fiscal years 2002 and 2011.

Federal funds, however, require a direct state match. A drop off in state contributions could jeopardize them.

“In (fiscal year) 2015, approximately $24.2 million was allocated from the state to UAF organized research,” reads a letter from UAF to the House subcommittee. “For every $1 of state general fund investment, UAF was able to leverage this investment and generate an additional $4.10 of external funding. This is a substantial return on investment. If state funds are not available for match, UA’s ability to receive external funding is severely limited.”

Apart from the loss of programs themselves, Kruse is concerned about the potential impacts to staff and to research infrastructure. Faculty comes to the University of Alaska system in part because of the research opportunities, he said. As the line between academic work and research work gets drawn, Kruse anticipates that faculty will leave the university.

“If they’re cutting state funding for research, that also cuts down on the amount of time researchers can write proposals,” said Kruse. “Without a doubt, we’d be losing people.”

The university would not only use people, but necessary equipment those people use to carry out research.

The University of Alaska uses the Sikuliaq, a marine research vessel, to perform field studies. One of the few ice capable research vessels in the nation, the 261-foot research Sikuliaq is owned by the National Science Foundation but under current use by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Home-ported in Seward, it is in its first year of operations in the Arctic, including a test voyage to the ice regions of the Bering Sea and projects in the Aleutians and in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas.

The Sikuliaq, Kruse said, falls into a “use it or lose it” scenario. As a prerequisite, he said, the university has to put down a $5,000 match on the vessel or else the National Science Foundation will accept bids from other parties looking to perform research.

“There’s other universities that would snap that up,” he said.

State and federal fisheries management

Both state and federal fisheries managers rely on collaborations with university research faculty to craft regulations and set harvest quotas.

Routine research functions play a large role in management for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which manages state fisheries up to three miles offshore, and for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages federal fisheries from three to 200 miles off the shore. ADFG and the council co-manage the crab stocks, with the federal Scientific and Statistical Committee creating models and adopting overfishing limits while ADFG ultimately sets the harvest quota.

Virtually all management decisions on the North Pacific council depend on intensive quantitative studies. Economic and environmental impact analyses, stock assessments, and myriad biological studies all form the basis for the council’s regulatory scheme.

The North Pacific council has two support groups, the Advisory Panel, or AP, and the Scientific and Statistical Committee, or SSC. Before either the Advisory Panel or the council even begin reviewing proposed regulations, the SSC vets each proposal to ensure it meets scientific muster.

University of Alaska faculty comprises five members – a full third – of the SSC, two from Anchorage and three from Fairbanks, including Gordon Kruse. The council pays for travel, but university faculty look to research funding to foot the bill for their time.

Kruse said cutting research funding could prevent university faculty from fulfilling their duties on the SSC, leaving the North Pacific council without any Alaskan scientists.

“We would create a huge vacuum,” said Kruse. “Outside of us, there is a representative from ADFG. But all the others come out of state.”

North Pacific council Executive Director Chris Oliver said he couldn’t guess how research cuts will affect the dozens of ongoing research projects the council is involved with. However, he said the potential impact to SSC membership alone is troublesome.

“In this case there certainly are implications for our management,” said Oliver. “That would be a very direct and significant concern.”

Like Kruse, Oliver is not only concerned with federal/university cross pollination, but that actual structure by which research is done. Many of the North Pacific council’s research projects depend on the Sikuliaq.

Similarly, ADFG relies on university researchers for evaluations of quantitative studies. ADFG Deputy Commissioner Charlie Swanton said the department sends off for university assistance when it needs to review one of the many studies on which it bases management decisions.

ADFG pays overhead costs for all its university research, so these collaborations would only be hindered by the department’s own substantial fiscal challenges. However, Swanton echoes Kruse’s concerns about research staff thinning out as budget cuts make the University of Alaska less attractive.

“There’s levels of technical specificity that only they have,” said Swanton. “If you want a review of sonar program or a stock assessment, we go to the university and find the right person. If there’s not research dollars to support some of those functions, those researchers are going to go elsewhere.”

Faculty and staff turnover translate to ADFG’s employment pool as well. The department’s Sportfish Division hires three university graduate students every year to study specific ADFG issues in collaboration — for credit — with the university. After they’ve completed the project, many come onto ADFG as full time staff, already having been trained during their graduate research.

Arctic Council

University cuts come at a bad moment for the Arctic, according to John Farrell, executive director of the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.

“The timing is not good,” said Farrell.

The Arctic Research Commission is an independent federal agency of presidential appointees that advises the White House and Congress on Arctic research matters and works with executive branch agencies to establish and execute a national Arctic research plan.

The commission is an important gear of the international Arctic Council, an international study group of the eight countries that touch the Arctic Circle, founded by the Ottawa Declaration of 1996 to provide a means for its members to work on mutual Arctic-centric issues.

The United States entered the chair position of the Arctic Council in April 2015, taking over for Canada. The chair position is held for two years before being taken by another of the eight member countries.

The U.S. is a member thanks only to Alaska, along with the Russian Federation, Canada, the Kingdom of Denmark (including the Faroe Islands and Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden.

It makes no grants and builds no projects, focusing its efforts mostly on information gathering, sharing, and disseminating, both through collaborations among government bodies and working relationships with private advocacy groups, academic organizations, or any other organization who wants to contribute to Arctic study.

In addition to leading fisheries and marine research, the University of Alaska Fairbanks has one of the premier Arctic research programs in the world. For Arctic research, no university is cited more that UAF.

“The work of the Arctic Council is done largely by working groups and task forces. The working groups do assessments,” said Farrell.  “A fair bit of this is done in University of Alaska.”

The U.S. is already a year into its Arctic Council chairmanship; Farrell said whatever research cuts eventually take place will not impact the current Arctic Council. Rather, Farrell worries how cuts will affect U.S. contributions later.

“There’s a long lead time on science,” said Farrell. “It’s not going to be the end of the world for the U.S. chairmanship, but it could significantly diminish our contributions down the road.”

Farrell said Alaska will have a high profile for the remainder of the U.S. Arctic Council chairmanship; up to a thousand scientists and government officials will attend a UAF Arctic meeting — actually dozens of meetings and workshops — over the university’s spring break in March. Among other meetings, Secretary of State John Kerry will be in Fairbanks for an Arctic Council meeting in 2017.

With Alaska in the spotlight, Farrell said a lack of research capability could be bad optics.

“The council has two pillars: sustainable development and conservation,” said Farrell. “What feeds those things is knowledge economy…those all link back to research. It would be an acute message to other member nations when they come here for research purposes and the locals have to say, ‘Well we really wish we could help you out but we’ve got no research funding.’”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

03/11/2016 - 8:24am