Budget cuts threaten Sea Grant programs

Budget cuts in Washington, D.C., could dismantle a longtime oceanic research and education program nationally.

Sea Grant has 33 outposts in coastal communities around the country, including Puerto Rico, sponsoring graduate students’ research and providing educational and industry resources. Its federal budget is housed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the various chapters partner with universities or other organizations.

Alaska’s Sea Grant is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration focusing on coastal ecosystem and fisheries research. It’s been around 46 years, with 12 agents in eight coastal communities, providing education and assistance as well as conducting research. This year, it is facing the guillotine with sharp proposed cuts to NOAA.

The Alaska program may be forced to stop operations immediately, if Congress accepts President Donald Trump’s proposed $30 million cut to NOAA’s budget in the current fiscal year. Further proposed cuts in Trump’s FY 2018 budget, approximately 17 percent of NOAA’s funding, would put an end to the Sea Grant program nationally by zeroing out its $73 million budget.

The proposed cuts to NOAA, along with many other federal departments, come alongside Trump’s proposal to increase Department of Homeland Security funding by $2.6 billion in part to design and build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and with a $52 billion increase to the Department of Defense.

“All Alaskans depend on healthy marine and watershed ecosystems,” said Paula Cullenberg, director of the Alaska Sea Grant program, in a news release dated March 31. “Alaska Sea Grant has enjoyed bipartisan support for nearly 50 ears enhancing Alaska’s fishing and seafood jobs, training Alaska’s maritime workforce, conducting and sharing science with coastal residents, promoting marine literacy and being trusted to provide science-based information abut coastal issues.”

Alaska’s Sea Grant chapter will actually be hit twice, if it survives Trump’s proposed cuts. Facing a multi-billion budget crisis, the Alaska Seante has passed a budget that includes an approximately $34.5 million cut to the University of Alaska system. When the Senate’s proposed cuts were at $22 million on April 4, University of Alaska system President Jim Johnsen called them “devastating” in a news release. The cuts would impact Sea Grant’s employees, as they are technically University of Alaska Fairbanks employees, Cullenberg said in an interview.

Sea Grant has dealt with the state’s budget cuts for several years now as the Legislature grinds its way toward a solution for the state’s fiscal gap, reduced from about $4 billion in early 2016 to about $2.8 billion now. Because the University of Alaska has not replaced departing faculty as a way to cut expenses, the program has lost staff in recent years, but the federal cuts would silence it completely, Cullenberg said.

“Ultimately, the administration is trying to beef up funding to the military and to build the wall,” she said.

Besides supporting graduate students through fellowships and hosting science conferences — the organization has two coming up in the next month, one in Kodiak and one in Unalaska — Alaska Sea Grant also supports the fishing industry. Every other year, the organization sponsors the Alaska Young Fishermen’s Summit, which brings together commercial fishermen who are new the industry in an educational event supporting newcomers.

Sea Grant has been hosting the Young Fishermen’s Summit for about a decade, but new emphasis came from ongoing research detailing the trend known as “the graying of the fleet,” which is the increasing average age of commercial fishermen around the world but particularly in Alaska. The average age of a commercial fisherman in Alaska is nearly 50, a decade older than it was in 1980. Part of the struggle is the high cost of entry into Alaska’s fisheries for young people, Cullenberg said.

With the threshold of purchasing a limited entry license, the cost of purchasing or leasing a boat, fuel, crew, gear and insurance, the cost to a young commercial fisherman in his or her first year can run into the hundreds of thousands, depending on the fishery. The state Legislature could change some policies about limited entry to address some of these issues and incentivize young people to continue fishing, she said.

“That has some real public policy implications for our state,” she said.

Sea Grant hosts educational classes as well for members of the industry, such as a recent one on an introduction to kelp farming or how to produce roe. The coastal agents provide curriculum for K-12 students and visit classrooms, which 1,600 students participated in from 2015 to 2016, according to Sea Grant’s annual report. Sea Grant communications manager Paula Dobbyn estimated that the organization has an approximately $33.6 million impact on the economy, both directly and indirectly through drawing grants and tangential benefits.

In that way, it’s an economic organization as well as an educational and research organization, Cullenberg said. Graduate students and fellows use the program as a way to kick-start their careers and often stay in Alaska, she said.

“(Many of Sea Grant’s programs) relate to jobs and economy, not just research,” she said.

She said Sea Grant had received support from the Alaska delegation to Washington, D.C. On April 3, 95 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter supporting full funding of Sea Grant for 2018, and a similar letter circulating in the Senate carried about 65 signatures, according to a news release from Karl Havens, the executive director of Florida Sea Grant. Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) signed onto the House letter.

“We still do not know what will occur with the remainder of the 2017 budget, which exists in the form of a Continuing Resolution for Appropriations that expires April 28,” Havens wrote. “Congress begins a two-week recess on April 7. Indications are that budget decisions will be addressed when Congress reconvenes on April 25.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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