Changes in the works for Kachemak reserve

HOMER — Although Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials have been exploring a new state partner for the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the prospect of declining budgets for the Division of Sport Fish, its current home, does not mean the reserve will close or move.

“That’s not the case,” said former research reserve manager Terry Thompson.

Thompson ended his tenure as manager this week and is now the statewide communications and outreach coordinator for the Division of Sport Fish. He will be based in Homer but spend part of his time in Anchorage.

As a measure of its commitment to keeping the reserve open, the state seeks to hire a new manager and will begin recruiting soon, said Lisa Evans, assistant director for the Division of Sport Fish.

At the Jan. 27 Homer City Council meeting, James Hornaday and Ralph Broshes, two members of the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve Community Council, the research reserve’s citizen advisory group, made a 10-minute presentation about the importance of the reserve in which they raised concerns about its future.

“The general fund outlook for fiscal year 2015 is uncertain but suggests a shortfall will happen that will necessitate a reduction to the reserve,” Broshes said.

Revenues for the Sport Fish Division have been declining over the past five years because of a decrease in sport fish license fees and federal receipts from sales of fishing gear, Evans said. An impact to the reserve hasn’t been felt until this year. Evans said Fish and Game has submitted a fiscal year 2015 budget request that might have some reductions in the reserve’s budget, but that she hopes that does not mean staff reductions.

“Our first and primary goal has always been in this division to preserve staff,” she said.

The research reserve was designated Alaska’s first research reserve in 2002. It is the 22nd research reserve in the National Estuarine Research Reserve, or NERR, system under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The reserve does both research and education. Research activities have included studies of Kachemak Bay shoreline erosion, changes in glaciers and monitoring of invasive species. The reserve staff also do educational projects like the popular Discovery Labs.

NERRs are created in partnerships between NOAA and a state entity. In Alaska, the partnership initially was with the Fish and Game Habitat Division. When Gov. Frank Murkowski moved the Habitat Division from Fish and Game, the reserve was moved to the Division of Sport Fish. Funding is 35 percent from NOAA and 40 percent from Fish and Game, Broshes said.

Discussions about finding a new state agency for the research reserve started because the Sport Fish Division does not feel it’s the best fit. While there is some overlap in research into issues like salmon habitat or the effect of invasive species on salmon, “The research that’s covered there doesn’t go directly to sport fish,” Evans said.

If the reserve stayed with the Division of Sport Fish, that would probably mean budget reductions.

“That’s not ideal. We want to keep people employed,” Evans said. “The first strategy is to find an alternative partner, a state partner, for the research reserve. We’d like to continue it as it is.”

NOAA requires a state agency to be a partner. That agency could act as a fiscal agent for budgetary purposes, but there could be multiple state partners. The different components of education and research could be parceled out, Evans said.

“We’re scoping. We’re willing to consider any viable option that would keep the program running,” she said. “Our commitment is to keep the lights turned on and the doors open.”

Would the University of Alaska or one of its campuses be one such option? Evans said she didn’t want to say this early in the process. Fish and Game officials are in the process now of developing a transition strategy that would identify potential partner agencies and develop a prospectus to present to respective boards. Its goal is to identify a potential partner in the next three months and start exploring options.

As Fish and Game explores its options, it will keep the KBNERR Community Council and the greater community informed and involved, Evans said.

“There’s naturally some fear of the unknown. We recognize the importance of the reserve to the community, not only the economic component, but the importance of the research they’re conducting,” Evans said. “We want everybody to be on board with the end result, which is we want the reserve to be viable.”

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