Federal proposal would cut support for Kachemak Bay Research Reserve

A publicly-funded science organization in Homer that aims to provide practical data to Kachemak Bay oyster farmers, boat operators, municipal planners, educators and others may be cut under a federal budget proposal.

“A lot of the research they’re doing is user-oriented research,” said George Matz, chair of Kachemak Bay Research Reserve’s nine-member community council, an advisory group composed of University of Alaska-appointed individuals from outside the organization. “There’s so much research that’s needed in Alaska to make knowledgeable decisions about things, especially facing climate change and everything else. So they’ve been very careful through the years to be sure their research isn’t a strictly academic approach that ends up in journals, but things that are going to be very practical for the various ocean users in the Kachemak Bay area.”

The Kachemak Bay Research Reserve is one of 29 National Estuary Research Reserves nationwide that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association sponsors in coastal communities near estuaries — bodies of water such as Cook Inlet where fresh water mingles with saltwater. Kachemak Bay joined this group in 1999, becoming the largest of the Estuary Research Reserves. Its funding is nearly entirely federal — about $619,000 per year from NOAA, said manager Jessica Shepherd. This is supplemented by a state match of about $75,000 — which Shepherd said includes the salaries of grant administrators at the Research Reserve’s state parent organization, the University of Alaska Anchorage. The group employees 12 researchers and administrators.

The budget proposal that President Donald Trump’s office released March 16 would eliminate $250 million in funding for NOAA, including $23 million from the Estuary Research Reserves. If Congress approves the cuts in the presidential proposal, Shepherd said it would end the Kachemak Bay program.

“Basically if the federal program is dissolved, then we as an entity will not be what we are now,” Shepherd said. “Something may arise out of the ashes, but it won’t be the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve. It will be something different.”

Since the budget proposal’s release, Matz and the Kachemak Bay Reseach Reserve’s community council have been on an advocacy and letter-writing campaign to push for a $27 million budget for the Estuary Research Reserve system in fiscal 2018.

In addition to ending services such as ocean monitoring, wave observation, salmon habitat research and the Research Reserve’s educational programs — which Shepherd estimated reach about 4,000 to 5,000 local students and adults a year — Shepherd said a funding loss could leave a gap in the Research Reserve’s nearly two-decade record of Kachemak Bay’s geological and ecological changes.

“Because we’ve been in operation since 1999 we have about 17-18 years worth of long-term data on water temperatures, water chemistry, wind speeds, various things that are available online through the Research Reserve’s website,” Shepherd said. “Any time you disrupt a database like that, you can never really retrieve or understand completely what’s happening in a system. Keeping these programs going allows us to have a real window into changes as they affect coastal communities. Change is something we always face, but not knowing what that change looks like can be really expensive. It can be difficult for a community to respond in a timely manner.”

Bluff erosion

Among the local entities to use the Research Reserve’s historical data and expertise was the city of Homer, which recently commissioned the Research Reserve to update a study it had done in 2004 of erosion rates of the bluff-top property. Both the 2004 study and the update were done by KBRR research analyst Steve Biard.

Homer City Planner Rick Abboud said it would have been difficult for Homer’s planning department to do the study themselves because of insufficient staff and technical knowledge, and that his department contracted with the Research Reserve “because of the local knowledge they had.”

“He (Steve Baird) had all the skills to do that, and all the data sets from before, and was very familiar with the product,” Abboud said.

The study used present and historical aerial photographs to calculate the erosion rates along the city’s bluff tops.

“I can use that data to project possible consequences and timing of events so that we might be able to apply for mitigation grants, if (erosion) puts structures or infrastructure at risk…” said Homer City Planner Rick Abboud. “We can say, ‘Within X amount of years, this might threaten the highway,’ or something like that, and there might be opportunities to apply for grant funding.”

The study was meant not only for the Homer planning department, but also as “a tool to help people make informed decisions about development in and around bluff areas,” Abboud said. To that end, the study is posted on the website of the Homer planning department, which is also giving out erosion data for specific blufftop properties.

Shellfish growers

Margo Reveil, owner of Homer’s Jackolof Bay Oyster Company and president of the trade group Alaska Shellfish Growers Association, said the environmental data the Research Reserve creates is important for shellfish growers in the region. Though long-established along the Lower 48’s Pacific Coast, shellfish growing is a nacent industry in Alaska, with 65 state-permitted growers in Alaska.

California has a state-funded program to monitor growths of potentially toxic algae that shellfish may digest, and to test the accumulation of human-toxic chemicals in shellfish flesh. Washington and Oregon have similar programs which Shepherd said are funded by a tax on clamming license holders — a solution she said is less feasible in Alaska due to a smaller population. Members of the Shellfish Growers Association who work in Kachemak Bay get their information about algal blooms via reports from the Research Reserve’s citizen monitoring program.

Though some are toxic, algae growth is generally good for shellfish — it’s their food supply — but Reveil said heavy blooms can deoxygenate the water, making it prudent to take the shellfish racks out of the water. Though the shellfish meat is tested for toxicity before going to consumers, Reveil said the information from the reports helps growers cut back on lost harvest.

In addition to receiving the Research Reserve’s reports, Reveil contributes to them to by sampling plankton at her growing site in Jackalof Bay. In this, she’s one of the many participants in the monitoring effort, which she said also includes water-taxi drivers, Kachemak Bay-front residents, and high school science classes.

“We send them the samples, and they count the (algae) in those samples, and include them in their report over time, so we have a historic record of algal blooms in Kachemak Bay, including the harmful ones, and it’s good to see the cycles they go through,” Reveil said. “… We use it to get a better sense of when algal blooms are coming. We can’t totally predict them yet, but there are certain conditions and certain times of year, when we look at the historic record, so it helps us in planning when to harvest and when to hold harvest. All our shellfish is tested anyway, but it’s an important planning tool. And as the ocean chemistry changes, we need to have a better understanding of what changes are coming and how they might impact our growing and harvesting strategies.”

Shepherd said the Research Reserve’s record of algal bloom observations is the longest in the state and described it as “kind of an early warning system” for harmful blooms, for which the Research Reserve provides data to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.

“We’re finally beginning to understand the cycles they go through, and any sort of changes in the environment — whether it’s a strong rain event, or clouds that obscure the sun so that phytoplankton are not growing as rapidly — those are the little things we’re just beginning to understand,” Shepherd said. “And those phytoplankton are the basis of the food web, driving everything.”

If the Research Reserve were to lose funding, the Shellfish Grower’s Association is too small to keep administering the citizen-based monitoring program, Reveil said.

“We would continue to try to track it as individual farmers, but there’s no way we could replace that,” Reveil said. “…There would have to be a non-profit or something to step in to do that. The monitoring program, I don’t know who has the resources or the mission to take that on.”

If algal bloom monitoring program continues in Kachemak, it may also be replicated elsewhere. Shepherd said the Research Reserve is presently seeking grant funding to introduce similar citizen-science algae monitoring in other coastal communities.

Previous difficulty

This isn’t the first time a budget cut has threatened to close the Research Reserve, though in the previous episode the cut was from the state side. During budget cuts in 2014, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — at the time, the agency responsible for the state matching funds on which the Research Reserves’ federal funding depends — faced a general fund reduction, a loss that Matz said Fish and Game administrators decided to concentrate by zeroing the budget for the Research Reserve.

After what Shepherd described as “a really tremendous and heartwarming outpouring from our stakeholders, students and teachers and community members,” the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Center for Conservation Science agreed to serve as the Research Reserve’s new state parent agency for the administration of matching funds in 2014.

Whether or not this rescue can be repeated on the federal side will be determined by the U.S Congress.

Matz said that Sen. Lisa Murkowski has visited Research Reserve facilities in the past and supports preserving the group’s funding. Shepherd said Rep. Don Young has also expressed support. An email from Senator Dan Sullivan’s communications director Mike Anderson stated that Sullivan had spoken about the NOAA budget to Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross about “the necessary federal research and investment that goes into making our fisheries and coastal communities thrive” and that before the release of the federal budget proposal Sullivan had signed a letter to OMB about NOAA, an agency that Anderson wrote is “disproportionally important to Alaska.”

Shepherd said public advocacy could once again be effective in maintaining the Research Reserve’s funding.

“People see and understand the value of the research that we do,” Shepherd said. “Our research is very much place-based. We’re helping to inform the public and stakeholders and resource managers on… a variety of other things that have very direct application to people who utilize and depend on the resources here in Kachemak Bay. I feel like people see and value what we do here.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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