Use it, then lose it, was the fate of a long-delayed Kenai River habitat study until the Alaska Department of Fish and Game finally published it last fall.
A 14-year publication delay on a Kenai River habitat study has made ripples through Fish and Game and the Cook Inlet fishing sphere as officials have acknowledged that taking so long to finalize the report was a mistake but insist they still used the report’s recommendations in management plans.
Some commercial fishing stakeholders have alleged the report’s delay was politically motivated because it found adverse impacts to habitat caused by shoreside angling, while Fish and Game maintains it was a simple lapse.
“It’s not uncommon for reports to get stacked up,” said Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten. “There’s no knowledge of holding back information or anything other than a tardy report.”
Cotten also dismissed speculation that Gov. Bill Walker had learned of the report and ordered its publication.
“He would have had to act through me to do that, and that certainly didn’t happen,” said Cotten, who had a briefing from Fish and Game division directors prior to an interview with the Journal. Walker’s office also denies he had anything to do with the report being published.
The study was part of a series that produced five annual reports from 1997-2001. Those between 1997-99 were published within the usual one- to three-year range, but the 2000 and 2001 studies weren’t published until October 2015.
The series was born into a tense political situation around the Kenai River’s user groups — commercial, sport, and personal use. Throughout the 1990s, the Board of Fisheries had been slowly changing Kenai River management plans for the growing sport fishing sector, partly instate and partly tourist driven.
At the 1996 Board of Fisheries meeting, the board boosted the sockeye salmon share and slackened bag and possession limits for the in-river sport fishery and personal use fishery at the Kenai River’s mouth.
The department and board said they would rethink liberalizations if there were evidence sportfishing contributed to habitat damage. According to the study’s authors, Mary King and Patricia Hansen, the 1997, 1998, and 1999 studies were less precise than the unpublished 2000 and 2001 studies.
The cleaner data showed linkages between shore-based angling and riparian habitat degradation. King and Hansen presented the information at the 2002 Board of Fisheries meeting, which Hansen said partially explains the length of the publication delay. Ironically, with the best data having been already presented to the board, publication took a backseat to management.
“People felt that that data had been put out there,” Hansen said. “That’s why it took so much longer. We had been improving our methods all along. Our data was less noisy. It was just better data towards the end.”
Hansen and other Fish and Game biologists said the report moved to the bottom of the pile and stayed there. Department staff moved around or retired, so the report didn’t receive continual pressure for publication.
Knowledge of the report’s delay surfaced at the Board of Fisheries’ 2014 Upper Cook Inlet finfish meeting. Lisa Gabriel, administrative assistant for commercial fishing industry group Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, submitted a statement to the board asking why the board had not completed any further habitat studies.
Gabriel’s insistence prompted the department to move the report forward for publication.
“We did want to get this out of our hair,” said Hansen. “It shouldn’t have taken that long, it was a bad thing on our part.”
Forrest Bowers, director of Fish and Game’s Commercial Fisheries Division, said he’s familiar with the King and Hansen study. Bowers’ feelings on the report’s 14-year publication delay are mixed.
Fish and Game often shelves studies; however, he said that betrays an obligation the department has to the public.
“If we undertake a report or a study, it’s our intention and our obligation to the public to publish it for peers,” Bowers said. “But sometimes the timelines do get drawn out. I’ve been involved with reports earlier in my career where it took several years to get those reports out for one reason or another.”
While he recognizes the need for timely publication, also knows studies can impact policy without being formally published.
“Just because a report hasn’t been published, doesn’t preclude us from acting on any of the findings,” he said.
The department maintains that the 2000 and 2001 studies weren’t published because the concerns were already beginning to be addressed. Fish and Game biologists said the department regularly considers habitat, and that the delayed reports don’t represent the totality of effort put into protections.
“Everyone is aware of habitat issues,” said Hansen, who still works as a statistician for Fish and Game. “That’s just something everybody works with in mind. No habitat, no fish.”
Fish and Game chief fisheries scientist Jim Hasbrouck said he couldn’t remember specifically which programs the department began as a result of the study. Habitat restoration projects were ongoing at the time and hard to tie to one origin in particular.
“I don’t know that walkways were in specific response,” said Hasbrouck, referring to structures along riverbanks that were constructed to preserve habitat. “I think some of that was just a recognition that things like bank restoration projects would be good for the environment. There were stream bank closures that were done prior to 2001. I don’t know that there are specifics in Mary’s report, but there is a relationship there. It did provide information to the board.”
According to Robert Begich, Fish and Game’s Kenai River area sportfishing manager, the department had already begun implementing some of the report’s recommendations by the time it was presented to the Board of Fisheries in 2002.
“There’s a whole bunch of studies that aren’t published,” said Begich, “but the information is still used. Some of the properties the project was working on were closed. River Mile 25 was in the study, it’s a habitat closure now.”
Begich said other habitat-related studies in the area were similarly used without publication. A study on Slikok Creek riparian habitats in the early 2000s wasn’t published, but Fish and Game nevertheless installed a recommended culvert in 2006.
Continual water quality and habitat studies prompted the department to ban two-stroke engines in the Kenai River Special Management Area in 2008 along with assorted horsepower and length restrictions for powerboats.
“These reports are all still germane to how the river is managed today,” Begich said.
Unpublished scientific papers, called “gray literature,” are a divisive issue within the academic community. Without peer review, some question whether the studies meet the strictest scholastic muster. Former Fish and Game biologist Ken Tarbox said the delayed publication is evidence of Fish and Game having become less transparent.
“They’re missing the purpose of science,” Tarbox said. “Science is supposed to put your information out there reviewed by peer reviewers and other scientists.”
Even if Fish and Game uses the information in gray literature, Tarbox said the department does a disservice by ignoring the rest of the scientific community.
“There are errors of omission,” he said. “You’re assuming you know everything that needs to be done, which is very arrogant.”
DJ Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.