NOAA gives Kachemak Bay special designation

Scientific research in Kachemak Bay could get more federal funding thanks to its recent designation as a Habitat Focus Area by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Part of NOAA’s habitat blueprint initiative to identify ecologically rich areas that merit research and other attention, Kachemak Bay is the first region in Alaska to be identified as a Habitat Focus Area and only the eighth in the nation, said Julie Speegle, a NOAA Fisheries spokesperson.

Kachemak Bay already is a state of Alaska critical habitat area and a NOAA National Estuarine Research Reserve under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act. By designating Kachemak Bay a Habitat Focus Area, NOAA also will work more collaboratively with partners like the state of Alaska, NOAA said in a Nov. 19 press release.

One such collaboration, the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, looks to be on firmer ground as the state moves forward to designating an agency partner with NOAA in the research reserve. While a Memorandum of Agreement needs to be signed, the University of Alaska Anchorage has agreed to be the new state fiscal agent with NOAA, said acting KBRR director Jessica Ryan-Shepherd.

“They’re looking at it as a real opportunity for the university to branch out from the terrestrial research they do to the near aquatic,” Ryan-Shepherd said of UAA becoming a new partner.

Ryan-Shepherd also praised designating Kachemak Bay a Habitat Focus Area and the expanded collaboration with NOAA

“They have a mission that’s very similar to ours,” she said of NOAA. “We’re extremely excited and fortunate to be heading in this direction. We look very much forward to collaborating with them.”

Under its funding agreement for the KBRR, the state needs to match 30 percent of total research reserve funding, or about $175,000. Currently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is KBRR’s state fiscal agent. Earlier this year, Fish and Game officials had said KBRR would be moved out of Fish and Game to another agency. The research reserve’s funding had been threatened during the last legislative session when the House Subcommittee on Fish and Game zeroed out a $175,000 appropriation to KBRR, but that funding was restored in the final budget.

The Habitat Focus Area designation means that NOAA will concentrate resources from its offices on clearly defined habitat objectives in Kachemak Bay, NOAA said in its release.

Not only is Kachemak Bay an ecologically rich area, it also has a lot of scientific data collected, Speegle said.

“We already have research and education programs right there. We’re already working with partners,” she said. “It seemed like the perfect area to designate as a Habitat Focus Area.”

In another state collaboration, NOAA runs the Kasitsna Bay Laboratory near Seldovia with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. The NOAA ships Fairweather and Rainier also have done research expeditions in Kachemak Bay, including mapping of the seafloor and coastline. More federal dollars could mean putting some of that information together.

“We haven’t been able to synthesize that data and learn from it,” she said.

A team of staff from NOAA’s National Ocean Services, National Weather Service and National Marine Fisheries Service and from the state of Alaska selected Kachemak Bay from seven state candidate areas.

“In the end, Kachemak Bay was the top choice, the unanimous choice of everyone on that panel,” Speegle said.

The transition from Fish and Game to UAA for the research reserve will happen over the next six months, hopefully by July 1, Ryan-Shepherd said. UAA has already designated funds from within its budget.

KBRR will continue some ties with Fish and Game through the State Wildlife Grant Program. That program is a federal pass-through for funds received through the national wildlife grant program. KBRR has received some of the State Wildlife Grant Program funding for research on salmon in the Anchor River and the harmful species program. That funding source will continue, and Fish and Game will pass some of it on to KBBR.

“While we’re moving on to a different partner, they’re going to continue to fund those research activities that meet their mission,” Ryan-Shepherd said of Fish and Game.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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