Without both commercial and sport funding, UAF declines research donation

The University of Alaska Fairbanks turned down an offer for funding for research on Kenai River king salmon because it would only come from one side of Cook Inlet’s allocation war.

The university’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, consistently recognized as one of the top fisheries research institutes in the country, regularly conducts studies on fish populations around the state. Funding comes from a variety of sources, both from industry and from the university’s budget.

However, after discussing potential funding for king salmon research from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the university decided not to take the funding because it couldn’t get buy-in from the commercial fishing side as well, according to a March 2 letter from interim chancellor Dana Thomas addressed to Kenai River Sportfishing Association board member and founder Bob Penney.

“The UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences feels that it would not be helpful to carry out research on salmon in the Kenai area without a cooperative effort supported by both commercial and sport fishery interests,” the letter states. “Their view is that commercial fishers will not have confidence in research which is financially supported solely by those who have been strong advocates for sport fishing.”

Without funding from both commercial and sport interests, the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences faculty didn’t want to expend resources when it would be “unlikely to lead to a productive result,” the letter states.

Thomas said in an interview that cooperative funding between industry interest groups is a model the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences has found useful in determining research projects, and the faculty had hoped to get there with the Kenai project. The model provides mechanisms for peer review as well, which sets a high standard for scientific research, and provides convincing evidence for management boards to make decisions, he said.

“This particular approach is a little unique to this college and they’ve used it in a variety of settings,” he said. “It has served them well for both sides … in dealing with controversial issues.”

Kenai River Sportfishing Association, a Soldotna-based sportfishing and conservation advocacy organization that funds projects and research, discussed some basic ideas for king salmon research with the university last summer, said executive director Ricky Gease. Since the dramatic decline of the king salmon runs hit a low in 2012, many questions have come up about the ocean conditions affecting king salmon production and returns. Kenai River Sportfishing Association didn’t have a specific plan but provided ideas for potential research, such as marine factors affecting king salmon run timing and run size or sportfishing angler and economic impact surveys, he said.

He said the university’s refusal of the funding was likely a function of shrinking budgets.

“I think in this era of budget cuts, I think they were doing their due diligence in trying to reach out to different communities around the state to see if there were partnerships out there,” he said.

The university doesn’t direct faculty research, and ultimately it was the faculty members’ decision not to take up the project, though Thomas did have conversations with them about the project, he said.

The university had hoped for a partnership to be formed in the area among user groups to fund research that would “ensure separation of the goals of individual organizations from impartial scientific research that would inform the best possible management and policy decisions,” the letter states. However, the commercial fishing organizations declined a partnership, according to the letter.

The specific commercial fishing organization that handled it was the Alaska Salmon Alliance, an organization representing primarily processors and commercial fishermen in the Cook Inlet area. Though the organization’s board has considered funding research and is open to the idea of collaborating between user groups as long as the research benefits both, the board chose to turn the university’s request down, said Alaska Salmon Alliance board member Paul Dale.

“It looked to us as though (the Kenai River Sportfishing Association) had already selected some topics that would seem to be, shall we say, more beneficial to KRSA than to the commercial fish industry,” he said. “Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but that was our impression. We as a group decided to pass on that opportunity ultimately.”

It’s common practice for industry to fund research elsewhere in the state. The Alaska pollock industry funds research through the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, dispensing funds for research through a board with representatives from several stakeholders. Crabbers in the Bering Sea also fund studies through the Bering Sea Fisheries Research Foundation. But in the past, much of the research in Cook Inlet has been done by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, federal agencies or nonprofits, without direct funding or approval by the industry.

With a still-gaping budget deficit at the state level, Fish and Game’s research budget isn’t likely to grow in the future, and funding at all levels of the state government is subject to cuts as the Legislature attempts to reduce the budget deficit. Federal research may also be on the rocks under President Donald Trump’s administration, which recently proposed a budget that would trim funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages fisheries in federal waters.

In Cook Inlet, commercial fishing industry members are interested in collaborating to provide more funding in the future if the focus of the research benefits both groups, Dale said.

“There were some interesting funding mechanisms in the proposal that intrigued me, and it would be great if we could reduce some of the allocation frictions,” he said.

Fishing stakeholders may have to step up and take the reins on funding research if they want the important baseline work to go forward as well as research with more direct management applications, Gease said. Fish and Game’s research tends to be more oriented toward freshwater research and achieving escapement goals, and marine factors tend to be underrepresented in salmon research and management, he said.

“If we could have more data sources from the marine environment and figure out how to incorporate that into the run timing or the size of the return, it would help all fisheries out,” he said.

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

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