Washington Monument II - ADF&G? Perhaps not so much, but some work needs to be done

Photo courtesy USF&WS, Flickr, July 29, 2002

My previous article accusing ADF&G and AK DOT&PF of executing the Washington Monument strategy on Alaskans in order to inflict maximum pain on the citizens during the budget wars may have cast the nets a bit too widely.

As of this writing, it appears that AK DOT&PF is most certainly gaming funding of their operational snow clearing to inflict pain on the general public. The good news is so far the winter has not been all that snowy (at least the last couple months). The bad news is the snow is coming.

It appears I may have unfairly criticized ADF&G for cuts to the hatchery programs, weirs and sonar. I have been in contact with Mr. Forrest Bowers, Division Operations Manager for Commfish at ADF&G.

Per Mr. Bowers, the commfish budget, which includes commercial hatcheries, sonar and weir programs, has been cut from a high of $54.3 million in FY14 to $39.9 million in FY16. A further cut to $36.5 million is proposed for FY17.

Budget for manned weirs / sonar / escapement monitoring has fallen from $7.2 million in FY14 to $5.5 million in FY16. Best I can find out, the only weir that will no longer be manned is one of the three in the Susitna drainage.

In response to questions about using volunteers to man the weirs, it appears that there some limitations imposed by the collective bargaining agreements for state employees that prohibits this alternative. There was a program to use interns for manning the weirs but that budget in commfish lapsed.

We had a discussion on automating the counts. I was not real pleased with the reaction to a suggestion to automate the daily sonar data on the Kenai River available via a live, continuous web feed. They are reluctant to automate the weirs as they require “… daily adjustments due to water levels, debris, fish movement and bear activity.” Weir work also involves sampling as do the sonar locations. All that, according to commfish requires trained personnel. Fair enough.

Comments on the stocking plan for 2016 also drew a response. Based on the availability of grayling brood stock, the hatchery program is very comfortable with their ability to crank up stocking at a later date. Flexibility in the rainbow trout brood stock allows a similar rebound should funding increase. Finally, any attempt to increase coho stocking in Bird and Campbell Creeks is funding limited. Problem with this is that when the catch at Bird is down as it has been in recent years, local fishermen really hammer coho returns in other Turnagain Arm streams.

But there is a discrepancy with the numbers. Note that OMB’s Component Summary documents the end of a Commfish Special Project in FY2015 to the tune of $20.8 million. The FY2016 budget increases four commfish regional fisheries management budgets by $6.1 million between 2015 and 2016. Funding for the Commercial Fish Entry Commission also increases from zero to $4.3 million. I don’t know what the Special Project was, but it sure does look like over $10 million were simply re-allocated within the department.

Additionally, the overall budget for commfish listed by OMB increased around $47,000 between FY2015 and FY2016 while the sportfish budget over the same period decreased by $660,000, which sure looks like ADF&G budgeteers are taking care of commfish while cutting sportfish. You can find the budget numbers here. https://www.omb.alaska.gov/ombfiles/16_budget/Fish/Enacted/16compsummary...

So what am I to conclude with all this? There are three possibilities immediately possible. OMB is not accurate. ADF&G commfish is not accurate. Or the Walker administration does not know what is going on with its own budget. Given its performance over the last year, I would suspect option 3 is most likely and the most unfortunate.

It is clear that there have been budget cuts at ADF&G. It is clear that those who administer those programs really think their budgets have been cut. It is clear that those cuts have hit commfish less than sportfish, though sportfish and the sportfish hatchery programs serve significantly more Alaskans.

It also appears that the escapement programs - weirs / sonar counts which reside in commfish – need another home separate from both commfish and sportfish within the department, if for no other reason than to demonstrate that the escapement counts are being made by an honest broker. This will go no small way toward eliminating criticism that commfish has been gaming escapement counts so as to allow increased commercial catch which directly benefit commercial fishermen at the expense of everyone else in the state, something that has been alleged in Cook Inlet for decades.

I stand by my suggestion that the sportfish hatcheries and all escapement related programs eventually be privatized. The escapement program should most certainly be moved out of commfish. Perhaps privatization is a better solution. Perhaps not. But movement out of commfish is critical.

If and when this reorganization is done, perhaps there will be more interest in using volunteers, interns, automation, and real-time continuous public monitoring of the weirs to publicly monitor the numbers of fish moving through. Never forget that the best and most powerful antidote to corruption – perceived or otherwise – is continuous open and public access to all data and analysis which allocation decisions have been based upon.

Do not forget that escapement and the sportfish hatchery programs hit many times the number of people – Alaskan and tourista anglers – more than anything controlled by commfish. Time to shine the light of day on all of this. What better opportunity do we have than a time of serious budget crunches?