Lawmakers gaveled into the second half of the 30th Alaska Legislative Session in Juneau this month. (Berett Wilber)

The Alaska Legislature gaveled in two weeks ago. Legislators are facing a three billion dollar budget deficit for the fourth year in a row.

Budget cuts have slashed state spending during that time, which has had serious consequences for one of Southeast’s biggest economic drivers: the fishing industry.

With help from other CoastAlaska member stations, we bring you this report on something Southeast lawmakers agree on: Protecting funding for the Department of Fish and Game.

Alaska’s Board of Fisheries is ending its deliberation this month just as the Alaska Legislature gavels into theirs. Fisheries are looming large for Southeast lawmakers.

Rep. Dan Ortiz, an Independent from Ketchikan, says, “This to me is one of the most significant issues that will impact our region and our way of life. The fishing industry is the number one driver of the economy here in Coastal Alaska.”

He’s starting his second year as chairman of the Finance Subcommittee for Fish and Game. He oversees the annual budget process for the Department, where legislators look at the level of funding proposed by the Governor, and decide to pass or to change it.

Lately, those changes have been big cuts. Alaska’s fiscal crisis has seen the state budget cut 44 percent in four years.

Most of those cuts were before Ortiz’s tenure: he became the ADF&G subcommittee chairman only after Alaska’s Republican House Majority gave way in the 2016 elections to a Majority coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

His opinion? The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has suffered enough.

“I’m going to do whatever’s in my power to see they’re not cut any farther,” he says. “And in this Governor’s budget, they’re at the same level that they were last year.”

According to the office of the Governor, state lawmakers have already cut the Department of Fish and Game’s budget by 37 percent and axed 182 positions since 2015. Many of those are seasonal research positions.

Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, from Sitka, says those cuts have real consequences for fishermen.

“Cuts are getting to the bone. With ADF&G in particular, when you cut too much, you have to manage fisheries more conservatively, which means you’re leaving fish in the ocean, which means people aren’t able to make a livelihood as they once were.”

He says it’s not enough to advocate for the Departments budget alone.

“I mean, go ahead and equate: if you don’t like the way ADF&G is staffed right now, then you should be advocating for a fiscal plan.”

Rep. Sam Kito III, from Juneau, links that big picture to something specific: declining returns of king salmon. The Department doesn’t know why kings aren’t coming back from the ocean, he says, and that’s clearly a place where more research would be valuable.

“The challenge we have is we don’t have the budget for that,” Kito says. “The problem is, if we don’t spend that money, we’re not going to have the research to make reasonable allocation decisions.” 

Rep. Justin Parish, from Juneau, agrees: to make good fisheries decisions, the Department needs good data.

“When we cut people, we interrupt data sets that are vital for understanding which direction the populations of fish in the state are going, and how we can help mitigate likely adverse effects in the future.”

Senator Dennis Egan, from Juneau, perhaps put the overriding sentiment most succinctly: Let biologists do their jobs.

“You know, I’m not an expert biologist,” he says. “Those guys are the experts. I rely on them.” 

But while the Department is expert at managing and maintaining fish stocks, they can’t set their own budget. They’ll be depending on legislators for that.