Unalaskans Question Funding for Arctic Research

A lot more scientific research is needed if the United States wants to beef up its presence in the Arctic. The U.S. Arctic Research Commission met in Unalaska this week to figure out what work takes priority. But as KUCB’s Lauren Rosenthal reports, locals were mostly concerned with how the government plans to pay for it all.

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Because they were in Unalaska, the US Arctic Research Commission tailored their conversation around two major industries in the Bering Sea region — maritime shipping, and fishing.

The Arctic’s been closed to fishing until there’s better research on the kinds of fish that are actually living there. Now, that research is finally getting done.

Fisher: “In general in the Northern Bering and Chukchi, they’re seeing diverse fish and invertebrates, but present in low density compared to the Bering.”

That’s Leah Fisher, a fellow with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She shared the results of a trawl survey conducted in the Arctic last year.

The trawler found lots of jellyfish, and comparatively small amounts of Arctic cod and opilio crab. While those are in-demand species, Fisher says the cod and crab were a lot smaller than the ones in the Aleutians.

That’s a big discovery. But Unalaskans were less interested in what the study turned up, than with the way it was financed.

Tom Enlow is the executive vice president for UniSea, a seafood processor in Unalaska.

Enlow: “Our question would be where is this funding coming from? And are we going to be reassured that our existing science in the Bering Sea and the North Pacific is going to be there for the future?”

Enlow says the perception in the fishing industry is that funding is drying up for surveys in the Bering Sea, which help determine catch limits on commercial fishing. They think the funding is going north to the Arctic.

Right now, the studies are coming out of two different pots: NOAA covers fishery surveys in the Bering Sea. They couldn’t afford to do the Arctic trawl survey, so the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management paid for it.

But it’s not clear if BOEM will have enough money to continue doing the Arctic survey again.

And the fear is that as the federal budget shrinks, agencies will cut back in the Aleutians to better serve the Arctic.

Frank Kelty is a fisheries analyst for the city of Unalaska, and a former mayor. He said the Aleutians rely on federal funding in a lot of ways.

Kelty: “We have the issue with the Steller sea lion still, fur seals, Pacific right whales. We have many research needs and enforcement. And Coast Guard assets are spread pretty thin right now. So it is a concern for many of us in fishery-dependent coastal communities, that we don’t lose a lot of our assets to work in the Arctic.”

That concern is understandable, according to John Farrell. He’s the executive director for Arctic Research Commission.

Farrell: “It’s an important message to bring back to Washington, is this concern: If they’re serious about doing more stuff in the higher Arctic that it should not be done at the expense of the southern or the sub-Arctic region.”

Even though he understands their complaints, Farrell says Unalaskans could still choose to look at the situation differently.

Farrell: “It depends partly on perspective. If you see it as a fixed pot of funds, from which we’ll rob Peter to pay Paul. Or is it a rising tide lifts all boats type of situation?”

But with money so tight in Washington these days, it could be a while before the tide of increased interest in the Arctic lifts up research efforts in the Aleutians.