The state is once again looking to move the Wildlife Trooper patrol vessel Stimson from Unalaska to Kodiak. And this year, the change seems poised to go through.
Officials in Unalaska fought hard to hang on to the troopers’ biggest vessel when the move was on the table a year ago. But this time around, city manager Chris Hladick says they’ve had to reconsider their priorities.
“I just don’t see us, with this budget climate, being able to save everything,” Hladick says.
Moving the 156-foot P/V Stimson to Kodiak would save the state almost half a million dollars, says Wildlife Trooper Col. Steve Bear. It’s either that, or cut three jobs — meaning, he says, the transfer is all but a done deal.
“I think everybody realizes that during these tough economic times, some of the politics that may have saved projects like this in the past just aren’t going to happen,” Bear says.
The savings with moving the Stimson come mostly in salary and housing costs. Bear says their employees in Unalaska make 60 percent more than those in Anchorage, because of the high cost of living. They also live in state-leased housing at around Anchorage rates.
If the Stimson’s five-person crew, their families and one of Unalaska’s two troopers moved to Kodiak, they would take a pay cut — and would have to find their own housing.
It would also mean a loss of several students from Unalaska’s schools, which are already running a deficit due in part to declining enrollment.
But Bear says the Stimson’s mission wouldn’t really suffer. In fact, he says they’ve planned around added fuel and travel costs.
“We could move the boat, sail an additional 27 days, and we’d still save about $480,000 a year by doing that,” he says.
The Stimson spent 116 days on the water last year, patrolling fisheries in the Aleutian Islands and Western Alaska. It’s a bigger area than they used to cover — the vessel was brought to Dutch Harbor in 1998 to police the derby-style crab fisheries. Back then, boats were racing to fish, even in dangerous conditions.
Now, with quota doled out among the fleet, Bear says the Stimson can focus on species besides just crab.
“That fishery is a lot cleaner and a lot safer than it used to be, and I don’t think people feel the need or are urged to make the risks that they used to in the past,” he says. “I think that frees the Stimson up to do other patrols. They do spend at least 30 days a year patrolling the salmon fisheries in Bristol Bay.”
They also cover cod, and even the caribou season in Adak. So for Unalaska-based Trooper Sgt. Robin Morrisett, a move could just mean more sea time in more places.
“If they see where it’s a couple more days of the boat driving from Kodiak out here – well, that’s a couple more days of going through the south part of the Alaska Peninsula to get out here to where we work, and then two more days going back,” he says. “That’s four more days in that area that we see that area.”
Chris Hladick, the city manager, wondered if the Stimson might be busier in the Aleutians as companies like Shell Oil establish a regional presence. But Colonel Bear says except in special cases, the Wildlife Troopers focus on what’s in their name: “Wild resources, the fish and the game of the state — not oil resources,” he says.
The troopers do have another vessel that does similar patrols — the 121-foot P/V Woldstad, already based in Kodiak. But Bear says it’s long past due for an engine overhaul that would take it out of service for several months.
“It can be used, it’s still operational, but we’re trying to be very cautious how much we use it, because the engines are so far past the rebuild date,” he says.
The Stimson got that kind of rebuild a little over a year ago. So Bear says it can help cover the Woldstad’s patrols well into the future.
The plan to move the Stimson is part of the state’s proposed public safety budget. It’s currently making its way through legislative approvals in Juneau.