Shutdown Could Mean Total Loss for One Biologist, Big Financial Hit For His Pilot

Among the many Americans affected by the government shutdown, are scientists who rely on federal funding for their work.  But that money doesn’t just go to the scientists.  Lots of it trickles down into the community.

Local pilot Andy Greenblatt has been grounded all month. He owns Shadow Aviation.  He says 85 percent of the flights he’s contracted for are paid for with state and the federal dollars.

“We work for Forest Service, BLM, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Fish and Game, DNR,” he said.

For nearly a decade, Greenblatt has flown with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Biologist Randy Brown.

“I do mostly migration research in the Yukon River and some other drainages in Northwest and Northern Alaska,” Brown explained.

Brown is in the midst of a long-term study on a species of whitefish called the Bering cisco.

“It’s harvested in subsistence fisheries and it’s also the target in a commercial fishery right now that got started a few years ago and markets to people in New York City,” he said. “So, it’s the first of the whitefishes that I’m aware of that has an outside market.”

He says high-end restaurants are clamoring for the fish, which they like to serve smoked, but no one knows how many Bering cisco there are, where exactly they spawn or how valuable the fishery can be.  That’s why he’s using a method called radio-telemetry to find out more.

“We actually catch a fish without hurting it and implant a radio transmitter,” Brown said. “And then let the fish go and we follow where they go and then we fly aerial surveys, we get in an airplane with antennas on it and identify where they are at different times.”

Whitefish spawn during the first two weeks of October. This is supposed to be Greenblatt’s third season flying with Randy Brown.

“He always takes the end of September and the first part of October,” Greenblatt said. “We go out radio tracking, so I always set aside that time for him and do not book other flights.”

The two had scheduled up to $15,000 worth of flights this fall, but none have taken off. Greenblatt was able to pick up some extra work from the Department of Fish and Game to fill the hole in his schedule, but he’s spent most of his time doing other things.

“I cleaned all the windows in the house the other day; I gotta go clean my truck right now,” he said with a laugh.

Randy Brown says he’s also whittled down his list of chores, but he can’t stop thinking about the whitefish, swimming up the Yukon River without him.

“If we lose this season, which it appears that we will, then we would have to start all over again,” he said.

Brown’s research took three years to develop.  It’s funded by the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Subsistence Management for $150,000.

He says the loss of this year’s field season could mean the loss of the project entirely.

“The likelihood in my mind that we would get another funding allocation to do it over, seems reasonably small, I don’t know,” he said.

Brown’s isn’t the only scientific research affected by the shutdown.

The Alaska Volcano Observatories monitoring efforts have been greatly limited. Many researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are hoping to submit