Future of MAP in Cordova in jeopardy

Alaska Sea Grant director urges community to speak up now in support

Torie Baker talks with Mayor Clay Koplin before the crab dinner at the Reluctant Fisherman on Saturday, March 24, 2018. Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times

Being one of the top 10 fishing ports in the nation for millions of pounds of seafood landed is a source of pride in this Prince William Sound fishing community, population 1,800, with credit due, folks say, to harvesters, processors and the Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program.

Now, it appears, Cordova’s MAP program is in danger of extinction, and with money being carved away overall, the future of the statewide program could be in jeopardy, Alaska Sea Grant sources said.

For 43 years, through an extension position that actually pre-dates Sea Grant in Alaska, the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences fisheries extension program has provided a wealth of education to Cordova’s seafood harvesting industry, thanks to UAF original vision to serve the state through extension agents.

Since 1976, the presence of an extension agent in Cordova has provided a link that enables better research projects helps recruit young people from the region to UAF and elevates the role of the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in the region. 

Over the years these agents, most recently Torie Baker, have provided important partnerships in the region, including: CFOS scientific support during establishment of the salmon hatchery system; spill response leadership during the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill; marine mammal research during the Stellar sea lion endangered species designation of the early 1990s; leadership in salmon price relief and training programs in the early 2000s; plus economic and technical assistance to the commercial fishing sector and the next generation of Alaska seafood harvesters since 2003.

It was Baker, who resigned from Sea Grant earlier this year, who was most instrumental in establishing the Young Fishermen’s Summit. To date, that program has provided training to over 450 new entrants to the commercial fishing industry.

The Cordova MAP office is one of five MAP extension offices that has received direct matching funding to UAF from the Legislature since 2010. The Prince William Sound Aquaculture Association has donated office and storage space, plus Internet connection for this position for 15 years, a savings of $270,000 to UAF, and wishes to continue this arrangement.

But all this could come to an end if the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences moves forward with plans to reprogram that MAP faculty position to retain within the Fairbanks campus. 

“It’s not what I would have chosen for our program,” said Heather Brandon, recently appointed as the new director of Alaska Sea Grant. “There is a big hole without Torie. We would like to fill that. I was hoping we would have been able to advertise and get tenured faculty into that job,” Brandon said.

What she is hoping now, on the heels of a visit to Cordova on June 8-10, is that Cordova will get very vocal during the month of June in defense of its Sea Grant MAP position.

“The budget is still very much in play,” Brandon said. “Constituents can still make their voices heard at the highest level of the university, and if they want to, Cordovans should do this now.”

After a recent big review by National Sea Grant representatives, who observed that money was being carved away from the state program, UAF was given recommendations to work om at the university level.

“We have to show progress on their recommendations, that we are doing something productive and demonstrate that progress to National Sea Grant,” said Paula Dobbyn, communications manager for Alaska Sea Grant. 

Without better support from the university by November 2020, we will go on probation, which is the step before decertification, Brandon said.

“We would lose merit funding, about $160,000 each year,” she said.

Alaska Sea Grant is also funded through about $1 million in external grant funds, about $1.6 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and about $1.1 million from the university. Six of the current MAP agents — who also apply for grants themselves — have nine months of their annual salary paid for through the university. Three others are funded only through grants they secure plus grants from NOAA.

Baker notes that Alaska Sea Grant’s history runs deep in Cordova, home of the world-famous Copper River salmon fishery, with 534 permitted operations engaged in a six-month fishery delivering to local and regional seafood processing facilities in Cordova, Valdez, Whitter and Seward, according to data compiled by Sea Grant. There are 538 commercial fishing permit holders, for salmon, halibut, black cod and crab, in Cordova. Over 25 percent of all households are involved in commercial harvesting, processing and resource management. Some 690 vessels are homeported in Cordova, the majority of them commercial fishing boats.

Over the years the NMAP faculty has provided training for local harvesters and processors, as well as others who traveled to Cordova for the education, in subjects ranging from seafood processor mandatory safety and sanitation training, to seafood direct marketing business and operations assistance, oil spill preparedness and response, marine research collaboration, and fisheries regulatory process leadership training. Baker wrote, in a memorandum highlighting the strength of the Marine Advisory Program in Cordova.

In 1988 MAP faculty was a co-founder of the Prince William Sound Science Center and facilitated establishment of both the Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet regional citizens’ advisory councils through 1990 federal legislation. MAP faculty also coordinated federal salmon price disaster relief and retraining options for over 8,000 salmon permit holders and crew throughout Alaska, resulting in over $6 million in direct support to impacted fishing families.

Some other examples of services provided by the Cordova MAP office over the last 15 years include coordination of 281 mandatory business technical workshops for over 8,000 salmon permit holders and crew in 200 Alaska communities applying for U.S. Department of Agriculture Trade Adjustment Assistance and training benefits and delivery of U.S. Coast Guard-approved commercial fishing safety training to over 400 local fishermen and crew, Baker noted.

Cordova MAP agents have also collaborated through long-time partnerships with Cordova District Fishermen United and the Copper River-Prince William Sound Seafood Marketing Association on projects ranging from seafood quality handing training for fishermen to consultation on national safety regulation development and implementation, she wrote.

To continue all these services and more for Cordova’s multi-million-dollar fishing industry, Brandon said she hopes now that area residents will contact university officials and legislators to ask that the MAP agent position for the community is funded.