Natural Resources

Published March 2020

Director Ralph Townsend in his officeAlaska’s rich environment is an invaluable resource. Large expanses of the state remain untouched and nature is woven into our daily lives. Nature-based industries such as tourism, petroleum and fishing fuel our state’s economy. Understanding how to sustain these environmental resources is central to the health of Alaska and its people.

The Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) is committed to conducting and disseminating research relevant to current events within Alaska. We hope that our research will inform planning and decisions to help Alaskans to continue to realize economic and recreational benefits from its amazing environmental resources. As the range of issues covered in this edition of “Hot Topics” demonstrates, ISER’s research extends broadly over important environmental topics.

Bristol Bay experiences a higher value sockeye harvest.

The value of Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon harvest increased from recent years due to both higher prices and higher volumes. ISER’s Dr. Kevin Berry presented on the topic at the annual Seattle meeting of the University of Washington Fisheries Research Institute. His presentation, Trends in Bristol Bay Harvest, Production, and Markets, communicated that harvest volumes were up within Bristol Bay, while the statewide total was down. That smaller statewide harvest, along with events in international markets and farmed salmon production, led to higher prices.  Bristol Bay made up a larger percentage of the state harvest volume in 2018 than any season since 1980. This impacted the mix of products produced across the state, as Bristol Bay tends to produce more frozen salmon and less fresh catch.

Former ISER Director and Professor Emeritus, Dr. Gunnar Knapp, also presented at that meeting and predicted that the industry should expect frozen sockeye prices to correlate with farmed Atlantic salmon prices in the future. The two products compete directly in many markets. When prices of farmed Atlantic salmon increase, buyers are willing to pay more for frozen sockeye.  But when farmed salmon prices fall, buyers expect to pay less for frozen sockeye.

Invasive freshwater plant spread by airplanes could cost Alaska millions.

Tobias Schwoerer pulling Elodea out of the water while on a float plane

Tobias Schwoerer (author) on floatplane pontoon in elodea infested lake. Picture by Kristine Dunker.

Alaska’s commercial harvest of sockeye salmon was valued at $344 million in 2018. This number could shrink by 50% if the invasive aquatic plant elodea spreads into more lakes and rivers, because the plant degrades sockeye habitats and damages spawning beds in particular. ISER’s Dr. Tobias Schwoerer, along with University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) economist Joseph Little and fisheries scientist Dr. Milo Adkison, published an article summarizing their research on the forecasted damages from the invasive species in the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Economics. If elodea continues to spread, their estimates suggest likely financial impacts to Alaska’s commercial sockeye fisheries in the range of $159 million annually.  There is, however, a small chance that damages could exceed $577 million per year.

Commercial fishing is not the only Alaska industry to feel the negative effects of elodea. UAF’s Dr. Joseph Little, working with ISER researchers Dr. Tobias Schwoerer, Dr. Jennifer Schmidt, and Kyle Borash, published an article in Ambio that reported results from a survey of pilots about elodea impacts. Elodea creates dense mats of floating plants that are a safety concern for pilots and that diminish the quality of sport fishing and other water-based recreation. Their analysis showed that the introduction of elodea to a remote floatplane destination decreases the perceived economic value of the affected site to pilots by about $185 per visit.

This level of loss may justify significant investments in elodea eradication.  Fluridone, a chemical treatment to eradicate elodea, has minimal impact on native plants and aquatic life, while being lethal for elodea.  The treatment has been successfully applied both locally and nationally to clean up infested lakes.

Nature-based tourism may cause challenges in northern Alaskan communities.

Nature-based tourism has a long history in Alaska.  Until recently, that tourism was typically focused on the area below the Arctic Circle. However, the Arctic’s distinct natural environment and visitors’ desire to see it before it changes – sometimes called “last chance tourism” – is attracting more and more travelers above the Arctic Circle. This increase in nature-based tourism offers Arctic communities opportunities for development, but it may also bring risks to community and environmental systems.  In a recent article, “Nature-based tourism, resource dependence, and resilience for Artic communities: framing complex issues in a changing environment,” ISER’s Dr. Jen Schmidt suggests using a socio-ecological systems approach to calculate a community’s sensitivity to overdependence on nature-based tourism and to identify possible steps to reinforce or to increase community resilience.

Dependence on nature-based tourism is not a problem unique to northern communities. ISER’s Dr. Tobias Schwoerer evaluated tourism’s impact on the coastal communities of the Bahía Magdalena lagoon complex in Baja, México, in his article “Local Fishing Communities and Nature-Based Tourism in Baja, México: An Inter-sectoral Valuation of Environmental Inputs.

Technology has generally positive impact on subsistence and fuel use.

Dr. Jen Schmidt interviewed 61 households in Tanana to understand how wood harvest for fuel interacted with subsistence activities. Her findings, which were presented at the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, Norway, showed that people who engage in subsistence activity typically have the equipment to harvest wood, that there is plenty of wood available, and that wood harvest does not compete with subsistence harvests. Without wood, energy costs in Tanana would rise significantly and would hinder the community’s way of life. Dr. Jen Schmidt and Amanda Byrd (the Biomass Coordinator for the Alaska Center for Energy and Power) produced a video in which Tanana residents discuss the fuel savings they realize from high-efficiency wood burning systems and solar panels.

Another presentation at the Arctic Frontiers conference by Dr. Jen Schmidt, “Can my GPS lead me to a sustainable future? The role of technology and lessons from three remote Arctic communities,” presented results from interviews with residents of Noatak, Noorvik, and Brevig Mission on their values and beliefs regarding technology, climate change, and subsistence activity. Throughout the past decade, technology has helped residents to locate animals, has made hunting easier, and has improved communication.  There are negative effects, including the costs to access this technology. Many surveyed believe that technology could also help them manage climate-change impacts, such as navigation in increasingly open ocean water or on rivers and lakes that have been altered by climate change.

GPS technology is not the only technology that is helpful to rural Alaska communities. In a second video produced by Dr. Jen Schmidt and Amanda Byrd, Cordova residents discuss their limited access to fresh food, other than game such as fish, moose and deer. They hope that hydroelectric power may make it possible for them to grow more produce through hydroponics. Dr. Jen Schmidt presented this project at the Alaska Food Policy Council Festival and Conference, where she also solicited further ideas for how rural Alaskans might improve their food security.

Wildfires have prompted a closer look at fire prevention in Alaska.

smoke and trees wild fireAlaska’s recent record-breaking high temperatures came with significant consequences. Fires ravaged the state throughout the summer of 2019, which has prompted interest in improving fire prevention. Dr. Jen Schmidt, as part the EPSCoR team looking at the effects of fires and at how to treat vegetation to prevent fires, visited Anchorage areas damaged by fires with the Rabbit Creek Community Council. She and her students surveyed vegetation in Anchorage and Kenai.  They found that in some areas, such as Rabbit Creek, there has been an increase in highly flammable grassy areas. Mapping vegetation patterns on the ground helps develop fire risk models and response plans. While climate change is a major factor in the increased danger, development in high-risk areas without proper precautions is another contributor to the growing threat. Dr. Schmidt suggests, “Providing a mix of carrots (reduced insurance costs or taxes) and sticks (taxes based on risk or legal restrictions) is the best way forward to reducing wildfire risk, preventing loss of life and property, and saving costs in the long run.”

The significant increases in wildfire risks prompted the development of a 4-year, $1.1 million National Science Foundation project to assess the costs, risks, and actions necessary to adapt to or to mitigate damage from these hazards in Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Whitehorse (Yukon.) This initiative is led by Dr. Schmidt, and ISER’s Matthew Berman, Tobias Schwoerer, Kevin Berry, and Brett Watson are also working on the project.

Feel free to contact our researchers with your questions. As always, ISER is here to provide relevant research to support the best policy decision making.

Ralph Townsend's signature

Ralph Townsend

ISER Director