Disaster declarations, relief in limbo for multiple fisheries

The last few years of commercial fishing for Alaska have turned up poor for various regions of the state, resulting in disaster declarations and potential federal assistance.

The 2018 season proved no different, with at least two disaster requests in the works at the state level. A third is in process at the federal level, and yet another is finally distributing money to affected fishermen from the 2016 season.

The three in process still have to be approved before going to Congress, where funds can be appropriated to assist fishermen. The process is affected by the federal government shutdown, as most of the National Marine Fisheries Service employees are furloughed until a resolution is reached.

The pink salmon disaster, which was requested in 2016 after catches across the Gulf of Alaska came in dismally below expectations, is awaiting a finalized plan for distributing $56 million in relief funds.

The plan is currently being reviewed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before the fund distribution is coordinated by the Pacific State Marine Fisheries Commission, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Chignik

The fishermen in the communities of Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Bay and Chignik Lake sat on the docks for the majority of the summer watching dismally as the sockeye salmon run to the Chignika River failed to materialized. The fishermen that normally catch more than a million sockeye among them walked away with 128.

Former Gov. Bill Walker declared an economic disaster for the fishery on Aug. 23, 2018, to start the process of distributing relief to the area’s residents. The three villages on the Alaska Peninsula are subsistence-dependent and obtain most of their cash income as well as winter food supplies from the fishery and wrote in deep concern for the residents this winter.

Walker’s initial disaster declaration stated that relief would be distributed in the form of capital projects in the village and hiring preference for locals. That didn’t solve the villagers’ immediate concerns, according to a letter from the Chignik Coalition to Walker’s administration in October.

“While we appreciate and look forward to building much needed infrastructure in our region, we are in dire need of immediate relief,” the letter states.

The letter stated that the coalition requested a refund of permit renewal fees for 2018 from the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, a deferment on payments to the state’s commercial fisheries revolving loan program and a declaration of a federal disaster to make assistance available.

The CFEC planned to send out letters to individual fishermen for potential refunds in November after reviewing the fishery circumstances, according to the Native Village of Chignik Lagoon’s website.

A representative from Chignik could not be reached by press time for comment.

Upper Cook Inlet

The fishermen of Upper Cook Inlet’s drift gillnet fishery are also seeking assistance for their poor sockeye salmon harvest in 2018. Though the run met its escapement goals and the fishermen did have a number of openers, they walked away with only about a third of the average ex-vessel value.

Fishermen in the drift gillnet fleet complained of not being able to make boat or loan payments, adding another poor year atop two below-average sockeye salmon years in 2016 and 2017.

Though the fishermen haven’t received a disaster declaration from the governor’s office, they’ve found support with local governments on the Kenai Peninsula. The city councils of Homer and Kenai have both passed resolutions supporting a disaster declaration for the drift gillnet fishery, as has the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

The request was sent to the governor’s office before the transition between administrations, but the fishermen haven’t heard anything about it since, said Erik Huebsch, the vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association board.

“It sounds like that was pushed forward in the last few days or weeks of the Walker administration,” he said. “We’re working on that, waiting to see if it fell through the cracks somewhere.”

Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s office had not returned a request for comment by press time on the disaster declaration request for Upper Cook Inlet.

Pacific Cod

Walker’s administration filed a request for a federal disaster declaration in the Gulf of Alaska’s 2018 Pacific cod fishery in March 2018. A drastic cut in the quota due to a forecasted decline in abundance in the gulf led the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to cut the fishery’s quota by about 80 percent between 2017 and 2018. Others were closed outright, and the remaining fishery performed poorly.

“Throughout the Gulf of Alaska, direct impacts will be felt by vessel owners and operators, crew and fish processors, as well as support industries that sell fuel, supplies, and groceries,” Walker wrote in his request letter to the Department of Commerce. “Local governments will feel the impact to their economic base and the state of Alaska will see a decline in fishery related tax revenue.”

As of Jan. 15, no determination had been made on the Pacific cod fishery disaster request. Some disaster determinations take longer than others; while the 2016 Gulf of Alaska pink salmon disaster declaration only took three months until a determination was granted, the Washington state coho and pink salmon 2015 tribal disaster request was filed in 2016 and took more than two years to attain a determination of disaster.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
01/15/2019 - 5:56pm

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