Commerce secretary declares pink salmon disaster

  • Pink salmon fishermen in Alaska may get a break from the federal government after outgoing Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker declared a diaster for the 2016 season in the Gulf of Alaska. (Photo/File/AP)

Help could be on the way for the pink salmon fishermen whose catch sank to dismal lows last year.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker granted Gov. Bill Walker’s request for a declaration of a disaster for Alaska’s pink salmon fishery on Jan. 18 along with eight other salmon and crab fisheries along the West Coast.

In 2016, the pink salmon harvests in Kodiak, Prince William Sounds, Chignik and lower Cook Inlet came in woefully under forecast and stumped biologists as to why.

The estimated value of Kodiak’s 2016 haul was $2.21 million, compared to a five-year average of $14.64 million, and in Prince William Sound the ex-vessel value was $6.6 million, far less that the $44 million five-year average. The total state harvest was the smallest since the late 1970s.

Although state biologists weren’t ready to declare a cause for the poor pink salmon performance, the Commerce Department press release attributed the disasters to “unusual ocean and climate conditions.”

“In recent years, each of these (nine) fisheries experienced sudden and unexpected large decreases in fish stock biomass due to unusual ocean and climate conditions,” the statement reads.

Emily Menashes, deputy director of NOAA Fisheries Office of Sustainability, said drawing conclusions about the cause of the disasters was not intended.

“I think it was difficult to pinpoint one specific thing,” she said. “We did not intend to make some kind of causal link to climate change.”

Scientists interviewed during the 2016 season had no solid evidence of any causes for the small returns.

“We recognized in the reviews that there were conditions during the time period that the disasters were requested (e.g., warm water “blob”), which met the criteria for an allowable cause under the Magnuson-Stevens Act,” wrote John Ewald of NOAA Fisheries public affairs office. “We did not make any determinations about the underlying reasons for the conditions.”

Unusual ocean and climate conditions did occur in the Gulf of Alaska in the last few years, notably the so-called “Blob” of warm surface water in 2015 and 2016, which led to other factors including a large red algae growth stretching from the West Coast to the Gulf of Alaska.

State and federal scientists interviewed directly following the poor pink salmon season each emphasized that they were mystified as to the run’s causes, though they acknowledged the “Blob” was a potential factor.

Further, these conditions also coincided with positive results in at least one case. Though the 2016 season was a bust that earned a federal disaster declaration, in 2015 the pink salmon harvest doubled the forecast in Prince William Sound and broke the previous 20-year record.

Menashes said in a telephone interview that the press release’s statement was a “high level” communication that did not capture the more detailed analysis in the Secretary of Commerce’s individual determination letters for each of the nine fisheries.

That letter does draw similar conclusions to the press release’s statement.

“The impacts resulted from poor pink salmon returns due to a variety of factors outside the control of fishery managers to mitigate, including unfavorable ocean conditions, freshwater environmental factors, and disease,” reads the secretary’s letter specific to the Gulf of Alaska fishery.

Now that the disaster has been declared, it will be up to Congress to find the necessary funds and secure them for fishermen.

 “I am relieved to see that the Department of Commerce has listened to Alaskan fishermen, the Governor, and the delegation by acknowledging the dire situation this past summer in the Gulf of Alaska pink salmon fishery by issuing a disaster declaration,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a statement. “However, this is not automatic relief for our fishermen or the industry. As we have learned before in previous fishery disaster declarations in Alaska, it is a long process. Now comes the hard work of fighting to secure funds through the appropriations process.”

Fortunately for fishermen, Alaska’s Congressional delegation is seated well to handle the appropriations process.

Murkowski sits on the Appropriations Committee, while junior Sen. Dan Sullivan was named chair of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard for the newest Congress.

In the House of Representatives, Rep. Don Young sits on the Subcommittee on Water, Power and Oceans, which also oversees fisheries.

Staff from these offices has said the quest for relief dollars has not yet begun.

This will be one of growing number of disaster declarations for Alaska fisheries in the 2010s.

Alaska received $20.8 million in federal money for fishery failures declared in 2012 over low king salmon returns on the Yukon River from 2010-12, the Kuskokwim River from 2011-12 and in the Cook Inlet region in 2012.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act outlines how the U.S. Department of Commerce concludes that a fishery is a disaster.

The MSA only says natural, manmade or undetermined causes:

“At the discretion of the Secretary or at the request of the Governor of an affected State or a fishing community, the Secretary shall determine whether there is a commercial fishery failure due to a fishery resource disaster as a result of: natural causes; man-made causes beyond the control of fishery managers to mitigate through conservation and management measures, including regulatory restrictions (including those imposed as a result of judicial action) imposed to protect human health or the marine environment; or undetermined causes.”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

This story has been updated from the original with comments from NOAA officials regarding the reasons for the disaster declaration.

01/24/2017 - 1:23pm