ADFG releases draft disaster funds plan for Chignik salmon, P-cod

In the middle of two ongoing disasters — the coronavirus pandemic and extremely poor salmon runs in many regions of the state — some fishermen may finally see some money to help with disasters from 2018.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is looking for comments on its draft distribution plans for relief funds connected to the Pacific cod disaster in the Gulf of Alaska and the Chignik sockeye salmon disaster, both in 2018. The comment periods for them are open until Aug. 14.

Two years ago, Pacific cod fishermen were facing a dismal season, with two age classes of fish just missing. The P-cod fishery is highly valuable and high-volume in Alaska’s groundfish fisheries, accounting for about a fifth of the total groundfish catch in Alaska every year. But the increasingly warm temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska seem to be connected to declining fish survival. The survey numbers led the National Marine Fisheries Service to close the Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod fishery entirely for the 2020 season.

The Secretary of Commerce confirmed the disaster declaration in October, and in early 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, set aside $24.4 million for the disaster. Under the current draft plan, harvesters would be eligible for 40 percent of that, with 51 percent going to pot catcher vessels, 29 percent to trawlers, 4 percent to jig vessels, 8 percent to longliners, 7 percent to longline catcher-processors, and 1 percent to trawl catcher-processors. Those values were calculated based on wholesale value among the six sectors, according to the plan.

With the exception of the jig sector, which would be permit-based, ADFG is proposing for distribution to be vessel-based. Payments to individual vessels would be determined in tiers, based on the average landings over three years, calculated by the best two of three years.

Processors would be eligible to receive 26 percent and communities for 4 percent, with community payments pro rata based on demonstrated loss, with a threshold of at least $10,000 of landings in a community.

The remaining 30 percent would be set aside for research. With the changing temperature regime in the area, there are other repercussions, like changing phytoplankton and zooplankton.

“Species at the top of the marine food chain, including Pacific cod, experienced lower recruitment (reduced juvenile survival) and increased mortality was documented in fishes, birds, and mammals,” the draft plan states.

Funding would be available by bid, with preference for projects that help managers understand the causes of the 2018 cod crash, such as projects focusing on understanding the effect of warming temperatures on Pacific cod ecology and dynamics, early life history studies, and more information about stock spatial structure, migration patterns, and connectivity based on new genetics or genomics. A small portion, less than 1 percent, would be set aside for ADFG to administer the grants as well.

In 2018, Chignik saw its worst sockeye run to date. Less than 150 fish were harvested as the run struggled to make escapement. NMFS designated $10.3 million in relief funds for that fishery, with 55 percent set aside for harvesters. Chignik is a fairly exclusive salmon fishery, with many of the local fishermen reliant on that cash income to pay for items like heating oil and gasoline for the winter. The relief funds are calculated to cover about 75 percent of the average ex-vessel value from 2015-17.

ADFG’s draft plan would split that 55 percent into two groups, with 65 percent going to vessel owners and 35 percent going to crew. The plan divides payments for vessel owners into four tiers, based on the average landings for the best two out of three years. Crew, on the other hand, would get equal payments as long as they can provide information showing they had a license in 2018 and participated as crew in 2018.

Processors would be eligible for 11 percent, with an option for tender vessels, and communities would be eligible for 3 percent. The Chignik Intertribal Coalition, or CIC, would be eligible for 1 percent under a subsistence designation, which would be intended to help the group provide other sustained options for subsistence activities.

“Residents of the region are heavily dependent on the sockeye salmon runs to sustain their subsistence lifestyle,” the plan states. “The CIC may need to identify specific projects or infrastructure that support subsistence activities in the region prior to receiving funds from (Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission). The funds could also be considered for direct payments to regional households to mitigate food security concerns.”

Like the cod fishery, 1 percent would be set aside for ADFG administration and 30 percent of the money for Chignik would be designated for research. It’s not entirely clear what happened in 2018, as both the early and late runs failed. Projects ADFG is interested in grantees pursuing would be to help understand environmental factors and freshwater and marine production for both runs, investigate juvenile movement, growth, and habitat use in freshwater and estuaries, better salmon enumeration methods, and better understandings of the socioeconomic impacts of fishery disasters on subsistence communities like Chignik.

Even as ADFG is working on the plans to distribute that funding, fishermen all over the state are struggling with ongoing disasters. Chignik is facing another extremely poor run, with restrictions this season in both the subsistence and commercial sockeye fisheries. Only 255,579 early run sockeye were counted on the Chignik River, less than even in 2018; as of Aug. 3, only 117,131 sockeye had been counted as well, less than half of the run in 2019.

Prices are also a major concern for fishermen, as restaurants all over the U.S. face fluctuating restrictions and openings amid the coronavirus pandemic. With that uncertainty and the burden of the additional costs for COVID-19 mitigation this season, including quarantining crew arriving in the state and additional personal protective equipment, Alaska fishermen have felt the pinch this year.

The state recently made CFEC permit holders eligible to apply for Alaska CARES Act funds, which can be applied toward eligible expenses and impacts related to the pandemic.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

08/05/2020 - 9:26am