Feds declare disaster for king salmon fisheries

The U.S. Department of Commerce issued a resource disaster designation for the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River and Cook Inlet king salmon fisheries Sept. 13.

The Yukon River designation was made for 2010, 2011 and 2012; the Kuskokwim River commercial failure was declared for 2011 and 2012; and the 2012 declaration was made for Cook Inlet, according to a letter from Rebecca Blank, acting Secretary of Commerce, to Gov. Sean Parnell. Runs on each of those rivers were well below average.

“Some Cook Inlet salmon fisheries have experienced revenue losses of up to 90 percent of their historical average during the 2012 season, seriously hurting local economies that are dependent on fishing,” said Blank in her announcement.

Although the declarations are for commercial fishery failures, Blank’s letter confirms that the commercial failures can also involve economic impacts for subsistence and sport fisheries, as were felt on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and in Cook Inlet.

The state is estimating economic damages exceeded $10 million, according to Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman for Parnell.

The governor’s office was asked for information on how the $10 million figure was calculated, but unable to respond by press time.

Leighow said the Alaska Department of Commerce, Department of Fish and Game, and the governor’s office are working together with Alaska’s congressional delegation to determine the damages and get an appropriation from Congress.

If Congress appropriates funds for disaster relief, the National Marine Fisheries Service will help determine who administers the money. NMFS would first solicit the state of Alaska for a grant proposal, according to a statement from the service. But there are other potential administrators as well. The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission administered the $5 million congressional appropriation after the 2009 Yukon king disaster, NMFS said.

In terms of timing, the best-case scenario would be for funding to reach affected communities in 90 days, according to the NMFS. But there’s no statutory timeline, and it could depend on the conditions of the appropriation, the entity administrating the funds, and other factors.

The declarations follow Parnell’s July and August requests for the designation. Parnell initially requested a the designation for the 2011 and 2012 chinook seasons on the Yukon and Kuskokwim in July, and then asked for a disaster declaration for upper Cook Inlet chinook in August.

Although the request for the designation came from Parnell, Alaska’s delegation worked together to support it.

“This is an important declaration for the people of Alaska - especially those living on the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River and Cook Inlet,” said Rep. Don Young in a statement. “The fact is, Alaskans depend on fish for survival and with such a terrible run of Kings this year, people are hurting.”

The impacts were widespread.

On the Yukon, damages were felt by in the commercial and subsistence sectors. Commercial chinook fishing, which has had an average value of $1.5 million over the past ten years according to the state’s Department of Fish and Game, was completely shutdown. Commercial chum fishing was also limited to preserve chinooks. Subsistence chinook fishing was also significantly limited. This was the fourth year of limited chinook fishing on the Yukon, and the disaster declaration was for 2010, 2011 and 2012 as an extension of a 2009 designation.

The Kuskokwim was also closed to commercial chinook harvests, with limited commercial fishing for chum and sockeye, and had limited subsistence fishing. The resource disaster designation was given for the past two years, as 2011 also saw a weak return.

Cook Inlet closures also had a larger impact than just commercial chinook fishing.

Northern District set gillnetters and east Cook Inlet setnetters both faced restrictions, as did sport fishermen. Fish and Game estimated that the east side setnet fishery had an ex-vessel value of $1.1 million, which is about 10 percent of the five-year average. On the sport side, a total of 103 chinooks were caught, about 99 percent below the five-year average, with rippling effects for sport-related businesses. In 2007, sport angler expenditures totaled $732 million.

Much work remains before it is known how much aid fishermen will receive, or the form that assistance will take.

Paul Shadura, from the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said it’s too early for the group, which represents Cook Inlet setnetters, to say very much about the declaration.

“We really don’t know what all this means yet,” he said.

The association hasn’t talked to the state about the declaration or how any aid might affect fishermen. Nor was it contacted for information about how the low runs impacted them this summer, Shadura said.

The group is hoping for more answers at a Sept. 21 town hall forum it organized in Soldotna. The meeting will bring together fishermen and the community to talk to state and federal, representatives about the summer’s fishing and the recent disaster designation.

“We’re asking for answers and we’re hoping to hear something,” Shadura said.

Although the process seems slow to some, so far it’s going faster than the state’s last resource emergency. In 2009, the designation didn’t come until January 2010.

“The fishery disaster process can seem frustratingly slow since each program is unique,” said U.S. Sen. Mark Begich. “It has to be designed to meet the needs of fishermen and funding has to be secured. It’s our intent to work with the state, affected fishing groups and others here in Congress to speed up this process and get help out to Alaskans as quickly as possible.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration created a policy for considering such requests in 2011. The National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, evaluates requests for fishery disaster declarations under authority from the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act.

Once a declaration is made, Congress may appropriate funds for disaster assistance. The NMFS plan does not dictate a timeline for the funds to be dispersed, or even a protocol for determining how much is necessary, so it can vary from disaster to disaster.

Over the past two decades, the federal government has made a handful of disaster declarations for Alaska fisheries, the most recent coming in 2000 and 2009.

In 2009, the designation was for the Yukon River kings. The 2000 designation applied to salmon fishing in the Norton Sound and Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. That time, more than just kings were part of the picture: chum and sockeye salmon fisheries were also declared failures.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinated federal efforts after the 2000 declaration, with home energy assistance, emergency food supplies, small business loans, and other aid provided by various departments. In that case, some of the support was actually appropriated before the disaster declaration.

Other designations, in 1997 and 1998, landed $57 million in federal assistance, according to a press release from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

The cause of Alaska’s low king returns in unknown. Fish and Game has said that a variety of biological factors, like survival in prior years and ocean conditions, could be at play. In July, Parnell created a state team of fisheries scientists to study the issue of low king returns throughout the state. That group is expected to present a research plan at an October meeting in Anchorage.

Alaska was one of several states to receive the fisheries disaster designation this fall.

In the Northeast, a disaster determination was made for the 2013 groundfish fishery. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said he will work to secure $100 million in relief for New England fishermen.

Mississippi’s 2011-2013 oyster fishery and 2011 blue crab fishery were also declared commercial fishery failures.

11/11/2016 - 12:43pm