Disaster funds on hold until state, AVCP agree on split

AP Photo/Jon Rowley/Kwik’pak Fisheries LLC

Alaska is set to receive $20.8 million for the 2012 salmon fisheries disasters, but how the money will be used is still being decided.

First the State of Alaska and the Association of Village Council Presidents, or AVCP, must work on how to split the funds between Cook Inlet and Yukon-Kuskokwim stakeholders, said Art Nelson, policy and outreach director for the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association.

The two parties haven’t met, according to AVCP President Myron Naneng.

“We haven’t had the chance to sit down with them yet,” Naneng said March 11.

Nelson said that the State of Alaska and AVCP are considered the disaster “requestors” so National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS, is working with those two entities to figure out the split. If they don’t come up with something, the agency could make a decision on its own.

AVCP and the State of Alaska requested fishery disaster status for the poor king salmon runs on Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and in Cook Inlet in 2012, although the Yukon designation also applied to 2010 and 2011, and the Kuskokwim designation also applied to 2011.

When the disaster declaration was being made, Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development Commissioner Susan Bell provided a letter to the federal government with a breakdown of the impacts.

According to that information, commercial fishery permit holders lost about $16.8 million in direct ex-vessel revenue in the years included in the designation.

Once there’s a split between regions, discussions will turn to how to use the money.

Congress appropriated the money, and NMFS will work with interested parties and Alaska’s congressional delegation to decide who will administer the funds and develop a spending plan.

According to NMFS Alaska Region spokeswoman Julie Speegle, the State of Alaska has administered most past Federal Fishery Disaster Relief programs through the State’s Department of Commerce (or its predecessor, the Department of Community and Regional Affairs), except for the 2010 Yukon River disaster, which was administered by the Oregon-based Pacific States Fisheries Commission.

As of March 7, the state had not yet decided if it would pursue administering the 2012 funds.

ADFG Deputy Commissioner Kevin Brooks said Fish and Game was not actively pursuing the role, and Sharon Leighow, a spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell said it was too early to say whether the Governor’s Office or Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development would do so.

“We are still working with congressional delegation to understand authorities and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) policy guidance,” Leighow wrote March 7.

Pacific States Executive Director Randy Fisher said his organization would be willing to take the role again, but hadn’t yet heard if they would be needed.

Speegle wrote in an email that a rough plan for how the money will be used will likely be in place by mid-March.

“Discussions are underway now between NOAA, the State of Alaska, and Alaska’s Congressional delegation to understand the options for eligible disaster relief and determine the entity best suited to carry out this activity,” Speegle wrote in a March 3 email.

Based on past experiences, Speegle said it could take about 75 days following the submission of a grant application, proposal and spending plan for the money to be distributed.

Speegle said the funds could be used for direct payments to fishermen, infrastructure projects, habitat restoration, vessel or permit buybacks and job training.

Disaster values

According to the state breakdown of commercial losses during the disasters, the largest hit was to Upper Cook Inlet users.

Upper Cook Inlet setnetters made about $1.1 million in 2012, compared to an average of $10.9 million in each of the five prior years. Northern district setnetters made about $260,566, compared to an average of $460,193 in prior years. Bell’s letter estimated the direct losses for the Cook Inlet sport fisheries at $10.4 million for direct spending, and another $7.3 million for indirect spending.

On the Yukon River, the king salmon return from 2003 to 2007 was valued at an average of $2.45 million, compared to an average of $214,718 from 2010 to 2012, with no commercial harvest in 2013, according to the state Commerce Department estimates.

The Kuskokwim River king salmon harvest had an average value of $36,646 from 2006 to 2010, which dropped to just $206 during the two years for which the disaster was declared.

The commercial values are based on a comparison with ex-vessel values from the five years prior to the disaster declaration, and do not include other economic or cultural losses from the low returns, or the value of subsistence-caught fish, according to Bell’s letter.

Although federal designations are based largely on commercial activities, subsistence fishers on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers also lost out. The 2012 subsistence fisheries were restricted more than they ever had been previously, according to the state.

Nelson said Yukon and Kuskokwim stakeholders are talking about using the funds for several programs. The most likely use will be a combination of direct aid to fishers, some sort of net replacement and money for research.

The Board of Fisheries allowed dipnets to be used in the commercial Yukon chum fishery last summer, which was fairly successful, so a net program could help provide those to more fishers, Nelson said. Kuskokwim users are pursuing a similar allowance to use dipnets on that river, too.

Whether or not the net program could be enacted this summer is unknown, and will depend on how quickly things move, Nelson said.

“I think everybody is hoping for that, but it’s a question mark,” he said.

For the funds to be used by this summer, a decision on how to use them and who will administer the programs would need to be made quickly.

Nelson said more discussion about what research questions to pursue will be needed. The Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association houses the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Sustainable Salmon Initiative, which could be a good conduit for research. The State could also have another idea on what to research, he said.

Bell’s 2012 letter said that significant value could be realized from $4.8 million for king salmon research, and pointed to marine surveys as one possible project.

Alaska’s last fishery disaster declarations were for the 2008 and 2009 Yukon king salmon runs.

In 2010, Pacific States administered the $5 million Congress appropriated for that disaster, which resulted in a 2008 commercial harvest that was 89 percent below the recent five-year average. In 2009, the commercial king fishery was shut down, and subsistence fishers were also restricted.

Fisher said that when Pacific States administered the money in 2010, the state, stakeholders and NOAA worked together to develop the aid programs before Pacific States got involved. Then the commission applied for, and received, a NMFS grant allowing it to administer those programs.

Pacific States got involved because it had previous experience administering fisheries disaster funds from the Klamath and Sacramento rivers, Fisher said.

The funds were used to provide direct payments to commercial fishermen, and for a net replacement program. Alaska’s Board of Fisheries in 2010 set a size requirement for gillnets, and the funds helped provide nets to meet the new regulations through an exchange program.

Although most fisheries disaster aid goes to commercial fishermen, the 2010 net program also applied to subsistence fishermen.

The Yukon was also part of other past disaster declarations. In 2000 and 2001, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region and the Norton Sound region received funds for poor salmon returns. According to information from the Congressional Research Service, $15 million was appropriated for economic development and loans in 2000, and another $7.5 million was appropriated in 2001.

Updated: 
03/12/2014 - 12:10pm