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House denies funding for state fishery disasters

Posted: January 17, 2013 - 9:01pm

Aid for communities affected by fisheries disasters is still uncertain after the House of Representatives passed a second disaster relief bill this month that didn’t include Alaska.

The House passed a $50.7 billion Disaster Relief Appropriations Act Jan. 15, which went only to Hurricane Sandy aid, and did not include any of the fisheries disasters declared last fall in Alaska, New England and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Senate must pass a corresponding bill to be reconciled with the House version before it can be signed into law.

The Senate passed a $60 billion Hurricane Sandy bill in December, which included funding for fishery disasters and tsunami marine debris cleanup, but the House did not vote on the entirety of that bill before the 112th Congress came to an end.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s spokesman Matthew Felling wrote in an email that the senator was disappointed that resources for Alaska’s federally recognized fisheries disasters were not included in the House disaster bill.

“We will seek a new legislative method to deliver the needed funds to our regions and people that need it,” Felling wrote.

The rest of Alaska’s Congressional delegation said it was important to continue looking for ways to help communities affected by low chinook returns on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and to the Kenai River in Cook Inlet.

“I have no desire to hold up funding for victims of Hurricane Sandy, but I implore my colleagues to remember Alaskans’ plight and that of other disaster victims across the country,” said Sen. Mark Begich in a statement. “The federal government went through its formal process to declare these disasters and has an obligation to provide some relief to victims.”

In an email, Congressman Don Young’s Press Secretary Mike Anderson agreed.

“Although the fisheries disaster funds for Alaska were not included in the final legislation, Congressman Young will continue to explore any and all avenues to ensure that Alaskans receive funds related to the fishery disaster declared last fall,” Anderson wrote.

U.S. Department of Commerce Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank issued a resource disaster designation for the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River and Cook Inlet king salmon fisheries in September, after a request from Gov. Sean Parnell.

Fishermen in all of those areas suffered from lower-than-average runs during summer 2012. The state estimated the losses at $16.8 million.

The 2012 designation wasn’t a first on the Yukon or Kuskokwim. The Yukon River designation was made for 2010, 2011 and 2012; the Kuskokwim River commercial failure was declared for 2011 and 2012.

That was the second time this month the House has passed disaster relief that didn’t include Alaska.

The Hurricane Sandy Relief Supplemental Funding Bill introduced during the 112th Congress included $150 million for fisheries disasters in Alaska, Louisiana and New England, and for $56 million for marine debris in coastal states.

The legislation passed the Senate, but when the House voted on the bill in January, it passed only a portion of it, $9.7 billion for Sandy-specific aid to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay out insurance claims for those with federal flood insurance.

The House opted not to vote for the remaining $51 billion before the Congress ended.

“Alaska’s natural disasters haven’t gone away just because they’re farther away from the public consciousness,” Begich said in his statement. “Hurricane Sandy victims deserve our assistance, and quickly. But meanwhile, Alaskan subsistence fishermen who weren’t able to make their typical Chinook harvest this summer are facing real hunger. Beaches in Alaska’s coastal areas are littered with industrial contaminants and other debris from Japan’s tsunami and that could be doing harm to our fisheries as well.”

House Republicans have characterized the funding for non-Sandy disasters as pork.

Begich said he has worked to correct that misunderstanding.

“People criticized it, but we tried to explain, this was a declared disaster,” Begich said in a visit to the Journal on Jan. 9.

Begich said he went on the floor and explained that the disasters affected people living a subsistence lifestyle on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

“’This is about people’s food,’” he said he told his colleagues. “This is about survival.”

That helped to change some of the perception earlier this month, he said, giving the delegation some support for continuing to seek the relief funding.

When and if Congress appropriates the money, 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.

Although the original bill, passed by the Senate, included set amounts for the fisheries and marine debris, how those pots of money would be allocated had not yet been worked out.

Begich said the marine debris component had come from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration request, not the Alaska delegation specifically. Several states would have shared that pool. Whether or not it’s included in a future effort remains to be seen, he said.

But ultimately, he said he thought Congress would come together and support the communities affected by fishery disasters.

“That is what we do as a Congress,” Begich said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in Alaska or Florida or Kansas or New York, if there’s a disaster we all team up and work together and help take care of that.”

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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