BETHEL (AP) -- Fisherman Frank Charles says if he's forced to, he'll beg the state for help feeding his family.
''It hurts my dignity, my pride to have to go to you and ask for assistance,'' the Bethel resident told Gov. Tony Knowles during a two-day mission to assess impacts of this year's dismal salmon runs on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. ''We prefer to be self-reliant.''
Charles, a member of the Kuskokwim Fish Cooperative, is one of thousands of Alaska Natives faced with a deepening disaster.
The collapse of the commercial king salmon fishery means no fish to sell for cash, and thus no money for food or gas or ammunition to go moose and bear hunting. Utility bills are going unpaid. Credit has been cut off at village stores.
''We have bills we need to pay. How are we going to pay them?'' Marie Kameroff asked the governor during a stop in Aniak, a village of 475 on the lower Kuskokwim. ''There is no one to help us out. We got no jobs.''
Knowles visited a number of Kuskokwim and Yukon river communities as far north as Fort Yukon on Thursday and Friday. He was accompanied by state Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue, subsistence director Mary Pete and rural adviser Andy Ebona.
By Monday, the governor expects a decision from his disaster policy council on whether to declare the fishery an economic disaster and seek federal aid.
''Governor, you have seen our fishery go down the drain. This year it's zero,'' said Robert Moore, a commercial fishermen and president of the Emmonak Corp. during a meeting in Emmonak.
The numbers are grim. Only 8,600 king salmon were harvested commercially on the Yukon River this year. That compares to a previous record low in 1998 of 43,700.
In the 1990s, the commercial catch on the Yukon averaged nearly 100,000 fish. What was a $10 million a year fishery is worth nothing now, Rue said. Gone also is the $16,000 a year the fishery brought each fisherman on average.
The Kuskokwim went from a $5 million a year commercial fishery in the mid-1990s to below $1 million last year. Average income has dropped from about $7,000 a year to about $1,000 per fisherman.
The situation on the Kuskokwim is so bad restrictions were placed on subsistence fishing. In order to let the large kings go free to breed, nets must have a mesh size of six inches or smaller.
While fisherman on the lower Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers are meeting their subsistence needs, state Rep. Carl Morgan of Aniak said that's not true upriver. Fears have grown that houses will go cold this winter and there won't be enough to eat.
Pete said she never thought she'd see the day when restrictions were placed on subsistence. Now she's worried about chum salmon, whose harvest has plummeted since 1996.
The effect on the villages is devastating, she said. She worries that an already high suicide rate will increase once men realize they can't provide for their families.
''It's demoralizing,'' she said. ''This is a real heartache for all of us.''
With fall and winter around the corner, villagers pleaded with the governor to get them some emergency disaster money.
''I strongly urge you to declare this a disaster area,'' said Vincent Beans, a commercial fisherman with a wife and six children. ''I'm still paying off debts from '95 and so are most of the people in here... We need something quick.''
Fishing disasters were declared in western Alaska in 1998 and 1999. In those years, more than $15 million in aid was distributed to communities and residents.
In the longer term, fish-dependent villagers want a replenished resource, though there's no consensus on the best way to do that.
Aniak residents suggested shutting down commercial fisheries to give salmon stocks a chance to recover and to protect the subsistence harvest. But in St. Marys and Bethel, several commercial fishermen asked Knowles not to stop commercial harvests because without it they will have no money for even the barest necessities.
State Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a commercial fishermen for more than 20 years, told the governor in Bethel that the state needs to show the federal government it can handle its subsistence fishery. He said the state should start by funding research to find out why the fish are disappearing.
The state lost control of subsistence fishing in most of Alaska last October after lawmakers refused to advance a constitutional amendment that would establish a harvest priority for rural residents. Federal law requires a rural preference, while state law provides for equal access to fish and game.
Fishermen in several villages asked the governor about a fungus that is covering up to a quarter of the meager catch. They asked about the effects of a long-term weather pattern that is pushing warmer water into the Bering Sea. They asked that something be done to prevent Bering Sea trawlers from taking so many salmon.
''People are scared. I'm scared,'' Tim Andrew, a commercial fisherman in Bethel, told the governor. ''I don't want to get to the point where we have nothing at all.''
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