Expressing deep concern over what may prove to be one of the worst sockeye salmon escapements ever recorded for the Kenai River, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams has instructed his staff to begin developing an economic disaster declaration.
In a press release late Monday, Williams said that as of July 23, Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar counts of Kenai River sockeyes totaled just 177,000 fish. Some 500,000 fish are considered the minimum spawning escapement for the river’s late-run sockeye salmon management plan, according to Fish and Game.
“At this stage of the run, it appears that this goal will likely not be met,” the mayor said. “This has forced the closure of the Kenai River commercial fishery, dipnet and sport fisheries just at what is traditionally the peak of the sockeye salmon season.”
In response to what he said appeared to be an impending economic disaster, Williams initiated discussions with Gov. Frank Murkowski’s office to determine what can be done to provide economic aid to the commercial fishing and tourism industries that are suffering because of the lack of fish. The mayor’s staff has begun developing an economic disaster declaration for his consideration.
A look at last year’s numbers reveals the degree to which the local economy depends on healthy sockeye returns. In 2005, the mayor said, general economic activity related to the Cook Inlet salmon stocks accounted for an estimated $105 million in direct value encompassing commercial harvesting, processing, and tourism-related businesses in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. A majority of that was in the central peninsula region.
“These combined industries also employed over 4,000 workers boroughwide,” the mayor said.
Tuesday, Williams’ aide Bill Popp said the borough administration had been in cabinet-level discussions Tuesday with Bill Noll, commissioner of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, and with the governor’s senior policy advisor on fish, Alan Austerman.
“We’re working toward a unified strategy,” Popp said.
With fish numbers up slightly in the past day or so, there is some hope escapement goals may still be reached, but he said the administration had serious doubts about the fisheries reopening. The plan now is to continue monitoring the situation for the next few days, while specific language for a formal declaration is developed.
Just when the declaration would be ready for the mayor’s review isn’t known, but Popp said the mayor expected to make a decision “within days.”
Once signed by the mayor, the formal disaster declaration would be forwarded to the governor’s office for approval, Popp said.
Williams said Monday that help could come in many forms, and noted that some commercial fishermen are facing boat and permit payments that they may not be able to meet. Perhaps such payments might be deferred for a year, he suggested.
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