Kenai Peninsula legislators and mayors have asked Gov. Tony Knowles to send his Disaster Cabinet to investigate this year's disastrous Cook Inlet salmon season.
"We have been contacted by hundreds of families throughout the peninsula asking for help," says a Tuesday letter to Knowles from Rep. Gail Phillips, R-Homer, Rep. Hal Smalley, D-Kenai, Rep. Gary Davis, R-Soldotna, Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, Soldotna Mayor Ken Lancaster and Kenai Mayor John Williams.
"The families and businesses dependent on fishing for their survival do not have enough money to live on, let alone make current payments on their gear or even get them through the winter," they wrote. "They have nothing to help them prepare for the next season."
Phillips said she hopes the disaster cabinet will schedule a series of meetings on the peninsula.
"My office will be glad to coordinate with the disaster team so they can meet with as many people as possible that are affected," she said. "Right now, I have about 300 people that have called. We'll have all that information to give to the disaster team so they will know the terrible situation we have down here."
Kenai commercial driftnet skipper Drew Sparlin said this was his worst year in more than 30 years of fishing.
"We had a very, very small run and low prices," he said. "We had 1970s prices with 2000 expenses. We got less for our fish than we did then, and at that time, we were paying 15 to 20 cents per gallon for diesel."
He said he feels sorry for fishers trying to support families and make payments on boats and permits.
"I would certainly think it would be fair to call this a disaster," he said.
Phillips and her co-signers estimated that 80 percent of Cook Inlet fishers failed to make operating expenses this year. They said the disaster affects processors and fishing-related businesses, too.
"The processors could be devastated with not enough revenue or products to keep their plants running," they wrote. "Many of them on the peninsula have already permanently closed their doors. The remaining companies, without some type of financial relief, may not be able to reopen next summer, which will cause even greater stress on the economy."
The letter predicts disastrous impacts on gear suppliers, engine repair shops, fuel suppliers, banks and insurance companies.
In a Wednesday letter to Knowles, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley and Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Anchorage, said they believe the failure of the Cook Inlet run warrants an economic disaster declaration similar to one Knowles issued July 19 due to failed king and chum salmon runs to the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound regions.
"I'm asking for a fact-finding visit for them to look into the reasons for this low return and whether it warrants a disaster declaration," Bagley said.
Bob King, Knowles' press secretary, said Knowles was traveling and had not seen the letters. He was aware of them, though, and the disaster team has discussed them.
"I know they will look into Cook Inlet, just as they are looking into requests from other areas," he said.
Knowles has received requests to include the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Metlakatla, the Bristol Bay Borough, the Aleutians East Borough and Iliamna Lake villages of the Lake and Peninsula Borough in the disaster area. King said he does not know what assistance a disaster declaration might make available to the Kenai borough.
"I don't know what's needed there," he said. "A lot of the aid we're offering to communities in Western Alaska is specifically targeted to their needs."
Knowles declared the salmon disaster July 19 for the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound regions. King said the federal government has made an additional $6.75 million available to help families there buy winter heating oil. It has made another $300,000 available for food assistance through the Department of Agriculture commodities program. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has increased funding for general assistance by $1 million and announced that another $4 million in funding will be available.
The federal Small Business Administration is making low-interest loans available to help injured businesses pay bills they could have paid if salmon runs had not failed. For example, King said, a processor that hired crews, started freezers but received few salmon might obtain a loan to make payroll and expenses.
In addition, the state helped arrange a partnership between a regional nonprofit and a community fisheries development corporation to bring Kotzebue chum salmon to satisfy Norton Sound subsistence needs. Ward said he believes Knowles will declare a disaster on the peninsula once he sees what is happening here. He also called for an investigation into why the Cook Inlet sockeye run has declined.
"People believe the Board of Fisheries has made some political decisions," Ward said. "We want all of our fisheries to be operated based on sustained yield. Then, all of our fisheries will be happy. If they are not, then something is wrong. We can't afford to have politicians running our fisheries."
Phillips declined to enter that debate.
"This is way too important for us to get into a debate about who is right and who is wrong on the Board of Fisheries," she said. "This is about the devastating impact on the families of the Kenai Peninsula, not about the politics of the Board of Fisheries."
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