Kenai Peninsula lawmakers call for public aid after poor red runs

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2000

SOLDOTNA (AP) -- Lawmakers from the Kenai Peninsula say many families who rely on Cook Inlet red salmon for a living won't be able to pay their bills this winter without some sort of public assistance.

They say a poor run of reds -- the Inlet's bread and butter commercial fish -- coupled with low prices warrant a disaster declaration.

They invited Governor Knowles' disaster policy cabinet to visit the area and talk with fishing families, processors, Native association members, business people and elected officials.

Four Peninsula lawmakers and the mayors of Soldotna and Kenai told Knowles by letter that an estimated 80 percent of the fishermen did not meet operating expenses this year.

They say the poor season will hurt not only processors and gear suppliers, but also will affect peninsula grocery stores, fuel companies, banks and insurance companies.

''We will see a disastrous impact on all of these businesses during the next year,'' they wrote.

Commercial fishermen this season caught about 1.3 million Cook Inlet reds and were paid about 85-cents a pound, on average. The catch was twice as high last year -- about 2.7 million fish -- and prices a year ago ranged around $1.40 a pound.

Some of the fishermen have used their homes as collateral when buying $35,000-and-up fishing permits, said Bob Merchant, president of United Cook Inlet Drift Association, an organization representing the Inlet's fleet of 585 drift boats.

''It's not like, 'They're gonna take my boat,' '' Merchant told the Anchorage Daily News. ''It's 'They're gonna' take my house.' ''

''The sense of urgency is just palpable.''

But it's unclear whether that sense of urgency will translate into a formal disaster declaration.

Poor chum salmon runs in Western Alaska last month prompted state and federal disaster declarations, freeing millions of dollars in low interest loans and other assistance to fishermen along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, as well as Norton Sound.

But the Kenai Peninsula, with its roads and a diverse economy, is a far cry from the rural villages along the Yukon River, where fish may be the only source of cash income as well as a major food source. Here, driftnetters and setnetters can find other work.

Still, fishermen like Merchant say, this easily was one of the worst seasons on record.

Merchant said he lost about $5,000 after fisheries managers limited commercial fishing when the Inlet red salmon run barely materialized.

Setnetter Brent Johnson, who fishes a site 10 miles north of the Ninilchik River, said he probably made just enough money to cover expenses, but not enough to live on.

Johnson said he caught 44,000 pounds, down from 144,000 pounds last year. But catching fewer fish was only part of the problem, Johnson and other longtime fishermen say.

Prices paid for salmon fell almost by half over last year. Processors gave Johnson 95 cents a pound this year, down from $1.50 in 1999.

Fishermen also contend that state regulations increasingly favor sportfishing, namely on the Kenai River. They say that dealt the knockout blow this season.

The state over the years has cut back on commercial fishing to allow more king salmon -- prized by anglers as well as a substantial group of guides and tourism outfits -- into the Kenai River. Concern over the health of silver salmon runs also prompted further commercial reductions this year.

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