Officials describe possible aid for disaster-affected fishers

Posted: Sunday, August 20, 2000

The head of Gov. Tony Knowles' disaster cabinet said there are many avenues for aid following this year's dismal returns of Cook Inlet sockeye salmon.

Maj. Gen. Phil Oates said he will take what he heard during Friday hearings in Soldotna to other members of the disaster cabinet. Last week, Bob King, Knowles' press secretary, said the disaster cabinet will investigate whether state disaster legislation applies and how the state can respond and make its recommendation to Knowles. Knowles will decide whether a state disaster declaration is warranted.

Dave Liebersbach, director of the Division of Emergency Services, said a state declaration could bring up to $1 million in immediate aid and more later if the Legislature and the administration agree on funding.

However, he said, the Kenai Peninsula Borough has not yet formally requested a state disaster declaration, despite letters from local legislators and mayors asking Oates to investigate the sockeye failure. Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said a formal request likely will be forthcoming. Oates said the state has followed two main criteria in declaring salmon economic disasters for Western Alaska. The first is whether fishers' opportunity to harvest was less than half the 20-year average, he said. The second is whether communities had the opportunity to meet subsistence needs.

Jeff Fox, area biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Soldotna, said fishers took in roughly $8.2 million for this year's fishery, while the 20-year average is $38 million to $40 million.

"Whether you count one species or five, it's still well under 50 percent of the 20-year average," he said.

Setnet fisher Chuck Robinson said the state does not allow subsistence on the Kenai Peninsula, and federal managers have not yet opened significant subsistence fishing here. On the peninsula, he said, it takes money to obtain food.

Others questioned whether the disaster threshold would be higher on the peninsula, which has a more diverse economy than Western Alaska. Some noted that the peninsula has one of the highest unemployment rates in Alaska.

Peninsula Mall owner Glen Martin said his tenants have been hurt by highway closures and high fuel prices as well as the failed sockeye run. He said he has seen a 40 to 50 percent decline in retail sales.

"When the reds stop, the business stops -- from the commercial fishermen coming in and buying things, to the tourism industry," he said. "So this is really such a wide impact disaster that I have vendors in this mall that are looking at how they are going to make their payments."

Oates said the peninsula is unique and may require new criteria.

Liebersbach said the Federal Emergency Management Admin-istration could declare an emergency, which would free up to $5 million in federal aid. Or, it could declare a disaster, in which case there would be no limits on federal funding. However, the state would have to provide a 25 percent match.

He said FEMA aid could include grants or loans for individuals, aid to local government and public utilities and funding for measures to mitigate future disasters. However, he said, FEMA responds primarily to natural disasters and has turned down requests for aid following Alaska's economic disasters. Robinson said biologists believe the sockeye failure stems from flooding in 1995 and questioned whether that could bring FEMA back into the picture.

Liebersbach said the individual grant program the state obtained after the fishery disasters of 1998 came through the federal Department of Agriculture. State officials are pursuing a similar program this year, but that would bring much less money than a FEMA declaration.

Oates said some help is available even with no state or federal disaster declaration. Under the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act, which treats fishery failures like crop failures, the U.S. Commerce Department could authorize aid to individuals and funding for research into the causes of the fishery failure. In the past, aid to individuals has come as vouchers for food, electricity and other basic needs.

The federal Small Business Administration already has authorized low-interest loans to help fishers, processors and other affected businesses pay their bills following this year's king and chum salmon failure in the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound regions. Dave Liebersbach, director of the state Division of Emergency Services, said state or local authorities could request similar help for those injured by the Cook Inlet sockeye failure.

The Small Business Administra-tion has received some money to extend previous loans and has asked for more, he said. There are programs to help with food, fuel and utilities, but he said he knows of no outright grants to help fishers pay home mortgages. The state will look into restructuring commercial fishing loans and home loans tied to fishing, he said, but there are no guarantees.

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