Western Alaska fishing industry in line for disaster aid

Posted: Friday, August 24, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Western Alaska's commercial fishing industry, hobbled by chronically poor runs and anemic prices, was declared an economic disaster Friday by Gov. Tony Knowles.

Knowles plans to ask President Bush for new transition funds for the area and to redirect additional federal assistance there.

Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer made the announcement for Knowles, who was traveling Friday, comparing it to the crisis that gripped Midwest farmers and miners in West Virginia during past industry downturns.

''We think that would be appropriate in Alaska as well,'' Ulmer said.

The declaration targets Norton Sound, the Yukon River downstream from Rampart, Kuskokwim Bay and the Kuskokwim River downstream from Chuathbaluk, the Bristol Bay area including the Bristol Bay and Lake and Peninsula boroughs, and the Aleutians East Borough east of Cape Sarichef.

Some current state assistance programs will also be redirected to target the areas hit by industry woes there. And the Department of Community and Economic Development will hold a series of economic summits over the next six months focused on the problem.

The Bristol Bay region was declared a natural disaster area in 1997 and again in 1998. But King said salmon fishing woes in the regions don't meet criteria for such a declaration, which comes with immediate federal aid.

Farmed salmon from Chile and Norway has created a glut within the market, stifling prices paid to commercial fishermen. Gross earnings for commercial salmon fishing in Bristol Bay dropped 80 percent to $40 million since 1990, the governor's office said.

Commercial fisherman Andy Golia said he received 40 cents per pound for salmon this year, compared to 65 cents per pound last year. In 1988, fishermen received $2.11 per pound.

''There is no question the farm salmon industry has hit us broadside, and we are hurting,'' Golia said. ''Really it's a combination of too many boats, not enough fish and too low of salmon prices.''

Bristol Bay salmon harvests came in at 14.2 million sockeyes, below the forecasted 15.6 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. At Kuskokwim Bay, where the forecast called for between 10,000 and 25,000 chum salmon, fishermen reported harvesting 21,700, the department said.

Commercial fishermen from Bristol Bay met with Knowles on Aug. 8 to request he issue a declaration of economic disaster. Fishermen from the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers and the Norton Sound region made similar requests.

Golia said fishermen he has talked to favor fishing permit buybacks to thin out the number of commercial rigs in the region.

King said that could be one option studied. But with 1,877 driftnet permits in Bristol Bay alone -- each valued at about $40,000 -- it would be expensive and complicated by past court decisions.

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