State awaiting formal borough request; outcome remains uncertain

Disaster declaration not on table

Posted: Friday, August 25, 2000

Gov. Tony Knowles still has received no salmon disaster declaration from the Kenai Peninsula Borough, despite a visit from the head of his Disaster Policy Cabinet.

Though that may be coming, it remains unclear what aid would follow.

At the request of local legislators and mayors, Maj. Gen. Phil Oates, head of Knowles' disaster team, visited Soldotna last week to hear how this year's dismal sockeye salmon run has hurt commercial fishers, processors and related businesses.

Close to 100 commercial fishers and processors attended, and many blamed Knowles and his Board of Fisheries appointments for allocating more and more Cook Inlet salmon to sport fishers and leaving commercial fishers next to nothing.

Jeff Fox, area biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Soldotna, said upper inlet fishers took in just $8.2 million this year, compared with a 20-year average of roughly $40 million. Upper inlet fishers took just 1.3 million sockeyes, compared with an average catch since 1974 of nearly 3.5 million. Rep. Gail Phillips, R-Homer, who led the effort to bring Oates to the peninsula, estimated that 80 percent of upper inlet fishers failed even to make expenses this year.

"The letters from the legislators and mayors asked us to come to investigate the situation and see if a disaster declaration was merited, which we did," said Bob King, Knowles' press secretary. "But they stopped short of a request for a disaster declaration."

Before the state can step in, he said, local government must declare a disaster.

"They have to request, in a generalized way, what assistance is needed. One of the standards is that (the situation) is beyond the ability of the community to respond," King said. "During Oates' meeting, no one requested a disaster declaration or requested special assistance. They talked about the Board of Fisheries and management decisions they thought were unfair. That doesn't fall under the state disaster statute."

Nor, King said, do complaints about the Board of Fisheries fall under the federal Stafford Act, which authorizes Federal Emergen-cy Management Administration aid, or the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which authorizes aid through the U.S. Commerce Department.

"Nobody talked about how those might apply," he said.

Existing welfare, home energy assistance and other programs may cover Cook Inlet needs, King said.

Oates said the recent salmon economic disaster declaration for the Yukon-Kuskokwim and Norton Sound areas was based on salmon returns that were less than half the 20-year average and residents inability to meet subsistence needs.

"I think you have a fish shortage, but it's probably not in the category of the Yukon-Kuskokwim, Norton Sound area, where returns were less than 50 percent of the 20-year average," he said. "The reason policies are becoming so difficult is because it was a small run. If it was a big run, the policies would probably be adequate to allocate the fish."

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley was traveling Thursday and could not be reached. Ed Oberts, his assistant, said he has been working on a disaster declaration.

"The mayor is very supportive of declaring a disaster to help commercial fishermen," he said. "I've been getting calls from various assembly members, too. They're very supportive."

Colette Thompson, borough attorney, said her staff is researching whether the borough legally can declare a disaster following the dismal sockeye run. The state's statutory definition of a disaster does not mention economic disasters or failed salmon runs, she said.

A declaration by the borough mayor expires after seven days, unless the assembly acts to extend it. Oberts said Bagley likely will decide today whether to declare a local disaster now, call a special meeting of the assembly or wait until five days before Sept. 12, the assembly's next regular meeting.

Oates said he told borough officials how to declare a disaster.

"So the ball is in their court," he said. "The process is, doing everything they can at the local level, declaring at that level, then asking for a state declaration."

Oates promised last week to carry commercial fishers' concerns to Frank Rue, commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game.

"I've given a full report to Frank Rue," Oates said Wednesday. "We're going to look at everything I brought back, including, from commercial fishermen's point of view, the policies that have led to that situation. If state policy led to that situation, does the state have a need or a requirement to step in with some kind of aid? That's a question that everyone is eager to take a look at."

Rue said he is taking no such look.

"That's a Board (of Fisheries) allocation call," he said. "The board has to decide who benefits and what's in the best interest of the state. They have to choose who they feel should get the fish.

"I don't think we've taken the fishery away. If you look at the price and the competition from farmed fish, there are probably a lot more important factors than the limited number of days the board has taken away. There's no guarantee when you get a limited-entry permit. The state didn't guarantee you're going to make money."

King said the Knowles administration will continue to work with the fishing industry to maintain a viable economy. But the number of limited-entry permits remains constant while the population continues to grow, he said.

"There are other people that want access to that resource, and they can't be denied," he said. "The fish belong to all Alaskans, not just commercial fishermen."

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