JUNEAU (AP) -- Gov. Tony Knowles declared western Alaska's commercial fishing sector an economic disaster on Friday, a step toward seeking federal aid for the beleaguered industry.
Officials compared the industry -- which is suffering from dwindling numbers of salmon and low prices -- to past Midwest farm failures that prompted federal crop supports to help growers weather poor markets.
''We think that would be appropriate in Alaska as well,'' said Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, who made the announcement for Knowles, who was traveling to Canada on Friday.
Knowles plans to ask President Bush for federal transition funds for coastal and inland communities stretching from Bristol Bay to Norton Sound that rely heavily on commercial fishing. The region, which begins about 300 miles west of Anchorage, also takes in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.
No dollar figure was provided.
Sockeye salmon harvest in Bristol Bay has fallen to 14.2 million fish so far this year, half the number caught 10 years ago. Federal efforts to conserve sea lion populations have limited the catch on other fish species.
At the same time, farm-raised salmon from countries such as Chile and Norway have flooded international markets in recent years, depressing prices on wild salmon. Alaska commercial fishermen have received 40 cents per pound on salmon this year, down from a peak price of $2.11 in 1988.
Commercial fishermen in Aleutians East Borough went on strike in June to protest sagging prices, prompting Mayor Dick Jacobsen to ask Knowles for federal assistance.
Many families along the coastal communities have few alternatives to fishing, said Jacobsen, who himself is a commercial fisherman.
''If you are a crew member who didn't make enough to support your family, you can't go down the street and get a job at the saw mill or McDonalds. There isn't any,'' Jacobsen said.
Knowles plans to hold a series of meetings to devise a plan for creating a more diversified economy in villages that are almost solely dependent on fishing activities.
In the meantime, the state will redirect some social services to the villages, now preparing for winter. The state also will seek more Bureau of Indian Affairs funds for tribes in the region.
Knowles met with western Alaska commercial fishermen on Aug. 8 in Dillingham to hear their pleas for federal and state aid.
Bob King, Knowles press secretary, said the tough market didn't meet the criteria to be called a natural disaster as was the case in Bristol Bay in 1997 and 1998. Forecasts predicted poor salmon runs, he said.
Under that designation, Knowles would have the authority to provide $1 million in state aid and request immediate federal disaster assistance, King said.
Some fishermen say the solution is a federal or state buyback of fishing permits in an effort to thin out the western Alaska fleet, Andy Golia said.
''I think that's the mood right now of the fishermen,'' said Golia, a Bristol Bay fisherman contacted by telephone Friday. ''I think the only option we have is to buy back a number of permits.''
But Knowles spokesman Bob King said that idea could cost tens of millions of dollars and there's no guarantee it would effectively reduce the number of commercial fishing operations.
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