There was only one dissenting vote Thursday when the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted to extend the borough mayor's disaster declaration following this year's dismal sockeye salmon run.
Assembly president Bill Popp of Kenai said he has heard from his constituents.
"There are a number of commercial fishermen that are concerned about their ability to maintain their boats, their permits and their homes over this coming winter," he said.
Based on previous poor returns in various fisheries, he said, the economic effects usually kick in about January, right after Christmas. That is when people must make decisions about places to sleep, vehicles and whether to spend a dime past the bare necessities, he said.
Borough Mayor Dale Bagley declared a disaster Aug. 25 in the wake of poor upper Cook Inlet sockeye returns. He requested state and federal aid including individual and family grants, Small Business Administration loans and other appropriate aid. Bob King, press secretary for Gov. Tony Knowles, said the governor's disaster policy cabinet will review Bagley's request to be sure it meets the requirements of state disaster statutes and check the Cook Inlet situation to see if it meets criteria the state used in declaring previous salmon disasters.
Knowles will decide whether to declare a state disaster or request federal aid. Meanwhile, though, state law says the mayor can declare a disaster for no more than seven days. A longer duration requires assembly action.
On Thursday, Jeff Fox, area management biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries, said the 2000 upper inlet sockeye catch was 1.3 million, just a third of the 20-year average catch of 4 million sockeyes per year. Fishers earned $8.2 million, about a fifth of the 20-year average of $40 million.
Assembly member Jack Brown of Nikiski said he already has seen the effects.
"We have a lot of setnetters and drifters that reside and work in my area. In talking to a lot of the folks, they're devastated," he said.
The best fishers barely made expenses, he said. Borough unemployment typically hovers around 20 percent in January, and now commercial fishers will be competing for jobs, too.
"When I think of children, I think of Christmas time, and believe me, there are going to be some kids without Christmas presents this year," he said.
Assembly member Pete Sprague of Soldotna said both risks and rewards come with a limited entry permit. Permits have sold for more than $200,000 because in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the rewards were substantial. He said he worries about the precedent a disaster declaration sets.
"Hopefully, people that have been in the business long enough realize that yes, there are risks, yes, there are rewards, let's be ready for a downturn," he said.
He said he believes there are difficult times ahead.
"But do I believe it's a disaster? No, I don't," he said.
Assembly member Drew Scalzi of Homer, a commercial fisher, said fishers understand the risk, but it is rare that anything prompts government aid to get them through a disaster. People have asked him about bad years with plumbing and heating businesses, he said, and those are no national disasters.
"At the same time, the plumbing business, the construction business, does not have the Board of Fish that regulates them and limits them in what they can and cannot do," he said.
Commercial fishing is different, he said.
The resolution extending Bagley's declaration for 60 days passed 7-1, with Sprague casting the sole dissenting vote and assembly member Patrick O'Brien of Seward absent.
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