Cook Inlet not a disaster, state says

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

SOLDOTNA (AP) -- Cook Inlet's 2000 commercial fishing season may have been among the worst on record but it still falls short of a disaster, the state's disaster cabinet said.

Help is out there, though. Some of the aid programs set up for this summer's Western Alaska fisheries disaster can also help Cook Inlet fishermen, state officials say.

Lawmakers on the Kenai Peninsula began asking for help in mid-August, about the time Gov. Tony Knowles declared a disaster after chum salmon runs failed in Western Alaska.

Commercial salmon fishermen were paid less than a quarter of their 20-year average earnings. Many of them lost money this season, and some are worried about boat payments and other outstanding loans.

But the state's disaster cabinet, composed of state department heads, has concluded that conditions in Cook Inlet fall short of the state's criteria, according to a letter sent Monday from the cabinet's chairman, Gen. Phillip Oates, to Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley.

For the most part, fishing captains and crews living on the economically diverse Kenai Peninsula can still find work, Oates said.

Also, the cabinet noted that the Peninsula doesn't have the kind of subsistence economy found in Western Alaska. Fishermen along the Yukon River depend heavily on salmon to feed their families during the winter, so when chum runs fell short this year, it raised serious concerns.

Despite the lack of a disaster declaration, some of the aid programs set up this summer for Western Alaska can also help Cook Inlet fishermen, said Kerre Martineau, spokeswoman for the state's Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound fisheries disaster team, called Operation Renew Hope.

''We just wanted to make sure everybody knew there were other avenues they could turn to,'' she told the Anchorage Daily News.

For instance, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program has an additional $6.75 million in response to the Western Alaska disaster, and that pool will be made available to Inlet fishermen, Martineau said.

Also, the IRS has already said it won't levy Permanent Fund dividend checks from fishermen affected by the Western Alaska disaster. Now that pledge has been extended to Cook Inlet, she said.

Knowles also will ask the federal Small Business Administration to declare an economic injury disaster for the borough, Oates said in his letter. If it is declared, the SBA will offer low-interest loans to fishermen and other businesses on the Peninsula, Oates said.

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