The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and commercial fishers are panning a state decision to deny a disaster declaration following the dismal returns of upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon.
Member Tim Navarre said the assembly did not act lightly when it declared the situation a disaster.
"We weighed it very heavily, and we do feel let down by the state and federal government in not responding," he said.
That was the tenor of the comments Jim Chase, deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, received Tuesday from the assembly's Policies and Procedures Committee.
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. Borough Mayor Dale Bagley declared a disaster Aug. 25 and asked for state and federal aid. On Aug. 31, the assembly confirmed and extended his declaration.
However, Gov. Tony Knowles' Disaster Policy Cabinet recommended against a state disaster declaration.
In a Sept. 18 letter reporting that recommendation to Bagley, Maj. Gen. Phil Oates, commissioner of Military and Veterans Affairs, wrote that the economic diversity of the Kenai Peninsula offers residents hurt by the fishery failure other sources of income. Spawning escapement goals were met, he wrote, and subsistence was not restricted or significantly impacted. Other assistance, such as loan restructuring and deferments and home energy assistance for low-income families, can provide the help peninsula residents need, he wrote.
"When I read the letter, it implied that at least the cabinet thought we had all this economic diversity that somehow would provide, I imagine, jobs for the fishermen," assembly member Jack Brown of Nikiski told Chase Tuesday. "I don't see that."
Navarre said peninsula unemployment reaches the double digits in January and February.
"I found it ironic that you would say they could go out and get jobs," he said.
Chase said borough unemployment was 14 percent last January and declined to 6 percent in July. He contrasted that with the Yukon Koyukuk Census Area, where unemployment ranged from 18.3 percent in February to 11.5 percent in July.
"Our problem is how do we relate the Kenai Peninsula Borough against the state average and other regions of the state?" he asked.
Living on the road system, peninsula residents can find winter work in other areas, Chase said.
Navarre questioned whether peninsula residents can afford commuting and noted that unemployment rises statewide during winter.
"Even if they travel, we're not giving them much hope," he said.
The disaster in commercial fishing has been building for a decade, he said.
"The report seems to just reflect more that this year wasn't any disaster, and here's your unemployment rate and everything, instead of looking at some of the impacts that the fishermen have had to absorb over the last 10 years," Navarre said.
Chase said he wished the disaster cabinet had all the time it needed, but it had to make its recommendation to Knowles. Since doing that, it has tried to identify what put the peninsula in its present position. The cause appears to be the floods of 1995, which washed out salmon spawning beds, he said.
"We're trying now to convince the agencies upstream that you cannot have the rules that allow us only to look at a current cause and effect," Chase said. "We need to have a new understanding of, we've got a cause maybe five years ago."
On Friday, Knowles asked the Small Business Administration to provide low-interest loans to businesses injured by the fishery failure. However, an SBA declaration of an economic injury disaster, which would make the loans available, must be the direct result of a precipitous natural event. Chase said the state is trying to convince SBA that fall 1995 floods fit the bill.
Assembly member Drew Scalzi of Diamond Ridge said Oates' report should have said something about actions of the governor, the Board of Fisheries and restrictions that closed commercial fishing after Aug. 9.
"Certainly our commercial fishermen have taken a disastrous hit this year, and there is a correlation between the governor's policies and the Board of Fisheries' policies and the industry," Scalzi said.
However, Chase said, those concerns are beyond the jurisdiction of the disaster cabinet.
"That's a point you need to make to the governor," he said.
Afterward, commercial fishing advocate Joe Malatesta Sr. told Chase that since Knowles took office, Cook Inlet commercial fishers have gone from making a living to losing money.
"The Board of Fisheries has allocated the fish to sport fishing guides. They stopped our people from fishing," he said. "Commercial fishermen used to fish from May through September. Now they get four or five days each year. That should have been part of your analysis of the disaster."
Chase said he is no expert on what the Board of Fisheries has done or why.
"I chose not to get into that debate, because I know there are people on both sides," he said. "But if commercial fishermen feel that way, they ought to tell the governor."
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