Southeast Native groups want disaster area declaration

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- Five Alaska Native groups want Gov. Tony Knowles to declare Southeast Alaska an economic disaster area.

Tlingit-Haida Central Council, Sealaska Corp., the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, the Tlingit Haida Regional Housing Authority and the Tlingit Haida Electrical Authority cited low salmon prices, an influx of farmed salmon on world markets and fleet reductions in making their request Monday.

The Southeast Conference of Mayors and the City of Hoonah approved similar resolutions in the past month.

A state disaster declaration is needed before federal aid can be sought.

Gordon Jackson, business and economic development manager for the Tlingit-Haida Central Council, said the state, communities and the industry need to find ways to improve the market for wild Alaska salmon.

''I think that it's a big priority to take a look at some solutions,'' he told the Juneau Empire. ''The other thing is that some of the fishermen have loans and hopefully some of them can be renegotiated. Even that digs a hole if you don't have adequate prices to sell the salmon that you catch.''

Gross earnings from commercial salmon fishing in Southeast Alaska this season totaled $41 million, down from 1994 when the value of the fishery was $121 million, according to a resolution from the Native groups. The price for coho salmon in Craig ranged from 10 cents to 20 cents a pound this season, one-tenth of what the price was three years ago, the resolution said.

Knowles spokesman Bob King said the requests are under review. The state has been talking with Southeast Alaska mayors about ways it can help short of a disaster declaration, he said.

''The problem that we're running into, and it's still under review, is that disaster statutes as they apply now apply to geographic areas,'' he said. ''In Bristol Bay, for instance, 80 percent of the economy is fishing dependent. In Southeast, the economy is much more diversified. It's harder to apply the disaster statutes.''

The governor sent letters to President Bush and Alaska's congressional delegation in the summer asking the federal government to re-evaluate how it makes disaster declarations in these types of situations, King said. In the meantime, the state should be able to offer heating assistance, job training and other programs in Southeast Alaska, he said.

Tlingit-Haida Central Council President Ed Thomas said the state could waive a $100 application fee for fishermen who apply for loan extensions. It could seek ways to improve marketing for Alaska wild salmon and work with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to release general assistance funds for tribes, Thomas wrote in a letter to the governor.

Meanwhile, a Joint Legislative Salmon Industry Task Force has held public hearings around the state this month to explore ways of helping fishermen, processors and communities deal with market changes.

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