Survey: Many Western Alaska fishermen want new line of work

Posted: Tuesday, November 06, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- After years of dismally low salmon prices and runs, many commercial fishermen in Western Alaska are ready to leave their jobs, according to a state survey of 1,410 fishermen.

Only 16 percent of those polled said they expect prices and runs to rebound.

The survey was conducted by the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

About 39 percent of the respondents said they were ready to leave commercial fishing. Another 24 percent said they would take other work temporarily until the fishing business improves. Only 11 percent said they did not want to get out of fishing.

The survey was intended to assess interest in job retraining in eight U.S. census areas stretching from the Alaska Peninsula to Bristol Bay to Nome. About 70 percent said they were open to some kind of training, including fish marketing or other instruction related to their industry.

The state has declared disaster in most of those areas because of lower-than-expected fish returns beginning with the 1997 season. However, all the areas are dealing with a potentially bigger problem: low salmon prices caused mainly by competition from surging foreign salmon farms.

Last week, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles took the matter to President Bush.

''For over 100 years, residents of the eastern Aleutian Islands, Bristol Bay, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and Norton Sound have been dependent on the commercial salmon fishery for their incomes,'' Knowles wrote. He asked the president for federal aid to diversify local economies and help fishermen restructure debt.

Knowles noted that helping the fishing industry would be like drought aid or price supports for Lower 48 farmers.

The survey was conducted in spring, before summer's dismal salmon prices were posted. Only Alaska resident fishing permit holders and crewmen were polled. More than 90 percent of respondents indicated they were Native.

State officials offered cash prizes of between $250 and $1,000 to help reach what they called an exceptionally high response rate. About 40 percent of the 3,500 fishermen who were mailed a survey responded.

Terry Hoefferle, chief of operations at the nonprofit Bristol Bay Native Association, said he wasn't surprised that many fishermen are disheartened.

''It's been my observation that most people in Anchorage and in Juneau do not recognize how bad off we are in the fishing business out here,'' he told the Anchorage Daily News. ''Everybody here has had their boats and their permits mortgaged to the nines. All of their credit cards and lines of credit are maxed out.''

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