Little solace follows fishery disaster

Posted: Monday, November 13, 2000

State officials visited the Kenai Peninsula Borough office in Soldotna on Wednesday to discuss how they better can help commercial fishers and others hurt by this year's dismal sockeye salmon run.

They offered job placement, vocational training and programs for displaced workers. They offered Medicaid, welfare and Denali Kid Care health insurance. They offered to extend state loans to commercial fishers.

What is needed, though, is a long-term solution to put the industry back on its feet, said setnetter Paul Shadura, one of three commercial fishers who attended Wednesday's meeting.

"Price is hurting us. Manage-ment structure is hurting us. The sociopolitical structure is hurting us," he told state officials. "Those need to be responded to. Other-wise, you're going to be back here again. Or, you won't be back here again, because there won't be any need to, because that portion of the population of this state will be gone."

Homer commercial fisher Kevin Hogan blamed Gov. Tony Knowles for the allocation of Cook Inlet salmon from commercial to recreational fishers. Processors are leaving the inlet, he said, and if there is a big salmon run next year, there will not be enough to handle it.

Icicle Seafoods never rebuilt its burned plant in Homer.

"Why would somebody take $8 million or $10 million and rebuild a plant based on a resource that's being taken away from the industry and given to someone else?" he asked.

"I'm severely angry. I used to be able to make a living at this. I can't even support my debt service. I only have one payment left, and I can't make that. I can't even afford the $100 to do the loan extension."

The 2000 upper inlet sockeye catch was 1.3 million, just a third of the 20-year average. Fishers earned $8.2 million, about a fifth of the 20-year average. Knowles declined to declare a state disaster, but he did ask the federal Small Business Administration to provide low-interest loans to help fishers, processors and small businesses cover their expenses.

SBA agreed, but fishers are leery of loans, said Wanetta Ayers, business development manager for the borough's new Community and Economic Development Division.

"A lot of people feel they just can't avail themselves of this because they're just postponing the inevitable and digging a deeper hole for themselves in terms of bankruptcy," she said.

She said some fishers want the state to buy back limited entry permits or grant relief from raw fish taxes.

Karl Ohls, of the Department of Labor and Workforce Develop-ment said the state offers vocational training, job placement and programs for displaced workers. However, Kenai Peninsula unemployment reaches 15 percent during winter. Present job listings at the Peninsula Job Center fit on a single page.

"It does put us in a bit of a box," he said. "... There's nothing at the Department of Labor that addresses the direct needs of the commercial fishing industry. Year-to-year, you have biological changes, changing market conditions. There is somewhat of a safety net out there, and we're a piece of it."

Borough Mayor Dale Bagley said he agrees with Shadura.

"Job retraining is not the answer. These are family businesses that have been here a long time," he said.

Most salmon fishers work other fisheries or odd jobs to survive, he said, and many have trouble finding jobs that allow time off to go fishing.

"I have a brother-in-law that does Pacific cod. He does halibut. He does odd jobs whenever he can get them between his fisheries," Bagley said.

The state ran lots of hatcheries during the heyday of Cook Inlet salmon, he said, but it has given those to aquaculture associations funded by taxes on fishers.

"So, when the years are bad, they receive even less money to do enhancement work," he said.

Hogan asked what help a state disaster declaration might have brought.

State officials said most disaster aid comes from the federal government. Debbie Tennyson, local government specialist for the Department of Community and Economic Development, said Knowles researched every avenue following the 1997 fishery disaster in Western Alaska but found little to help.

"There are not the kinds of programs that fit in agriculture that help farmers out after every frost or after every bad rain," said Tennyson, who also is a Bristol Bay commercial fisher.

The 1997 and 1998 fishery disasters brought efforts to build the economy and train fishers for other jobs.

"For the fishermen themselves, those who were income eligible got like $1,500 through the federal programs," she said. "You know that if you've got a big debt, that doesn't cover it. That helps to pay for the heat bill a little bit. But there were not really the types of overall assistance that lead you back to economic health in the industry you've dedicated your life to."

The message went home to Shadura.

"There are no programs for commercial fishermen. That's what I found out," he said. "There are no state or federal programs to deal with commercial fishermen. There is no net. There is no direct program to help commercial fishermen through hard times."

Deborah Sedwick, commissioner of the Department of Community and Economic Development, said she appreciates the importance of commercial fishing, but the industry faces ups and downs and fierce global competition.

Knowles is committed to conducting the scientific research to understand what has happened to Alaska fisheries, she said.

"The other part is to encourage economic diversification, both inside the industry and outside the industry. Because we're facing global competition, we need to increase quality and develop new markets," Sedwick said.

She said she could not discuss fishery management -- that is the purview of the Department of Fish and Game.

"I can work with communities, and we can help the industry where we can," she said. "I don't think there is any easy solution. I think it's important to keep the dialog going -- that's the community, the state and the federal government working together."

However, many of the problems are beyond Alaska's control, she said.

"Some of the people who are fishing today are probably not going to be fishing tomorrow," she said.

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