Lions share of sea lion funds go to Washington state

Posted: Thursday, December 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Southwest Alaska Municipal Conference has released a report on how it distributed $30 million in federal funds among more than 15,000 individuals, businesses and communities.

The money is intended to offset revenue lost when commercial fishing was restricted to protect endangered Steller sea lions.

Checks started going out in early December last year, said Wanetta Ayers, executive director of the conference. Amounts ranged from more than a million dollars to less than one dollar. The 419-page report outlining the distribution can be found on the SWAMC Web site, with a list of those who haven't claimed their checks. About 1,600 federal checks are still unclaimed.

Washington state got the biggest share; 5,800 claimants received a little more than $17 million. Alaska received more than $10 million among 3,300 participants. California, with 3,600 stakeholders, got less than $700,000.

The appropriation was shepherded through Congress in late 2000 by U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

Stevens noted the disaster compensation cash was less than a third of the $100 million economic hit the industry and region took when fishing was restricted. SWAMC is a state- and federally recognized economic development organization for the region. Membership ranges from hotels and airlines to nonprofits and tribal and village councils to chambers of commerce.

The organization divided funding among three traditional fishing zones: the central Gulf of Alaska, including Kodiak; the western Gulf, including towns like Sand Point and Chignik; and the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands, including one of the nation's top fishing ports, Dutch Harbor.

Representatives in each area negotiated how much should go to affected groups, from people working at processing plants to fishery-dependent local governments and businesses.

Ayers said the biggest checks, to communities and the larger processors, were more than $1 million. Boat captains might have received several thousand dollars; someone at a processing plant, a couple hundred.

Fishing for pollock, mackerel and other species was halted or restricted near sea lion resting and birthing areas by a lawsuit against federal fishery regulators. Environmental groups said regulators had not shown fishing was not causing a decades-long decline in Western Alaska sea lions.

The area's Steller population was near 180,000 in the 1960s; it dropped to near 30,000 in 2000, a loss of more than 80 percent.

The cause is a puzzle. Some scientists theorize fishing boats may be taking sea lions' food; others suggest natural changes in the ocean ecology.

Stevens has also steered millions toward solving the puzzle, determining whether fishing is linked to the sea lions' decline. The federal research spending added up to $80 million in 2002.


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