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Alaska awaits word on fisheries disaster

Jill Burke

Four months after putting in a request for a federal fishery disaster declaration with the U.S. Department of Commerce, the state of Alaska is still waiting for an answer. Closures to the Yukon River king salmon fishery this summer shut off crucial income opportunities for fishermen, and also impacted their ability to fish for food. An answer from Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke is expected soon, but approval of the request doesn't itself guarantee financial relief to the families that need it.

The process of declaring a disaster can take from several weeks to a number of months, according to Gaylen Tromble, chief of the Domestic Fisheries Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. Fisheries disaster assistance is administered by NOAA through the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Department of Commerce. Once a determination is made, NOAA acts as a conduit between any money set aside by Congress for relief and the state. No congressional appropriation is currently in place for Yukon River fisheries disaster assistance; however, congressional delegates often wait for a declaration to be made before moving forward with requests for financial relief, Tromble said.

Already saddled with few jobs and a high cost of living, Yukon River fishermen received a triple blow this summer. In May, a huge spring flood sent water and ice crashing through many communities, damaging boats, homes and in some communities, city infrastructure. Fishing for king salmon -- the most prized and valuable catch -- was shut down to ensure enough of the fish made it across the border into Canada, thus meeting U.S. treaty obligations. And another typically abundant but far less valuable fish, chum salmon, saw its lowest run in nearly 14 years, forcing a closure on it and also deeply curtailing access to silver salmon traveling upriver at the same time. To make matters worse, all of this came after the 2008 fishing season, which was also a terrible year for king salmon.

It's not just Alaska fishermen who are experiencing hard times. Troubled fisheries for ground fish in New England, clams in New York, shark and grouper in Florida, and shellfish in Maine have prompted other governors to also seek federal financial help. Some of those requests came in under the Bush administration and had not been finalized before Locke's appointment in March 2009 by President Barack Obama, contributing to the backlog of requests currently under review, according to Tromble.

Alaska has received federal commercial fisheries disaster declarations four times over the past 15 years, including in 1997, 1998 and 2000 when salmon failed to return to Bristol Bay and the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers. Scientists blamed low survival rates among ocean-faring salmon -- a hidden impact of El Niño, with "water temperatures at record high levels in the Bering Sea," according to a 1998 Department of Commerce press release.

A fourth fisheries disaster declaration came in 2000 in response to the failure of Alaska's snow crab fishery. Still feeling the effects of that loss, the island community of St. Paul, located north of the Aleutian chain in the Pribilof Islands, has asked this year for that disaster to remain recognized, thus maintaining the channels for federal relief.

Situations are evaluated on a case by case basis, and yearly fluctuations in catch size and value are always expected, but a sharp decline in revenue -- a third or more - will usually be enough to start considering whether a fishery is in failure, Tromble said. If revenues drop by 80 percent or more, that's "almost always going to pass muster," he said .

With more than 800 fishermen directly affected, and noting that king salmon harvests were nearly 90 percent below average in 2008, and nearly absent in 2009, Gov. Sean Parnell, in a letter urging the disaster declaration, called the situation as bad, if not worse, than prior failures.

Contact Jill Burke at jill_alaskadispatch.com.