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Parnell requests disaster declaration for Yukon, Kuskokwim fisheries

Alaska Dispatch
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In a year full of disappointing news for both sport and commercial fishermen, Gov. Sean Parnell on Saturday sent a letter to acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, requesting a disaster declaration in the wake of particularly dismal 2011 and 2012 Chinook salmon runs on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers.

In Parnell's letter, he tells Blank that "the cause of these declines is undetermined and could include a variety of factors including ocean survival or other unknown factors." He says that commercial fishing on the Yukon River fishery was restricted in 2011, and the state doesn't expect to open the fishery to commercial use at all in 2012.

He said that subsistence harvests are also likely to be reduced.

Conflict has already arisen between subsistence fishermen and authorities in Southwest Alaska, as a fishing ban on king salmon was defied and troopers began to seize fish and nets from fishermen along the Kuskokwim River. Many residents of small villages lining the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers -- accessible only by boat or air -- rely on their subsistence fishing quotas to put food on the table during the leaner winter months.

In late June, the run of kings counted on the Yukon River was more than 55,000 below the historical average of 75,000.

"It is important to emphasize the critical nature of these fisheries to region residents," Parnell wrote. "Residents in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions experience some of the highest poverty rates in the country."

Parnell said that in addition to the economic benefit of commercial fishing in the region, the severity of the poor runs is also impacting villagers' ability to subsistence fish.

"It appears these river systems may be facing long-term systemic changes and require significant and long-term financial resources to determine the precise problem and make corrective actions," the letter says.

A press release from the governor's office notes that a disaster declaration is only the first step, and a federal appropriation will be necessary to provide any funds to assist.