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US Commerce Secretary declares disaster for Alaska salmon fisheries

Ben Anderson
Courtesy Arni Thomson

Back in August, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell requested a disaster declaration from U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank, citing low king salmon runs on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers as well as Upper Cook Inlet. On Thursday, Blank granted that disaster declaration request, which moves the process into Congress to determine how much in disaster-relief funds should be granted to hard-hit fishermen in those regions.

Parnell requested the disaster declaration following another year of dismal king salmon runs in Alaska, with commercial fishermen suffering and subsistence fishermen seeing their fish seized when they decided to fish despite closures. Runs have been well below average in recent years, especially on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Blank's disaster declaration will stretch back to 2010 for the Yukon and 2011 for the Kuskokwim. For Upper Cook Inlet, only this year's fishing season will be eligible.

The 106,731 king salmon that passed a sonar counter at Pilot Station not far from the mouth of the Yukon River is the fewest since at least 2007 -- and a 13 percent decline from last summer.  

"Commercial fishery failures can have cascading economic impacts on subsistence and sport fisheries," Blank wrote in her response to Parnell. "Rural communities on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers depend on both the commercial and subsistence Chinook salmon fisheries for income and survival. In addition, the Cook Inlet chinook salmon fishery supports an important sport fishery, which is one of the principal economic drivers for the local and regional economy."

The reasons for the low returns aren't clear, though the state is examining possible causes. Some biologists speculate that the problems could be based in the ocean, rather than anything happening in Alaska waters.

Alaska's congressional delegation praised the decision, noting that the low runs impact many Alaska stakeholders, from commercial and subsistence fisherman to sport-fishing guides operating in the region. 

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"This is an important declaration for the people of Alaska -- especially those living on the Yukon River, Kuskokwim River and Cook Inlet,” Alaska Rep. Don Young said in a statement. "The fact is, Alaskans depend on fish for survival and with such a terrible run of kings this year, people are hurting."

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Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com