U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke declared a commercial fishing disaster for Yukon River king salmon Friday following two years of poor runs, fishing restrictions and bans.
"Communities in Alaska along the Yukon River depend heavily on chinook salmon for commercial fishing, jobs and food," Locke said in a statement from the Commerce Department. "Alaska fishermen and their families are struggling with a substantial loss in income and revenues."
The declaration -- requested by Gov. Sean Parnell and others -- does not automatically send money to communities hammered by the loss of chinook salmon to eat and sell.
But in the past, such declarations have meant federal money for research, infrastructure or payments to fishermen. Parnell's office said it could also fund training programs and other regional projects.
"The possibilities are as many as there are salmon out there," said Tim Andrew, director of natural resources for the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents. AVCP has been asking for disaster relief in the region for two years, he said.
Friday's federal declaration is key to persuading Congress to send emergency relief money to the region, said U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who joined Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young in calling for the declaration last spring.
All three praised Locke's announcement Friday. It's too early to say how much money might be requested, Begich said.
Chinook salmon sell for roughly $4 to $5 a pound and are the most valuable commercial fish in the region, said John Hilsinger, head of the state's Commercial Fisheries Division.
About 870 fishermen hold commercial king permits along the river, Hilsinger said. Most live in the cash-poor Lower Yukon, a region where villages reported a food-versus-fuel crisis last year.
Fishermen made roughly $2.25 million on Yukon River chinook in 2007, catching about 35,000 fish, Hilsinger said.
Those numbers plummeted over the next two years.
Poor returns led regulators to restrict commercial fishing in 2008, with the harvest 89 percent below the recent five-year average, according to the Commerce Department. In 2009, there was no commercial season and limited subsistence fishing -- the fish residents catch to feed their families and villages.
Regulators expect another poor season in 2010, Hilsinger said.
Some village and regional leaders blame the massive Bering Sea pollock fleet for the decline, saying some of the tens of thousands of king salmon caught by trawlers each year would otherwise return to the Yukon.
In a statement announcing the disaster declaration, the Commerce Department said the cause of the disappearing salmon isn't fully understood but that scientists believe it's primarily natural events: changing ocean and river conditions and changing temperatures and food sources.
The kings caught by the pollock fleet don't account for the magnitude of missing kings on the river, Hilsinger said. But given how few fish are returning to the Yukon overall, the salmon lost to bycatch could still determine how much commercial fishing, if any, is allowed on the river, he said.
The last federal fishery disaster declarations in Alaska came in 2000, after the collapse of the Bering Sea snow crab population and a salmon fishery failure in Norton Sound and the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, said Sheela McLean, spokeswoman for NOAA Fisheries in Alaska.
Those declarations were followed by combined federal appropriations of $25 million, she said.
The state has not declared an economic disaster of its own over the low king salmon returns. State officials have said they can't legally declare a disaster because the Yukon River losses don't meet strict state requirements.
By KYLE HOPKINS