Two measures of relief for Alaska's pink salmon industry, reeling from the lowest harvest since the late 1970s, are being sought.
Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, last week asked the Walker administration to declare the pink salmon season a disaster, which would open up access to federal relief funds.
Pinks are Alaska's highest volume salmon fishery, though the price tends to be the lowest. Hundreds of fishermen depend on pinks to boost their overall catches and paychecks.
So far, the statewide harvest is just 36 million humpies, far less than a preseason forecast of 90 million. Last summer, 190 million pinks were caught. For pinks, every other year is typically a strong year, with a weak year in between.
"This is the worst salmon year in nearly 40 years, and that's huge," she said. "It doesn't just affect the fishermen — it's a trickle-down effect on the cannery workers, the processors and nearly all businesses in the community. It's a disaster, there's no other way to describe it."
Until this season, the worst pink harvest this century is the 68,035 taken in 2012.
Stutes, who chairs the House Fisheries Committee, said she's gotten a positive response from the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.
"They are on it and already moving forward," Stutes said.
At the same time, she is working with the Division of Investments to allow a "blanket pardon" of state-funded fishermen's loan payments for this year.
"This would not be a forgiveness, but would add this year's payment onto the end of the loan period and forgive the loan payment just for this year," she explained.
The disaster declaration and the loan suspensions "go hand in hand," Stutes said, "but don't depend on each other."
After visiting constituents in Kodiak, Cordova and Yakutat, Stutes said "people are in fear about making mortgage payments and paying their bills. They can't claim unemployment because they are still employed. There is just no work."
Weak king salmon returns on the Yukon River in 2008 and 2009 led to disaster declarations.
By week's end, she was hoping to hear back from Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who's closely involved with fisheries issues.
"I'm a squeaky wheel and this is crucial to the resident workers and to people in so many communities."
National surveys show most Americans want to know the origins of their food. At retail counters, seafood lovers can tell the origin of salmon and other fish — and whether it's wild or farmed. That's due to Country of Origin Labeling laws that went into effect a decade ago. But the laws don't apply to seafood that's been "processed," no matter how minimally.
A processed food item is defined as "a retail item derived from a covered commodity that has undergone specific processing resulting in a change (of) character." "Cooking (e.g. frying, broiling, grilled, boiling, steaming, baking, roasting)" is an example of a process that results in such a change.
"It was a surprise to all of us who worked very hard to get seafood included in all product forms," said Mark Vinsel, executive administrator for United Fishermen of Alaska, which represents 35 fishing groups.
Bering Sea king and snow crab fisheries have been hurt by the lack of labeling.
"Since all crab are required to be cooked right after delivery, they are exempt," said Jake Jacobsen, director of the Inter-Cooperative Exchange, a harvester group that catches 70 percent of the Bering Sea crab quota.
The push to exclude products such as canned, pouched or smoked fish and steamed crab, Jacobsen said, came from the U.S. tuna fleet.
"They had a much more powerful lobby," he said.
Most crabbers believe the public has a right to know where their crab comes from, and they have not backed down.
"Right now when a consumer goes into a grocery store they don't know if the crab comes from Russia or Newfoundland or Alaska," Jacobsen said. "We think American consumers will prefer Alaskan product, especially if there is a chance that much of the crab imported from Russia might be illegal."
A McDowell Group analysis showed almost 100 million pounds of Russian crab entered the U.S. in 2013, valued at roughly $600 million. An estimated 40 percent of king crab sold in world markets was from Russian harvests.
The situation has improved somewhat due to tighter international regulations, but Jacobsen said it's too soon to tell.
"There is still illegal crab going into China and Korea and finding its way into the U.S. but there is no way to tell if it's legal or not because there is no traceability requirement," Jacobsen said.
Crabbers have gone directly to buyers and retailers with their complaints, too. Two of them, HyVee and Publix, only source crab from Alaska, and Jacobsen hopes more will follow suit.
Meanwhile, the push to get USA labeling on Alaska crab will continue.
"Absolutely," he said. "It is a big issue to us."
Seafood champions sought
The Obama administration wants to honor fishermen and coastal communities that are helping preserve and protect America's fishing industry.
"Nominate someone you know and admire for contributing to the ongoing recovery of America's fishing industry and our fishing communities as a White House Champion of Change for Sustainable Seafood," said an administration press release.
Nominees may include fishermen who are leaders in promoting sustainable fishing practices, seafood processors, purveyors, chefs and other business owners, community leaders and innovators in the field of mariculture. Visit www.whitehouse.gov/champions and select "Sustainable Seafood" as the theme. Deadline for nominations is Sept. 9.
Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at email@example.com.