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Disaster funds announced for 2018 cod crash and Chignik sockeye failure; 2016 pink salmon relief hits snag

The U.S. Commerce Department announced last week that the 2018 Gulf of Alaska cod crash and the sockeye fishery failure at Chignik are included in $165 million in disaster relief funds. The money also provides for fisheries impacts in six other states between 2017 and 2019.

For Alaska, the 2018 salmon fishery at Chignik, once the state’s most exclusive sockeye salmon fishery, produced just 128 fish.

That same year fishermen faced the lowest numbers ever for Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska due to the disappearance of 5- and 6-year-old pulses of fish. Biologists blamed the wipeout on warm water that moved into the Gulf starting in 2014.

“We had what the oceanographers and the news media have been calling the blob, which is this warm water that was sitting in the Gulf for three years, and it was different than other years in that it went really deep, but it also lasted throughout the winter. What can happen is you can deplete the food source pretty rapidly when the entire ecosystem is ramped up in those warm temperatures,” said Steve Barbeaux with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

Pacific cod typically accounts for over 20% of Alaska’s total groundfish catch.

Congress will now determine how to divide the relief funds and eligible fishermen can then apply.

Pink payout pickle

Meanwhile, Alaska permit holders applying for $32 million in disaster funds for the 2016 pink salmon bust have hit a big snag.

The way in which the payouts were calculated is badly flawed and can result in “tens of thousands” of lost dollars to eligible fishermen, according to state Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who has been closely watching the payout process.

The distribution to permit holders in seven regions is based on average dockside values over even years starting in 2006, according to formulas calculated by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and approved by NOAA Fisheries. The fund distribution is administered by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.

As one example, Stutes pointed to flaws based on the timing of entry into a salmon fishery and participation in other, unrelated salmon fisheries.

“With gillnetting being used to establish a five-year average, if I fish a gillnet permit in Prince William Sound, say, in 2012 and then later buy a seine permit in 2016, my year of gillnetting will be used to establish a five-year average to base my loss on for the 2016 seine year,” Stutes said. “I mean, it’s just nuts.”

Stutes said the distribution plan is a “done deal” and agencies are on notice to expect a lot of appeals. For pink salmon fishermen with complaints about payments, the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and Fish and Game are developing an appeals process, said deputy commissioner Rachel Baker.

The deadline for permit holders to apply to the commission is Oct. 31. Skippers also are responsible for filling out information about their crews, who can apply at a later date.

Funding to train future fishermen

The nation’s farmers of the sea are hoping for a helping hand from Uncle Sam to train future generations of fishermen. It would mirror programs in place for nearly 160 years for U.S. farmers and ranchers.

Federal backing of training programs for entry level farmers and ranchers can be traced back to the Morrill Act of 1862. Beginning in 2009, Congress authorized $75 million for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program to “develop and offer education, training, outreach and mentoring programs to enhance the sustainability of the next generation of farmers.”

Shellfish farmers were added to the list in 2014.

The Agriculture Act of 2014 (aka the Farm Bill) provided an additional $20 million per year through 2018 due to “renewed interest in beginning farmer and rancher programs.” Then in 2018, Congress reauthorized and increased “mandatory” BFRDP funds to $15 million per year for 2019 and 2020, $17.5 million for 2021, $20 million for 2022 and $25 million for 2023.

Fishermen are hoping to get a nibble of the largesse through the Young Fishermen’s Development Act, introduced earlier this year by Alaska’s congressional delegation to strong bipartisan support.

It would be bankrolled by a far smaller assist — $2 million over six years fully paid for by fines from fishermen who violated fishing rules.

Stakeholders are hoping the act gains enough traction to pass this year.

“Young fishermen not only have to know how to catch fish, they have to keep track of a complex fisheries regulatory world. And as small-business men, they also have to be able to make sound decisions about how much money to borrow, how to grow their businesses, when to invest in updates in new technology, improvements to the vessel. There are so many challenges,” said Linda Behnken, director of the Sitka-based Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association.

The association is part of the Fishing Communities Coalition, a national group of over 1,000 small-boat owners and businesses that have been driving the bill.

The YFDA grants would be open to associations, tribes, universities and others to train and mentor young fishermen, Behnken said.

Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association’s crew apprenticeship program is an example of a program that puts young people on deck with seasoned fishing mentors for several weeks or an entire season.

“At the same time, we also provide onshore training such as business and marketing, and sustainable practices and good stewardship,” said Tara Racine, program director. “Having a national program like this would build our capacity and allow us to sustain programs like this. It’s something that’s being faced by coastal communities all over the country.”

Zack Brown, press secretary for Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young, said staff “are currently working with the House Natural Resources Committee to bring it to a markup and working out what — if any — language needs to be amended.”

Mike Anderson, communications director for U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, said “the bill will next be considered on the Senate floor, which we’re hoping occurs soon.”

Anderson said that $2 million is a “modest number” for the nation’s fishermen but added that “we strongly believe the program has to start somewhere.”

Waterfronts want in

Working waterfronts would get a financial lift from the “Keep America’s Waterfronts Working Act,” which is on its way to the U.S. House floor.

The measure, introduced by Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, funds a $12 million Working Waterfront Grant Program to help preserve and expand access to coastal waters for water-dependent businesses. It also creates a five-year $12 million pilot loan fund for waterfront preservation, and establishes a Working Waterfront Task Force to “identify and prioritize critical needs for working waterfronts, especially in the face of the climate crisis and increased trade threats.”