Fishermen affected by the 2018 Pacific cod and Chignik sockeye disasters will soon have access to about $35 million in relief funding.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross allocated about $65 million to fisheries disaster relief, about $35 million of which is for Alaska, according to a Feb. 27 announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Within Alaska, about $24.4 million will go to the Pacific cod fishery disaster and about $10.3 million to the Chignik sockeye fishery. The funding was appropriated when Congress passed the 2019 Consolidated and Supplemental Appropriations Act.
Fisheries disasters can be declared under the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Management and Conservation Act when natural disasters or management actions significantly negatively impact stakeholders’ ability to participate in a fishery.
In the case of the Pacific cod fishery in the Gulf of Alaska, scientists are linking the decline in stock abundance to environmental causes; in Chignik, the salmon decline seemed to be linked to poor environmental conditions for sockeye that summer.
Both disaster requests had already been granted, but the amount of funding that the fisheries would have allocated to them was yet to be determined. The National Marine Fisheries Service determines how much funding to allocate to fisheries based on commercial revenue loss information.
Affected fishermen will be able to apply for funding to help with infrastructure projects, habitat restoration, state-run vessel and fishing permit buybacks, and job retraining, according to the announcement from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Nearly two years has passed since both disasters. At the beginning of 2018, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council cut Gulf of Alaska Pacific cod total allowable catch limits by 80 percent in response to declining biomass. Then-Gov. Bill Walker requested the disaster declaration in March 2018, citing the direct impacts from loss of revenue in the fishery and indirect impacts such as reduced fuel sales and supplies.
This year, the same Pacific cod fishermen in the Gulf of Alaska are facing a complete fishery shutdown, again due to declining biomass.
The Chignik area felt the impact in summer 2018 when so few sockeye salmon showed up in the lagoon and Chignik River that commercial fishermen essentially didn’t fish all summer — they harvested an estimated 128 sockeye in 2018 compared to a five-year average of about 1.3 million, according to Walker’s November 2018 letter requesting the disaster declaration. In a rural community with little cash economy, the commercial fishery provides essential cash flow so residents can purchase items like heating fuel.
“These funds help impacted fisheries recover from recent disasters and make them more resilient to future challenges,” Ross said in the NOAA release. “This allocation supports the hard-working American fishing communities suffering from impacts beyond their control.”
It’s typically a significant amount of time between a fisheries disaster and the actual awarding of funds. For instance, the 2016 pink salmon disaster in the Gulf of Alaska was approved for disaster status in January 2017, but funds didn’t materialize for distribution until 2019 and are still being distributed in 2020.
The U.S. Senate is currently considering a bill that would streamline some of the regulations and processes for determining a fishery disaster and getting funding out to affected stakeholders. The bill was last heard in November 2019, when an amendment was requested by the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The funds will be managed by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. Because the funding for these disasters has already been appropriated, NOAA can start working with the state agencies on distribution, said Karina Borger, communications director for Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
“With NOAA’s approval today — NOAA can begin immediately working with the state-level agencies to get the funding moving to fishermen & affected communities,” she wrote in an email.
Alaska’s congressional delegation released a joint statement Thursday thanking NOAA for the allocation and encouraging the agency to continue its scientific work to determine drivers of “resource fluctuations.”
“Alaska’s fisheries are vital to our state, coastal communities, and families,” they said in the statement. “By restoring these losses, our federal government is following through not only on the commitment we made to Alaska’s commercial fisherman, but also to their families, processors, and coastal communities who were hit hard by these disasters. The economic impact for fisherman and their communities could have been detrimental. This economic relief will go a long way.”
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at email@example.com.