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ANCHORAGE - A federal official declared a fishery disaster Friday because of low Chinook salmon returns the past two years along Alaska's Yukon River.
"The determination was based on the incredibly low Chinook salmon returns in 2008, and of course, 2009 there was no fishery, no harvest whatsoever," U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said ahead of a business conference in Anchorage, where he attended with U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
The 2008 commercial Chinook salmon harvest was 89 percent below the five-year average. There was no commercial fishery allowed in 2009 because of low returns, and state officials restricted the subsistence harvest.
Subsistence fishing is not a factor in determining the disaster, but along the Yukon River, it is inseparable from commercial fishing, said Doug Mecum, acting administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service, Alaska region.
"These communities are very isolated and do not have the economic diversity to withstand the disastrous economic impact of extremely low or no commercial harvest coupled with a decline in subsistence harvests," Mecum said in a statement.
Locke said he was aware of the importance of the fishery for communities along the Yukon River.
"Alaska's fishermen and their families are struggling with this incredibly substantial loss of income and revenues due to these very poor runs," he said.
Gov. Sean Parnell requested the federal declaration along with the Association of Village Council Presidents, the Alaska Federation of Natives and the villages of Kwethluk and Chevak.
"I appreciate Secretary Locke's recognition of the severity of the situation along the Yukon River and the dependence of Alaskans on these salmon runs," Parnell said in a statement.
Locke's declaration does not free up any federal funds, but it does pave the way for Congress to appropriate funding.
"I'm sure your congressional delegation, Sen. Begich's office, Sen. (Lisa) Murkowski's office, and Congressman (Don) Young will be working together to ensure that the Congress is able to address this issue," Locke told Anchorage business leaders.
If federal aid is obtained, it could be used for relief programs, stock research, training programs and fisheries infrastructure, Parnell said.
The reason for the decline of Chinook salmon is not known, but federal scientists believe it is predominantly natural. They say changes in ocean and river conditions - including unfavorable shifts in food sources and temperatures - likely caused poor survival rates for Chinook salmon.
Chinook inadvertently taken along with pollock also may be to blame, but scientists say that would be of minimal impact compared to natural changes. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council is recommending measures to curtail bycatch, and NOAA's Fishery Services is reviewing the plans.
However, many who live along the river blame the pollock bycatch for the disappearing chinook. The $1 billion pollock fishery is America's largest.
Salmon, which spend years in the ocean before going back to Alaska rivers to spawn, get caught in the pollock trawl nets. The dead fish are either thrown back into the ocean or donated to needy people.