Gov. Frank Murkowski signed into law a bill Thursday intended to return a greater share of the lucrative groundfish catch to some small coastal villages.
It makes available up to $2 million in low interest fishing loans for 42 primarily Alaska Native villages on the Gulf of Alaska and in Southeast.
Villages would use the loans to buy halibut and black cod quota shares under a federal program and lease them back to local fishermen.
It could reserve more than 20 percent of the groundfish quota in the regions for rural fishermen after it is phased in over seven years.
Murkowski said he is hopeful it will create jobs in areas where fewer fishermen are participating in a traditional fishery.
"What this will do, I think, is revitalize opportunities for the residents of these communities to participate in a fishery that had over a period of time kind of moved away," Murkowski said.
The state loans are intended to jump-start a new program created by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that allows nonprofit community quota entities to own shares in the groundfish catch.
The council began rationing the groundfish catch among fishermen in the mid-1990s based on the historical catch fishermen brought in.
It was intended to reduce the fleet and fix problems associated with a short and sometimes dangerous derby-style season, said council spokesman Phil Smith.
The region's halibut fleet was reduced by more than 300 fishermen since then. The season is longer and the quality of the catch has improved, Smith said.
But the program has not worked as well in smaller villages, where many fishermen who initially received a small quota share found it more profitable to sell them, he said.
Most of the groundfish quota is now held by fishermen in larger towns or by those who live out-of-state. "The economy, or the basis for the economy in these communities, is sort of being transferred away," Smith said.
State officials see the program as a way to help struggling communities where fishermen may lack money to buy enough quota to cash in on strong halibut and cod prices. The program is limited to coastal communities with populations below 1,500, are not connected by a road to larger towns, and that have a history of participating in halibut and black cod fisheries.