Almost 500 Alaskans who can no longer earn a living catching or processing salmon have signed up for emergency federal job training assistance.
Congress distributes billions of dollars by formula every year to states to aid workers who lose their jobs. Alaska last year applied for a national emergency grant to address workers hit hard specifically because of the decline in the commercial wild salmon industry, said Corine Geldof, deputy director of the Employment Security Division.
"It's for those who can't earn a living and have to do something else," Geldof said Monday.
Paula Terrel of Juneau, whose husband Dick HofMann was trolling on their boat, The Standy, said last year was especially hard for people fishing king salmon in Southeast waters.
On July 1, processors were paying trollers 65 cents a pound for kings. "That doesn't pay for the fuel," she said. "Many fishermen didn't fish for kings because the price was so low."
She said she stayed in town last year marketing while HofMann sold his fish to the public and restaurants off the dock at Auke Bay for a better price, although he lost days fishing by making the longer trip to Juneau.
Salmon remains Alaska's largest fishery - in terms of fishermen.
However, demand for wild Alaska salmon has dropped as farmed salmon, especially fish from Canada and Chile, have grown in popularity. Falling demand in Asia, brought on in part by a long recession in Japan, and industry lawsuits also sapped the industry.
Writing in the Labor Department's Trends magazine last October, economist Neal Gilbertsen noted that participation in salmon fishing declined by 37 percent from 1990 to 2002 as fish remained abundant but prices fell.
"It is clear that while the fishery is biologically sustainable, it is no longer economically viable for a large number of Alaska's fishermen," he wrote.
Terrel said 2003 looks better, with processors paying trollers a better price for king salmon this year. Monday afternoon, the price was $3.25 a pound, she said.
She said she believes efforts to market wild salmon have been paying off.
In response to the decline in recent years, a grant signed in December by federal Labor Secretary Elaine Chao gives Alaska up to $8 million through September 2005 to train people who no longer can make money from salmon. So far $2 million has been released.
The grant is aimed at commercial salmon fishermen, crew members, workers on salmon tenders, cannery workers, and in some cases, family members who have relied on salmon industry workers.
The grant anticipated 468 people seeking job help. The state Labor Department had until the end of June to sign them up. So far, 495 people have asked for help and there are more waiting.
"We'll probably have another hundred," Geldof said.
The Labor Department faced two unusual circumstances in dealing with the salmon labor problem.
Workers displaced from jobs usually are confined to one community, Geldof said, and it usually occurs where the department has a job center. If, for example, a pulp mill closes, the department sets up shop with extra job counselors.
Salmon workers, however, live in dozens of communities spread along hundreds of miles of Alaska coastline and, in some cases, on the state's river system in villages where none of the 24 job centers is located.
Of the first 400 workers who asked for assistance, 40 were from Cordova, where the department does not have a job center. Another 49 signed up in Kodiak, 28 in both Sitka and Juneau, plus at least one in 65 Alaska communities from Elfin Cove to Nome.
Applicants work with vocational counselors and typically will be quizzed about skills that could be transferred to another vocation.
"They take kind of an inventory of what the person is interested in doing, what his skills are," Geldof said.
Assistance might come in the form of finding displaced workers another job, without additional training, or helping them move to where there is work, Geldof said.
Many who signed up are not eligible for unemployment insurance if they were self-employed, Geldof said.
"In those instances, we may offer needs-related payments," she said. "It's like an unemployment check but they have to be in employment training."
So far there's been strong interest from some skippers and deckhands, she said.
Juneau Empire reporter Tony Carroll contributed to this report.