ANCHORAGE - Pacific salmon fishermen in Alaska and Washington soon will be getting federal subsidy checks of up to $10,000 to make up for foreign farmed fish driving down market prices.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency - which has until now mainly provided price support for farmers - is paying the subsidies to commercial fishermen for the first time through the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.
An increase in imports in farmed salmon, particularly from Chile, caused the price of an Alaska commercial fishermen's catch to drop from a five-year average of 40 cents a pound to 26 cents a pound in 2002, USDA officials said.
In Washington, the five-year average price was 91 cents a pound. It fell to 59 cents in 2002.
"This is an attempt by the USDA to provide for some market loss due to foreign competition," said Jim Fitzgerald, Washington state executive director for the Farm Service Agency. "You can call that a subsidy; I sort of lean toward a market loss."
Alaska fishermen who qualify will receive 3 cents per pound for five species of salmon caught in 2002, up to $10,000. Washington fishermen will receive 7 cents per pound for three species.
Oregon fishermen were denied their petition for aid because the price of their catch did not drop far enough.
About 350 checks have been cut for Alaska fishermen and were to be mailed as soon as late last week, according to Chad Padgett, the agency's executive director for Alaska.
Of those, about 100 fishermen will receive the full $10,000.
Some 1,415 fishermen have been approved to receive a total of about $3.2 million, Padgett said. Another 1,618 applications are still being considered, and 1,329 applicants were judged ineligible, he said.
In Washington, there have been 1,135 applications. Fitzgerald said the number of approved fishermen has not been determined yet, and no checks have gone out because of a software glitch.
The Trade Adjustment Assistance program can spend up to $90 million a year nationwide through 2007.
The aid will kick in only if market prices dip low enough from the year before, Fitzgerald said.
The aid likely will be temporary, according to Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska.
"These kind of programs can't make the difference in somebody's success, but they do help level the playing field or help in the adjustment to the changes that fishermen are seeing with competition," he said.
Vinsel said he believes salmon prices will rise because the low prices that the Chilean farmers charged cannot be sustained and because the state of Alaska has increased marketing of its wild fisheries, he said.
In the meantime, protecting the livelihood of Alaska's commercial fishermen is in the nation's larger interest, he said.
"I see it as a matter of national security, that food production not be held in the hands of a small number of corporations or foreign investors," Vinsel said. "We have a lot of small family producers. (The aid) safeguards the production."
Vinsel said his organization is trying to help fishermen who did not qualify for the subsidies with training and technical assistance to boost their income, such as fishing in the summer and teaching in the fall and winter.