ANCHORAGE -- Gov. Tony Knowles on Wednesday declared a state disaster emergency for parts of western Alaska as a first step toward dealing with this year's dismal runs of king and chum salmon.
It is the third time in the past four years the governor has declared a fishery disaster in the salmon-dependent region.
``Now is the time for the Alaska family to come together to help a family member in distress,'' Knowles said at a news conference in Anchorage.
The declaration made up to $1 million in state money available and cleared the way for the state to pursue much more in federal disaster assistance.
Marilyn Heiman, Alaska special assistant to Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, said the White House was ``very concerned'' about the extremely low king and chum returns. She said the Clinton administration was waiting for specific requests from Knowles before allocating any emergency funds to western Alaska.
In 1997 and 1998, the federal government provided more than $15 million in emergency aid to western Alaska fishermen.
Wednesday's disaster declaration covers the entire Yukon River drainage, the entire Kuskokwim River drainage and all of Norton Sound.
Those regions have been hammered by king and chum returns that are only a small fraction of their historic norms. On the Yukon, the returns are the worst since statehood.
The fishery collapse has not only hurt commercial fishermen, but also people fishing for subsistence food.
Subsistence fishing has been severely curtailed in all three regions in an attempt to increase the number of salmon reaching their spawning grounds.
This week state and federal managers severely cut back on subsistence king fishing on the Yukon. Upstream of the village of Anvik, fishermen are limited to two 24-hour openings per week, while downstream the limit is a single 12-hour opening per week.
Last week, net size and catch limits were imposed on Kuskokwim subsistence fishermen. In Norton Sound, the number of subsistence fishing permits has been restricted.
Knowles said the state will seek immediate help for affected families and communities to get them through the winter.
The governor spent two days last week traveling in western Alaska, where he heard pleas from residents who said they were running short of food and cash to buy heating fuel and other necessities.
``I saw something in peoples' eyes that I never saw before -- fear,'' Knowles recalled from his trip. ``They are fearful that the salmon they depend on ... won't be coming back.''
The emergency declaration has a number of longer-term components as well.
Knowles said he wants to fund five years of salmon research, and provide more money for rural economic development and to study the social impacts of the salmon collapse.
He said he also wants to create a boarding school in Bethel to train rural high school students for jobs in fisheries management, fish processing and other fields.
Will Mayo, the governor's senior adviser on rural issues, stressed the importance of preserving fisheries in Bush Alaska.
``Jobs aren't there, industry is not there, infrastructure is not there,'' Mayo said. ``What do they have? They have fish.''
In addition, Knowles said he would ask the state Board of Fisheries to make changes in the commercial red salmon fishery at False Pass.
The lucrative intercept fishery in the eastern Aleutians is thought by many to result in a significant incidental catch of chum salmon bound for the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound drainages.
``We have to stop those interceptions,'' the governor said.
Opponents of revamping False Pass say there are no conclusive links between that fishery and the problems on the Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound rivers.
But Myron Naneng, who heads the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents, said enough is known to warrant action.
``What more do we need?'' he asked. ``Total disappearance of the fish stocks?''
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