Weak red runs hit Kenai hard

Peninsula leaders call for disaster aid

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2000

SOLDOTNA Kenai Peninsula lawmakers say many families that rely on Cook Inlet red salmon for a living wont be able to pay their bills this winter without public assistance.

They say a poor run of reds the inlets main commercial fish coupled with low prices warrant a disaster declaration.

They invited Gov. Tony Knowles disaster policy cabinet to visit the area.

Four peninsula lawmakers and the mayors of Soldotna and Kenai told Knowles by letter that an estimated 80 percent of the fishermen did not meet operating expenses this year.

They say the poor season will hurt not only processors and gear suppliers, but also will affect grocery stores, fuel companies, banks and insurance companies.

We will see a disastrous impact on all of these businesses during the next year, they wrote.

Commercial fishermen this season caught about 1.3 million Cook Inlet reds and were paid about 85 cents a pound, on average. The catch was twice as high last year about 2.7 million fish and prices a year ago ranged around $1.40 a pound.

Some of the fishermen have used their homes as collateral when buying $35,000-and-up fishing permits, said Bob Merchant, president of United Cook Inlet Drift Association, which represents 585 drift boats.

Its not like, Theyre gonna take my boat, Merchant told the Anchorage Daily News. Its Theyre gonna take my house. The sense of urgency is just palpable.

But its unclear whether that will translate into a formal disaster declaration.

Poor chum salmon runs in Western Alaska last month prompted state and federal disaster declarations, freeing millions of dollars in low interest loans and other assistance to fishermen along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, as well as Norton Sound.

But the Kenai Peninsula, with its roads and a diverse economy, is a far cry from the rural villages along the Yukon River, where fish may be the only source of cash income and a major food source. On the Kenai, driftnetters and setnetters can find other work.

Fishermen say state regulations increasingly favor sportfishing, namely on the Kenai River. They say that dealt the knockout blow this season.

The state over the years has cut back on commercial fishing to allow more king salmon prized by anglers as well as guides and tourism outfits into the Kenai River. Concern over the health of silver salmon runs also prompted further commercial reductions this year.

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