Knowles declares Western Alaska fishing a disaster

Region hit hard for by low salmon prices, weak global market

Posted: Monday, August 26, 2002

ANCHORAGE - Western Alaska fishing communities suffering another poor salmon season will get state aid after Gov. Tony Knowles declared the entire region an economic disaster area for the fifth time in six years.

From Bristol Bay to Norton Sound, fishing communities are reeling from chronic low salmon prices caused by the glut of farmed salmon on world markets, Knowles said. In many areas, the reduced value has been compounded by weak runs, he said.

"The loss of fishing income is as if the Big Three automakers suddenly pulled out of Detroit, or Boeing and Microsoft closed their doors in Seattle," Knowles said. "The impact is multiplied throughout the entire community as lost fishing income means less business for local stores and services."

Prices were so low this summer many fishermen chose not to fish, and those who did sometimes lost money. That was the case in Quinhagak, said tribal administrator Henry Mark.

"People have been reluctant to go out fishing because they can't hardly cover any of their expenses," he said.

In the state's premier sockeye salmon fishery, Bristol Bay, the total value of the catch will be about $30 million, just 10 percent of the amount fishermen earned at the peak of the fishery in the late 1980s.

On the Kuskokwim River, chum salmon returned in high numbers, but processors were not interested in buying them, forcing fishermen to stay on the beach.

On the Yukon River, the fall chum run was so poor even subsistence fisheries had to be closed.

In signing the disaster declaration Friday, Knowles directed state agencies to do what they can to ease the financial pinch. Measures will include extending public assistance benefits and working with regional nonprofit agencies to assure families have access to food and winter heating fuel.

The governor also asked President Bush to declare a federal disaster, but Knowles spokesman Bob King said federal aid looks unlikely. The problem is not the lack of money, but red tape and fine print, King said. Only once in the last six years have the federal guidelines for a disaster in Western Alaska been met.

In his request to Bush, Knowles noted that fishermen and coastal residents are "mired in a hodgepodge of federal laws" governing disaster aid.

"The situation facing western Alaska's fishermen is essentially the same as that of America's farmers when they encounter poor crops or market conditions, but America's farmers regularly benefit from emergency aid and price supports that are denied Alaska fishermen," Knowles wrote.

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