The National Park Service is ready to give out $23 million to people who have been harmed by commercial fishing closures in Glacier Bay. But the expected recipients say they'd rather be fishing.
The park service last week released its final plan for spending a $23 million compensation fund appropriated by Congress in 1999. The agency expects several hundred people and several towns to apply, said Tomie Lee, superintendent of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, about 60 miles west of Juneau.
One likely applicant is Pelican, a community of about 163 people about 35 miles south of Glacier Bay on Chichagof Island that has been hit hard by processor closures and poor fish prices, as well as restrictions in the bay.
"The money is a kind of short-term fix for a long-term problem," said Pelican Mayor Kathie Wasserman. "This addresses a need, but it doesn't suddenly make it all go away."
Glen Woods, general manager for Pelican Seafoods, said he is concerned people who get compensation will move out of the area and the money won't help re-establish the local economy.
Under a 1998 federal law, part of Glacier Bay was closed immediately to commercial fishing, and by 2000 other sections were open only to certain fishermen in selected fisheries for the rest of their working lives. After they retire, the bay will be closed entirely to commercial fishing.
The bay was particularly useful to fishermen in small boats who needed to fish in protected waters, the local processors who bought their fish, and the towns where they spent their money.
The compensation generally is limited to people and businesses that still are active in fishing or related activities and who can show they had past earnings derived from the bay's fisheries in a qualifying period. The one exception is that all Tanner crab pot fishermen in Southeast can apply for compensation because the state has said it will reduce the areawide quota.
The final plan differs from the draft plan, released a year ago, in not taking a fisherman's age into account in deciding compensation. The Park Service initially wanted to weight compensation toward younger fishermen, who presumably would lose more future earnings because of the closures than would fishermen nearing retirement.
But public comments from older fishermen suggested that was unfair. The final plan bases compensation on a fisherman's past catches in the bay as a percentage of the total harvest.
The park service used an economic assessment prepared by the McDowell Group, a Juneau research firm, as a basis for apportioning the compensation among the types of entities hurt by the closures.
About 30 percent of the compensation will go to holders of state commercial fishing permits, and 12 percent to crew members. About 25 percent will go to processors, and 6 percent to their workers. Other businesses affected by the decline in fishing will get 11 percent of the total. And communities will get about 15 percent.
What would really compensate the communities would be to reopen the bay to commercial fishing, Mayor Wasserman and Pelican Seafoods Manager Woods said.
"There's no way to accurately assess the losses. Really, this is going to devastate our region for the long term," said Woods.
U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, said he still hopes to see Congress overturn the 1998 law and allow commercial fishing to resume in the bay.
Congress passed a law last year requiring the Interior Department to study the effect of fishing in the bay. When the study is done, which may be in several years, it "should provide ammunition to revisit the decision to phase out commercial fishing in the bay," Murkowski said.
Meanwhile, fishermen, processors and businesses will spend the next three months going through their records to provide documentation of their earnings from the bay's fisheries.
Claims for compensation must be postmarked by Jan. 28, 2002, or filed by then at Park Service offices in Juneau or Gustavus. The compensation plan is available on the Web at www.nps.gov/glba/ or by mail from Glacier Bay National Park at 2770 Sherwood Lane, Suite I, Juneau AK 99801, or by calling (907) 586-7027.