Aid for fishing fleet dries up

Fishermen pleased higher prices lessen need for federal help

Posted: Friday, November 18, 2005

For struggling Alaska salmon fishermen, a federal financial aid program will shut down this year. But many fishermen see the bright side - getting disqualified for federal aid is a good sign for their industry.

Salmon prices in general have improved, and Alaska seafood processors haven't been able to quench the high demand for wild salmon in the Lower 48.

"This next year could get even better," said Mike Erickson, co-owner of the Alaska Glacier Seafood plant in Auke Bay.

"If it's true that salmon is turning the corner, that's great," said Norm Hughes, a Haines gillnetter.

Hughes is one of the 2,000-plus Alaska salmon fishermen who received aid through the Foreign Agriculture Service's Trade Adjustment Assistance program in 2003 and 2004.

"I guess I'm a success story," he joked on Thursday.

Over 2003 and 2004, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pumped more than $5 million in farm aid to Alaska fishermen.

"It helped us through a tough time," Hughes said, noting that it was especially helpful for deckhands.

But the window for direct financial aid for salmon fishermen in both Alaska and Washington state has closed, at least for the upcoming year.

Also affected are southern shrimp fishermen in the Lower 48, who also will not qualify this year.

For Alaska salmon fishermen to qualify for the farm aid program, the average salmon price - all five species combined - must be 32 cents per pound or lower in the preceding year.

In 2004, the average Alaska salmon price increased to 34 cents per pound and foreign imports of farmed salmon - another variable in the federal aid calculation - declined by 1.4 percent.

Fishermen who were deemed eligible in 2003 and 2004 will not lose their eligibility for job retraining.

The USDA program gives the fishermen a foot in the door with the U.S. Department of Labor to obtain free education in a new career.

For example, Carl Peterson, a Sitka fishermen, is studying in Oregon, tuition-free, to become certified as a massage therapist.

"I probably wouldn't be able to do the schooling without that assistance," Peterson said.

Only 68 Alaska fishermen took advantage of the education aid program in 2003 and 2004.

"A lot of fishermen prefer to remain fishermen," explained Shawna Harper, a coordinator for the Trade Adjustment Assistance program at the Alaska Department of Labor.

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