By Carey Restino
The federal government last week approved millions of dollars in disaster relief funding for several areas in the state, including the Chinook salmon fishermen of the Cook Inlet, who suffered an abysmal 2012 season.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that nearly $21 million in fishery disaster relief funds were appropriated to aid several regions, including the Yukon River commercial fishery failure of 2010 to 2012, the Kuskokwim River commercial fishery failure of 2011 to 2012 and the Cook Inlet fishery failure of 2012.
“The impact of low salmon returns and fishing restrictions has affected all sectors in Alaska’s fishery-dependent communities, including commercial, subsistence and sport fisheries,” said NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Administrator Jim Balsiger in a statement. “We will work with the state of Alaska, tribal interests, and affected communities to develop spend plans quickly to ensure timely allocation of these funds.”
The state issued a disaster declaration for the Chinook salmon fisheries that was followed by a federal declaration in the fall of 2012. Reports at the time from NOAA Fisheries said some Cook Inlet salmon fisheries saw revenue losses of up to 90 percent of their historical averages during the 2012 season. The U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank said at the time that she was making the declaration so congress could appropriate funds to mitigate some of the economic consequences of the reduced fish stocks.
“The future challenges facing the men and women in this industry and in these communities are daunting and we want to do everything we can to help them through these difficult times,” Blank said in 2012.
Exactly how the funds will be used or what portion will go to Cook Inlet fishermen is not clear, but the state did receive a significant portion of the total federal approval of $75 million for fisheries disaster relief nationwide.
According to NOAA, funding recipients will have “broad latitude” in how they use the funds they receive. Funds can be used for activities that “restore the fishery or prevent a similar failure in the future, and to assist a fishing community affected by such a failure,” the agency said.
Funds will be allocated through the federal grant process. Recipients will develop a spend plan and work with NOAA Fisheries to ensure all regulatory requirements of the grant are met. The agency said no matching requirements will be asked of states, councils and commissions. The federal funding is made possible through disaster declarations made through the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
What is causing the recent poor king salmon returns in various areas of the state is unknown, but fisheries managers say a number of factors being examined include unfavorable ocean conditions, freshwater environmental factors, disease and other “undetermined causes.”
Some suggest that the dramatic drop in number of king salmon is connected to the sport fishing pressure and degradation of the riverbanks, limiting spawning habitat.
Meanwhile, the Alaska Board of Fisheries is reportedly considering the impact setnetters in the inlet may have on the Kenai River king salmon and pressure has been mounting to ban setnet fishing in the Cook Inlet. Backers of a ballot initiative to ban commercial setnet fishing that was rejected by Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell have since filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court arguing Treadwell relied on an “erroneous legal opinion” in making the decision.
In some areas of the state, including the rural communities of the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers, the Chinook salmon fishery is a principal source of income and survival and clashes between state regulators restricting fishing and those attempting to fish have resulted in court cases against the fishermen who refused to pull out their nets.
Other fisheries in the Cook Inlet faired well in 2012, especially the sockeye salmon fishery, which accounted for much of the commercial catch of some 4 million fish. Overall, the fishery ranked the ninth highest in the previous 20 years, valued at an estimated $34.2 million, according to the season summary from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
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