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It can take years after disaster declaration for fishermen to receive funds

Greta Mart
The Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit touched a nerve with Southeast trollers, who have taken numerous harvest cuts over the years in the name of conservation. The Alaska Trollers Association has intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of NOAA Fisheries, and won allies like the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and SalmonState, an environmental group advocating for sustainable fisheries. SalmonState’s Tyson Fick has grown up in Southeast’s salmon fisheries. He thinks that the Wild Fish Conservancy is overlooking far more significant threats to the Southern Resident Killer Whale — like pollution and dams — in their own backyard in Puget Sound. “And meanwhile they’re painting a picture of this giant killing machine of hook-and-line fishermen, trolling in one-hundred year old wooden boats all along the (Alaskan) coast,” he says.

In the fisheries world, the word “disaster” carries a special designation. Earlier this month, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce declared disasters for over a dozen fisheries in Alaska — more than the feds usually approve at once. The designation is supposed to unlock funds to help the communities impacted by those fisheries failures, including communities around Cook Inlet.

But declaring a disaster isn’t as easy as speaking the magic words. It can take years for the money to reach fishermen’s pockets.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the timing is one of the problems with the process.

“And so, again, if you've had a disaster that happened in 2018, we're sitting here in 2022 and you're saying, ‘Really? You think that that's going to help me?' In the meantime. I've got a boat mortgage that I've got to be paying. I've got a crew that I've got to be paying. This doesn't help me at all," she said.

The state knows the process can be lengthy and tries to expedite it where possible, said Rachel Baker, Alaska’s deputy Fish and Game commissioner.

It starts with requests from the impacted communities. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly made its request for a declaration for the 2020 season just over a year ago.

The state fields the requests first. It then checks to make sure the fisheries meet certain federal criteria, like that a significant portion of the fleet saw negative impacts and that the disaster could not have been prevented by fishery managers, Baker said.

“We do that initial evaluation," she said. "So that’s why sometimes it can take just a little bit of time between the time we receive the request from affected fishery participants and the time the request formally goes from the governor to the Secretary of Commerce."

The state makes a list of the fisheries requesting relief and sends that letter to the feds.

Then, the U.S. the Secretary of Commerce makes a decision. Secretary Gina Raimondo released her list of 14 Alaska fisheries earlier this month.

This year's list is unusually long, Baker said.

There were two other fishery disasters declared in Alaska in 2018, for sockeye and Pacific cod, and one in 2016 for pink salmon. Before that, the most recent one was in 2012, for king salmon in the Cook Inlet and the Yukon regions.

“It seems to be increasing in frequency that we’re having disaster conditions in fisheries," Baker said.

She said COVID-19 did impact fisheries in 2020. But for the most part, revenue losses didn’t stem from reduced effort from Alaska's fleets.

“It was definitely issues related to fish returns," Baker said.

The 2020 Pacific cod fishery is one of the failed fisheries on the list. A heat wave that hit the Gulf of Alaska decimated cod stocks there, prompting federal managers to close the fishery completely in 2020.

Several salmon fisheries in the Yukon-Kuskokwim area are also listed. Advocates there told KYUK they hope some of the federal funding they receive can be used to determine why salmon are declining so severely in the region.

The 2018 Cook Inlet east side setnet fishery is a recipient, too, as are the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries. The harvest in Cook Inlet in 2020 was the lowest since 1971, with low salmon prices adding insult to injury.

But Cook Inlet fishermen and their communities won’t see the money right after a request is approved.

“And this is where we really do try to manage expectations related to these disaster programs," Baker said. "It’s challenging, because obviously the participants in these fisheries were quite negatively impacted by these conditions.”

The disaster determination announcements only make fisheries eligible for disaster funding if Congress decides to set aside money. Baker said she’s not aware of any Congressional funds appropriated at this time.

Once Congress does appropriate funds, the state works with fisheries participants to develop a distribution plan. And then, the plan goes back to the federal government.

“Which unfortunately, in some cases, can take quite some time," Baker said. "And then after that process, the application process can begin for eligible participants and the funds can be distributed.”

In 2012, when the feds declared a king salmon fishery disaster, Alaska was eligible for $21 million, some of which made its way to Cook Inlet stakeholders. It’s unclear now how much money Cook Inlet communities might receive this time around.

Baker said the state is gaining experience with handling these disaster declarations as it racks up more and more. She said it will try to quickly move the process along when possible.

Murkowski said she’s working on federal legislation to make the fishery disaster declaration process more transparent going forward.

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