Nearly $132 million allocated for Alaska fishery disasters

Alaska salmon
Alaska salmon(KTUU)
Published: May. 6, 2022 at 11:07 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The U.S. Commerce Department announced on Thursday that several Alaska fisheries are eligible to share in almost $132 million of federal disaster relief.

The Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers are included after a chum and king salmon collapse last year. Impacted fishermen can share in $55 million, but that is also set to be split between fishermen from Southeast Alaska, Prince William Sound and Chignik.

Serena Fitka, head of the Yukon River Drainage Association, is confused why those fisheries are all lumped together in the same package. Her organization represents over 700 permit holders on the Yukon River and dozens of communities along the 2,000-mile river.

“The Yukon River is a small fishery of local fishermen, but the impact is so great,” she said about the poor salmon returns over the past two years.

The Y-K Delta relies on over chum salmon for over 70% of its annual subsistence harvest. Fitka talked about a deserted Yukon River in 2021 with commercial fishing and subsistence closures.

“It was a depressing sight,” she said. “Last year, it felt like we didn’t even have a summer.”

The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission has helped distribute competitive grants for fisheries disasters in the past. That process is beginning again, and Fitka says the funding will help. She hopes that subsistence users will get their share.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan both advocated for the funding and both applauded the news that it would be disbursed.

“While these federal dollars won’t make these Alaskans and their families whole, they will go a long way toward providing much-needed relief,” Sullivan said through a prepared statement.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy submitted the disaster declaration to the federal government when applying for relief. He noted that a warming trend in the Pacific Ocean over several years likely contributed to the poor returns, but fishing groups can’t put their finger on any single reason why the salmon haven’t come back.

In Chignik, a small fishing community on the Alaska Peninsula, poor sockeye returns over the past four years have been devastating. George Anderson, head of the Chignik Intertribal Coalition, says delays in getting federal relief makes life difficult for fishermen who need to pay their bills.

“People either find a way to pay it or they go out of business, waiting,” Anderson said.

This year’s salmon forecast is a mixed bag, said Tracy Welch, head of the United Fishermen of Alaska. There is yet another record-breaking season projected for Bristol Bay, but it’s expected to be below average in Chignik, and dismal in the Y-K Delta.

Welch said prices look to be high, which is a cause for optimism after restaurants closed during the COVID-19 pandemic and prices dropped. She, too, said the relief would make a difference.

“Very much appreciated, very much needed, and we’re excited to see it start to roll out through the process,” Welch added.

Fish has been flown into the Y-K Delta, but the loss of salmon is having a broader impact.

“There’s more lost than the actual fish itself,” Anderson said. “It’s eventually going to hurt the culture and the heritage of all these families.”

The disaster relief breaks down as follows:

  • Norton Sound Red King Crab, 2019 — $1,434,571
  • 2018 Upper Cook Inlet East Side Setnet Salmon and 2020 Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Fisheries — $9,414,087
  • Bering Sea Tanner Crab Fishery, 2019/2020 — $12,948,148
  • Gulf of Alaska Pacific Cod Fishery, 2020 — $17,790,330
  • Copper River and Prince William Sound Salmon Fisheries, 2018 and 2020 — $34,360,624
  • Norton Sound, Yukon River, Chignik, Kuskokwim River and Southeast Alaska Salmon Fisheries, 2020 and 2021 Yukon River Salmon Fishery — $55,984,834

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.

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