Wheels are already in motion to provide two measures of relief for Alaska’s pink salmon industry, which is reeling from the lowest harvest since the late 1970s.
Representative Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) began the process last week to have the Walker Administration declare the pink salmon season a disaster, which would allow access to federal relief funds.
Pinks are Alaska’s highest volume salmon fishery and hundreds of fishermen depend on the fish to boost their overall catches and paychecks. So far the statewide harvest has reached just 36 million humpies out of a preseason forecast of 90 million. That compares to a catch of 190 million pinks last summer.
“This is the worst salmon year in nearly 40 years, and that’s huge,” she said. “It doesn’t just affect the fishermen – it’s a trickle-down effect on the cannery workers, the processors, and nearly all businesses in the community. It’s a disaster, there’s no other way to describe it.”
Stutes, who chairs the House fisheries committee and is known as a straight talker, said she has gotten very positive response from the state Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development.
“They are on it and already moving forward,” Stutes said.
At the same time, she is working with the Division of Investments to allow a “blanket pardon” of state-funded fishermen’s loan payments for this year.
“This would not be a forgiveness, but would add this year’s payment onto the end of the loan period and forgive the loan payment just for this year,” she explained.
The disaster declaration and the loan suspensions “go hand in hand,” Stutes said, “but don’t depend on each other.”
While visiting constituents in Kodiak, Cordova and Yakutat, Representative Stutes said that “literally people are in fear about making mortgage payments and paying their bills. They can’t claim unemployment because they are still employed. There is just no work.”
By week’s end she was awaiting word from Lt. Governor Mallott, who is the Administration’s fishery “point person,” to take the ball and run with it.
But Stutes said the process has already begun and her job is to make sure it keeps moving.
“I’m a squeaky wheel and this is crucial to the resident workers and to people in so many communities. I’ll keep the pressure on so things will move quickly.”
It won’t be the first time a salmon disaster has been declared in Alaska. In 2012, a disaster was declared due to fishery failures on the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and in Cook Inlet due to low Chinook salmon returns for that season and in previous years.