Home Culture Chinook Disaster Relief Might Fall Short for Subsistence Fishermen

Chinook Disaster Relief Might Fall Short for Subsistence Fishermen

Photo by Josh Larios, Creative Commons License.
Photo by Josh Larios, Creative Commons License.

The first disaster assistance payments related to poor 2012 Chinook salmon runs were processed last week and should reach Alaskans by September or October, according to Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska).

Alaska will receive a total of about $21 million in Chinook disaster relief. The money comes from a congressional appropriation made possible by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, named after the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens. Per that act, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce may declare a particular fishery a federal disaster.

Photo by Craig Tuten.

Commercial fishermen in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region will receive $3.2 million in direct payments, while Cook Inlet fishermen will receive $4.6 million. The remainder of the $21 million will be distributed by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission via a grant. The Commission was chosen to administer the disaster relief program by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) following a public comment period.

The Yukon River disaster designation, which received extensions every year, dates back to 2009. The Kuskokwim was declared a disaster for 2011 and 2012. Cook Inlet’s designation was only for 2012.

In a Wednesday press release, Gov. Sean Parnell said, “In requesting this disaster declaration, I wanted to ensure that Alaska’s subsistence, commercial, and sport fishermen had access to every avenue available to assist them in these difficult times.”

However, it is unclear how disaster relief will impact subsistence fishermen. The disaster declarations are specific to commercial fisheries. Consequently, direct payments will be made only to commercial fishermen. How much money trickles down from the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission to aid subsistence fishermen will depend on the various associations and governments involved.

According to NOAA,

Funding recipients will have broad latitude to determine the best use of the funds to meet the unique needs of their local businesses and communities. 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 failure.”

That “broad latitude” could be cold comfort for poor families that have struggled to fill their freezers for the winter.

Poor Chinook runs have contributed to conflict between the state and subsistence fishermen. In 2012, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) extended a closure on the Kuskokwim River when research in Bethel indicated the weak run of salmon was expected to continue. Akiak village elders encouraged people to fish during the extension, leading to a dramatic confrontation with state officials who cut up nets and seized salmon.

This year, subsistence fishermen gathered in Fairbanks to discourage others from fishing the Yukon for Chinook. Numbers

The Yukon River. Photo by Craig Tuten.

of Chinook have been so low in the Yukon that Alaska struggles to meet its treaty obligations with Canada. Alaska must allow at least 42,500 Chinook salmon to reach the Canadian border via the Yukon every year.

Perhaps of more help to fishermen of all types in the long term will be the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative Parnell mentioned in his press release. ADF&G discovered that it could not effectively check the declines because not enough was known about the Chinook species. The five-year, $30 million plan was the state’s response to continued declining Chinook runs.

ADF&G will be examining 12 major riparian systems that support Chinook salmon. These include the Yukon and Kuskokwim, as well as the Kenai and Susitna Rivers that flow into Cook Inlet. Studies are designed to

(1) estimate escapement and age, sex, and length composition of escapement, (2) estimate harvest along with age, sex, and length composition of harvest, (3) estimate production in adult equivalents by brood year, (4) estimate smolt production by brood year, (5) estimate marine survival by brood year, (6) provide adequate traditional knowledge concerning patterns and trends of use for each indicator stock, and (7) improve forecast models to produce maximum sustained yield, and management.

ADF&G will monitor the abundance of juvenile Chinook in the Bering Sea near the mouth of the Yukon at a cost of $1.7 million. On the Kuskokwim, the agency will study the abundance of adult spawning Chinook at a total cost of about $1.25 million. The Kenai River will see marine sampling of Chinook for about $1.3 million.

Interestingly, over $6 million of the $30 million is planned for projects on the Susitna River, which Parnell really wants to dam. Those projects include studies of juvenile and adult Chinook abundance and marine sampling.

Interviews will be conducted along all 12 rivers to compile local and traditional knowledge of Chinook salmon runs. $1.6 million is budgeted for subsistence research statewide.

$3 million will also go to the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). Its research will “complement” that of ADF&G, it wrote in a proposal.