September 26, 2012 · 9:57 am
Fish under fire — State officials field questions, answer complaints from fishermen
By Jenny Neyman
There are a lot of ifs involved in whether or not a commercial fishing season is successful — if the fishermen have all the necessary gear, crew, permits and equipment ready to go, plus the knowledge and experience of how best to use them; if fishery managers open opportunities to fish; if the fish arrive in decent numbers and in times and places coinciding with fishing openings; and if there’s a market offering decent prices for the catch.
Likewise, there are a lot of ifs involved in whether or not fishermen affected by the low king runs to Cook Inlet this summer — primarily, the east side set-netters whose July sockeye season was shut down in order to protect the king returns to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers — will get any economic relief through the federal disaster declaration process.
The difference being, fishermen know the ifs involved in fishing, whereas the ifs of the disaster declaration process have been as speculative as the causes behind what’s happening with the declining kings.
A meeting hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association on Friday at Grace Brethren Church on Kalifornsky Beach Road was meant to explain the unknowns of the declaration process, with Susan Bell, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development; Gretchen Harrington, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service; and Stefanie Moreland, senior adviser for fisheries, oceans and Arctic policy with Gov. Sean Parnell’s office. Jim Butler, local attorney and commercial fisherman, moderated the question-and-answer discussion between the panel and the crowd of more than 100 fishermen, elected officials and agency representatives.
Processing the process
Most of the discussion was spent explaining the what, when and how of the disaster declaration process. The first step, Bell explained, is for the state to determine whether or not a situation meets state standards for being an economic disaster. The situation in Cook Inlet, as well as from the low king returns to the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, qualified at the state level, Bell said. Gov. Sean Parnell then sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce requesting a federal economic declaration for the fisheries. On Sept. 12, the state received word that the acting Secretary of Commerce had approved the request.
There is no pool of money set aside in the federal budget to automatically fund economic disaster declaration requests, however. So the next step is for Congress to decide whether to appropriate money to fund the request, how much money to appropriate and to provide direction on how it should be spent. Alaska’s Congressional delegation — Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowksi and Rep. Don Young — will make the funding request. As of now, state and federal agencies, as well as people affected by the low king returns and subsequent fishery restrictions, need to provide information to the delegation so they know a realistic amount to request.
“I think that the delegation has been active in asking for information on the impacts,” Moreland said. “And (the departments of) Commerce, Labor, and Fish and Game are working to answer those questions that the delegation has had. … It should also be informed by some stakeholder input, making sure that the delegation understands the full magnitude of the impacts, and different ideas on potential uses (for the appropriated funds). So I think that NOAA, the state and the delegation will all need to work together, share information, and there is room for public input at each of those levels.”
$10 million or more?
Attendees at the meeting had plenty of input to share. One of the recurring observations offered from the crowd was that the state has seemed out of touch with the local fishing community. Gov. Parnell, in his disaster declaration request letter, estimated the impact of the low king runs to be around $10.9 million in lost revenue, for the Cook Inlet, Yukon and Kuskokwim fisheries combined. That’s not even close, many speakers said.
“Ten million dollars — that just goes to show how far removed he is from what’s going on,” said Richard McGahan.
Gary Hollier offered his estimate of loss just for the east-side set-net fishery — a million fish that could have been caught at an average 7 pounds per fish with a price of $1.50 per pound.
“That’s over $10 million loss right here in this room. I just hope you take into account some real numbers,” he said. “… A lot of fishermen went out and invested a lot of money on credit cards projecting a good year and we rolled the dice and it came out snake eyes.”
The panel emphasized that the $10 million was a rough estimate just to get the process started as quickly as possible.
“Some of what you’re seeing in the news is us trying to rush being responsive with the information. I think what we’ve got to do is continue to be responsive but be more coordinated. We’re trying to work quickly and we’ll try to avoid some fumbles as we go forward,” Bell said. “That $10 million estimate came from this first look and we are in the process of looking now at the broader impacts. But we needed to put the data forth in the governor’s request in order to get to this step.”
Butler, who, in his legal practice, has been involved in several economic disaster declarations in the Lower 48 and Alaska, said that is it not at all unusual for the first estimate of the economic impact of a fishery disaster to be far off from what the final requested amount becomes.
“I’ve never seen the first number be the number. It’s a placeholder. It’s to get somebody’s attention in a bureaucratic office to say, ‘We’ve got a big problem here, now let’s start scrutinizing it.’ So, if I understand it correctly, the number was a place number to make sure we start this process as quickly as possible,” he said.
Now that the process has begun, it’s time to compile all the relevant data, evaluate the situation, gather input and come up with as accurate an amount as possible for the delegation to request from Congress. Several state agencies will be involved in compiling facts and figures to provide to the delegation, and those affected by the fishery closures need to speak up now to make sure their perspective is considered.
“There’s an extremely steep education curve that, I think, as fishermen, we’re responsible for helping smooth out,” Butler said. “… I think we have a responsibility as fishermen to get that information to the right hands and make sure it’s characterized properly in the appropriation, because otherwise we’ll be stuck with it.”
Casting a wider net
For instance, several speakers noted that it is not just east-side set-net permit holders affected by the fishery closures.
“My husband and I are going to survive this summer, but we had 12 young crew members, kids going to college, people who, while it was certainly not their only source of income, it was a significant portion of their income. So, what about crew members? What are the options for them?” said Robin Nyce. “… I just want you to understand the importance of crew members in the fishery here, because without crew we wouldn’t be able to fish. I think they’re very important to be a part of this process.”
Further speakers pointed out that other people employed in the fishing industry — such as workers at buying stations and processing plants — also suffered economically this summer in the restrictions to commercial sockeye fishing. And sportfishing guides, as well as all the associated fishing-related businesses, suffered from the in-river king sportfishing closures. Will those sectors be eligible for some kind of economic relief?
That’s another big if. The federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act, which governs the economic fishery disaster declaration process that is in motion, refers specifically to commercial fisheries. However, both the governor and the acting Secretary of Commerce mentioned impacts to subsistence and sportfishing in their letters.
“I think that leaves the conversation open,” Bell said.
If Congress appropriates funding for the disaster declaration, it could decide to go outside the scope of the Magnuson-Stevens Act process and make additional funds available to address the impacts to businesses beyond just commercial fishermen. That hasn’t happened for economic fishery disaster declarations in Alaska in the past, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen this go-around, Moreland said.
“For Alaska, payments to affected sportfishing businesses would be new. We don’t have that experience with disaster declarations here,” she said.
In the most-recent fishery disaster declaration in Alaska — for low Yukon king returns in 2008 and 2009 — compensation for crew and other sectors of the industry was discussed, but the money appropriated didn’t stretch that far. But there is a precedent for Congress recognizing a wider scope of businesses in fishery disaster declarations in other areas of the country.
“If the authority was provided by Congress to make payments to affected business as a broader fishing community, there would be a lot of work to identify how that would work — how do people identify themselves? — and just getting definitions worked out. We would look to the Lower 48 West Coast salmon disaster and the process used there as one example of what might work or some of the considerations we should be thinking about here in order to work through that process quickly,” Moreland said.
How might money be spent?
Therein lies another uncertainty. If Congress appropriates money, there’s another if in how Congress decides it should be used. Congress could impose a variety of directions on how the money is to be spent. It’ll be up to the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service — working with the state and stakeholders, Harrington said — to come up with a distribution plan to spend the money in a manner that’s consistent with whatever directions Congress gives.
“There’s a whole suite of options available,” Harrington said. “Congress provides direction when they make the appropriation as to how best to distribute and allocate, what the best uses of the money are to ameliorate the fishery resource disaster.”
The big-picture goals in crafting an economic spending plan are to, “Mitigate the negative economic disaster, to maintain the long-term viability of the fishery and fishing communities, improve the scientific understanding and quality of research to understand the causes of the disaster, and also how to rebuild the stocks. Through the spending plan process then we figure out how best, working with the state and stakeholders, to spend that money to achieve those goals and address the causes of the disaster,” she said.
Options could include funding research projects to figure out why king returns have been low, contributing funding to management agencies, or even funding salmon enhancement measures. As Bell explained, there also are options through the Small Business Administration and other agencies for helping fishermen — and even crew members — who hold federal or state loans to reorganize their debt to lower their payments, and to be eligible for additional low-interest loans to help them get by until next fishing season.
Debbie Palm, an east-side set-netter, wanted to know, if there is an appropriation, would the economic spending plan include direct payments to fishermen to compensate them for their economic loss this season?
“If it’s going to be a grant, why can’t it be a grant to us? Why should we be required to pay more interest on something that we’re borrowing when we’ve lost everything? If money is funded and there’s money available to fishermen, why can’t that be a grant to us without interest? We didn’t have a season, so we lost everything. We don’t want to take another loan and borrow more money,” she said.
Moreland said that previous federal disaster declaration appropriations have resulted in direct payments to fishermen, and this declaration could, too, if Congress says to do so.
“That’s happened for declarations in the past in Alaska, and it certainly is an option that would be high on the list to look at,” she said.
That’s another reason for stakeholders to speak up now and weigh in on how they think and money that might be appropriated should be spent.
“I appreciate the comments that this is going to take education, and a lot of coordination and collaboration from those that were affected to try to come up with … a well-informed plan that represents an equitable way to best target the affected users within the authorized appropriation. So, I think that the next step will be informed by objective information that the state is able to provide, and input that you have to the delegation or to the state,” Moreland said. “… It will be a collaboration between the delegation, NOAA and the state, at minimum, and we’ll need representation from each of the regions and each of the sectors that are going to be at the table.”
And how long might all this collaboration and coordination take? That’s also hard to predict, as there are a lot of factors in play. Congress will return to session after the November election and meet until the holiday break in December. If the Alaska delegation is prepared by then, the request could be submitted in November and Congress could decide the matter before the end of the year. Or the congressional step in the process could continue into next year. The disaster declaration doesn’t expire, Moreland said, so Congress could get to it whenever it gets to it.
Once an appropriation decision is made, Butler said that his experience makes him think the best-case scenario is 90 to 120 days to work out the economic spending plan. That’s another reason for fishermen and others affected by the fishery closures to submit their input now through the avenues provided, such as the local chambers of commerce, state departments of Labor and Commerce, and the Small Business Administration, so that information can be synthesized into recommendations for the congressional delegation as soon as possible.
“I think the takeaway is we’re just now starting down a path, and we’ve got to figure out how we can get information to the right people to get down the path as quick as possible,” Butler said.
Though progress may seem slow, Moreland said that the process actually is progressing quickly.
“We took a look at the Yukon disaster for an example of process. That was a very lengthy process, the disaster for ’08-’09. I think the last checks were just distributed this July,” she said. “This is going much faster. Everyone really called attention to the situation and put together a lot of good baseline information. I think that’s all positive and a good sign.”
Bell added her two cents that stakeholder input does, indeed, have value.
“The better picture we can paint, I think that will strengthen the case to the appropriation. This will help us make sure people understand the breadth of the impact. I think that’s the main message we’re getting this morning, is that the impacts are broad,” she said.