State, Federal Officials Meet With Locals Over King Salmon Disaster

Shaylon Cochran


     This year’s dismal return of King salmon, which led to a federal disaster declaration, has left commercial setnet fishermen on Cook Inlet’s east side with several concerns about how that declaration will affect them and what the state plans to do to ensure they aren’t shut out again next year.  

     Officials with the Departments of Fish and Game, Commerce and Governor Parnell’s office met with officials from NOAA in Soldotna Friday to address those concerns. 
     The immediate concern among fishermen was how a federal disaster declaration would help them.  Though the declaration has been made, it’s now up to Congress to allocate funding that could be used for several purposes, including direct relief for fishermen or for research to find out more about what’s causing such low returns.  
     Stephanie Moreland spoke on behalf of the Governor’s office and tackled the question of ‘What happens next?”
     "The next steps will be informed by objective information the state is able to provide," said Moreland.
     She said after a firm number has been established, it will be up to the State, NOAA and the stakeholders to come up with a plan on how best to distribute those funds and for what purpose.  
     Last week, Governor Parnell’s office issued a statement recognizing that it had underestimated the financial impact of the low King returns.  The estimate given to the Commerce department was ten-million-dollars, but didn’t take into account lost revenues from east side setnetters.  
     In 2010, the Commerce Department issued a disaster declaration for King fisheries on the Yukon River.  Gretchen Harrington of NOAA’s Marine Fisheries Service explains how those relief funds were used.
     "Congress appropriated five-million dollars for that disaster," she said. "The agreed-upon plan was to provide direct payments to permit holders."
     Throughout the season, setnetters have said they simply wanted an opportunity to fish, and that the state has the authority to grant that opportunity or not.  
     Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell was also in attendance.  She addressed concerns that part of the problem with management decisions this year was that those decisions were based on poor information.  
     The state has been transitioning to a new sonar system to count salmon and the numbers produced by the new system will be key in putting together new management plans that are more flexible in relation to real-time conditions.
     "That, we believe, is going to be a very positive development for fisheries management," said Campbell. "For the first time in several years ... we're going to have a clear target that we're shooting for and we're going to have a tool in the water that measures our progress toward that goal."
     Moreland said Congress will have a brief opportunity this year after the presidential election to appropriate relief funding.  The Board of Fisheries is scheduled to meet in Anchorage on October 9th and 10th.  
     Several user groups have submitted Agenda Change Requests asking the Board to take up the issue of Cook Inlet Fisheries now, a year ahead of when they had planned to address the topic.