Stutes: harvesters need fair compensation

Congress considers reforms to provide quicker disaster relief

The gillnetter Amulet speeds by fishing tender F/V Bulldog, June 25. Photo by Cinthia Gibbens-Stimson/The Cordova Times

Bipartisan legislation now before the U.S. Senate to provide harvesters hard hit by fisheries disasters with better compensation in a timely manner is sorely needed by Prince William Sound harvesters, says Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak.

“The amount of time it has taken (to get harvesters compensated for the 2016 pink salmon disaster in Prince William Sound) is almost criminal,” said Stutes. “There is no excuse for it.”

The Kodiak Republican was commenting on Tuesday, Oct. 1 on legislation introduced by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and urging Congress to get involved.

During a Sept. 25 hearing of that committee, Wicker and Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., ranking member of the committee, spoke of the need for reform in the current regulations guiding the distribution of fisheries disaster relief funds.

“Our fishermen deserve more timely consideration and relief,” said Wicker, referring to approval of a federal fishery disaster declaration and relief process for Mississippi.

Stutes couldn’t agree more.

The federal government needs to address the timeliness in facilitating disaster relief and they need to involve the stakeholders, she said.  In the case of the 2016 pink salmon fishery disaster in Prince William Sound, “they did not involve the fishermen. Without the stakeholder input that’s how the formula got all screwed up,” she said. Those impacted are still waiting for compensation under the promised disaster relief.

“They need to make sure the people affected are appropriately compensated. If not then there needs to be an even distribution across the board,” she said. 

The deadline to apply for relief in the 2016 Prince William Sound pink salmon disaster is Oct. 31, with checks to go out about three to four weeks after that.

Under the current rule harvesters whose first year of fishing there for pinks was 2016 got the advantage of the average of five years in calculating their disaster benefit from 2010 to 2015 and 2010 was a banner year, Stutes said.  “They mixed gear types and said here is your average. It got so screwed up. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Alaska’s congressional delegation were aware of the problem but the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission said ‘it is what it is’,” she said.

The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, established in 1947 by consent of Congress, is the interstate compact agency whose mission is to promote better utilization of fisheries, and to develop  a joint program of protection and prevention of physical waste of fisheries in all those areas of the Pacific Ocean over which the compacting states jointly or separately have or may hereafter acquire jurisdiction. The member states are California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska. They are currently charged with facilitating distribution of the disaster funds.

Under the current regulations if a boat owner has leased out a boat for the fishery, the disaster relief check goes to the party who leased the vessel, rather than the owner. This means the party that leased the boat will then have leeway to make their own deal with the boat owner and decide on their own how much of the compensation the vessel owner will get. 

At this point PSMFC, the state, the Commercial Fishery Entry Commission and ADF&G are expecting numerous appeals to be filed, but here is only a finite amount of money in the appeals fund, Stutes said. “There’s going to be a lot of unhappy people.”

PSMFC was also supposed to have the applications and forms online weeks before they did, Stutes said. “They were very irresponsible. Fishermen would call PSMFC and nobody would return their calls,

Cantwell also was critical of the current system of fisheries disaster compensation, and

in particular the 2016 salmon fishery disaster which impacted fisheries across Washington state. “Washington has experienced 17 fishery disasters since 1992 including crab, groundfish and salmon,” Cantwell said. “Unfortunately, the fisheries disaster process has become more burdensome, and has resulted in less funding and lengthy delays, putting an unnecessary burden on fishermen and fishing communities.”

“The coho disaster impacted tribes, commercial fishermen, charter and recreational fishermen, but not all groups received adequate funding from NOAA,” she said in a statement issued by her congressional staff. In a shift from previous policy, the administration determined that the charter fishermen should not be included in the economic determination. Thus I believe Washington did not receive adequate funding for this disaster,” she said.