Unexpected upheavals stemming from the coronavirus have slowed the process of getting relief payments into the hands of fishermen and communities hurt by the 2018 Gulf of Alaska cod crash.
In late February, the Secretary of Commerce cut loose $24,416,440 for affected stakeholders. Then in late March, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang proposed a written timeline for developing a distribution plan and also called for input from communities and fishing groups.
A draft of the initial plan was intended to compile stakeholder comments in April, be revised in May, and go out for a second round of public input in June and July. But that timeframe was derailed a bit by COVID-19.
Now, the state is “aiming” to get the draft distribution plan out for the first round of stakeholder and public comments by the end of June, according to Rick Green, assistant to the ADF&G commissioner.
There will be a month for comments, Green said, and after resulting revisions the plan will be sent out for more feedback, likely in late August. Then it will be reviewed, finalized and sent to NOAA Fisheries for approval, hopefully in September.
ADF&G will work with the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission to get the distribution done as quickly as possible, he added.
The disaster funds will assist fishing communities affected by the cod crash by going to fishermen, subsistence users, shore-side businesses and infrastructure. Money also can be used for research activities to help improve the fishing ecosystem and environment.
Pink salmon funds, finally
Hopefully, the process for cod losses will move more quickly than the payout for the 2016 pink salmon failure in which over $56 million in federal relief funds finally made it to fishermen, processors and communities in just the past few months.
It includes Kodiak, Prince William Sound, Chignik, Lower Cook Inlet, South Alaska Peninsula, Southeast Alaska and Yakutat.
Congress OK-ed the money in 2017, but the authorization sat on bureaucrats’ desks in Washington, D.C., for over two years. Then it was discovered that the ways in which the payouts to pink salmon fishermen were calculated was badly flawed, stalling the process even further.
Salmon permit holders, who split the biggest share at nearly $32 million, were finally able to apply last October to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, which administers the funds.
There were 1,318 permit holders who applied and 905 received payments, according to Karla Bush, ADF&G extended jurisdiction program manager.
Funds allocated to permit holders were calculated based on the loss of pink salmon ex-vessel (dockside) value for each management area as compared to its five even year fishery average value. The disaster funds were distributed based on an area’s fishery value equal to 70.56 percent of the respective five even year average dockside value.
That resulted in minimum payments of $139,200 for 464 permit holders in Southeast Alaska, $22,800 for 76 from Yakutat, $7,800 for 26 Lower Cook Inlet salmon permit holders, $97,500 for 325 at Prince William Sound, $71,400 for 238 Kodiak fishermen, $31,500 for 105 recipients at the South Alaska Peninsula and $18,900 for 63 salmon permit holders at Chignik.
Of the 2,233 crew members who applied for disaster funds 1,554 were eligible for payouts.
According to a PSMFC fact sheet, payments to crew were deducted from a permit holder’s loss based on crew shares. For example, if a permit holder had a loss of $25,000, a crew member listed as earning a 10 percent share would be eligible for a payment of $2,500.
A total of 38 Alaska salmon processors applied for the funds and 30 were eligible, Bush said. They split nearly $18 million in relief funds, of which 15 percent of each processor’s total were deducted and distributed equally to eligible processing workers.
In addition, $2.4 million was earmarked for Alaska municipalities affected by the pink crash and nearly $4 million for pink salmon research.
Of that, $450,000 went to Kodiak’s Kitoi Bay Hatchery for its Saltwater Marking Sampling project. The Southeast Alaska Coastal Monitoring Survey was set to get $680,000 to help with pink salmon forecasting. And $2.5 million went to the Alaska Hatchery Research Project that since 2010 has studied interactions of hatchery and wild salmon in Prince William Sound and Southeast.
U.S. regions that face fisheries disasters will no longer endure the years of awaiting funds if Congress passes a bipartisan bill introduced in January called the Fishery Failures: Urgently Needed Disaster Declarations Act (Fishery FUNDD Act) that would improve the federal process and set a strict timeline for payout of funds.
Signs of salmon trouble
The total abundance of Pacific salmon in the North Pacific remains near all-time highs but there are some troubling signs.
Harvests have slowly declined over the past decade — and last year showed especially low catches of some salmon species.
That’s based on annual data from the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission which for nearly 30 years has summarized abundances and catches of salmon as reported by its five member countries — Canada, Japan, Korea, Russia, and the U.S. It tracks all salmon species caught in the North Pacific, Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk, and also coordinates research and enforcement.
The latest NPAFC findings show that the total 2019 salmon catch was 563.3 million fish, down from 651 million in 2018.
The declines were driven by several factors: Japan had its lowest chum catches since 1970 (55.9 thousand metric tons). In Canada, catches of chum, sockeye and pink salmon were the lowest since 1925 (2,973 metric tons). Even worse, for Washington, Oregon and California, catches of Chinook, chum, and coho salmon were the worst on record (4,965 metric tons).
In terms of who caught the most salmon, Russia took 51 percent of the total (499.2 thousand metric tons), followed by the U.S. at 42 percent (406.9 thousand metric tons), nearly all of which came from Alaska (401.9 thousand metric tons), mostly pinks and sockeye salmon followed by chums.
Japan was a distant third at 6 percent (59.5 thousand metric tons), with Canada claiming just 1 percent of the salmon catch (2.9 thousand metric tons) and Korea at just 130 metric tons.
Pink salmon made up 54 percent of the North Pacific catch by weight, followed by chum (24 percent) and sockeye salmon (19 percent). Coho comprised 2 percent, while Chinook salmon, was less than 1 percent of the total catch.
Last year also saw record salmon hatchery releases into the North Pacific.
While releases from the five nations have held at roughly 5 billion fish since 1993, they reached 5.5 billion in 2019 due to increased output from Asian hatchery.
Hatchery releases were primarily chum (3,469 million, 63 percent) and pink salmon (1,357 million, 25 percent), followed by sockeye (341 million, 6 percent), Chinook (241 million, 4 percent), and coho salmon (82 million, 2 percent),
The NPAFC added that “interannual variability in the total catch in North America has been more pronounced during the last decade than in previous decades, primarily because of variability in pink salmon catches.”