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Econ 919 — Divvying up disaster dollars

Sabine Poux

A $131.8 million package of federal relief funds is heading to Alaska fishermen and researchers to offset what are known as fishery disasters in the state.

Fishermen and their coastal communities had to fight hard for those disaster declarations. Now, they’re helping to decide how managers should split the funds, including $9.4 million for Cook Inlet fishermen. The money is to make up for the losses from the 2018 upper Cook Inlet set-net fisheries and the 2020 Cook Inlet salmon fisheries.

Federal Fishery Manager Karla Bush is overseeing the disaster program for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She said the feds decided how much each Alaska fishery will receive using ex-vessel data.

"In the past, and with some of these fishery disasters, it seems that the funds provided cover about two-thirds of those losses when you compare the revenue in the disaster year to the average of the previous five years," she said.

The Cook Inlet fisheries are on a long list of declared disasters this year.

Several salmon fisheries in the Yukon-Kuskokwim area are also listed, as is the 2020 Gulf of Alaska Pacific Cod fishery, which closed completely after a heat wave decimated cod stocks there. It’s slated to get about $18 million.

Bush said every fishery has different approaches to dividing funding and determining eligibility for recipients. Her department is asking for stakeholder input on potential spending plans.

At a listening session earlier this month, a small showing of Cook Inlet stakeholders, including seafood purchaser Mark Pell, weighed in with their ideas.

"I really submit that we use the fish ticket information from the fishermen based on their sales to local processors," he said. "And processors as well, because the processor identification code is on each one of our electronic tickets that we file for.”

Amy Stonorov is part of the Gulf of Alaska cod fishery. She said it's important to make sure every participant in the fishery — even those without long fishing histories — are compensated.

“Each and every person — the crew on up the line — should be eligible for the money," she said.

Alaska fisheries have been on the disaster list before, including a salmon disaster a decade ago in Cook Inlet.

Paul Shadura II, of Kasilof, was executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association at the time, representing Cook Inlet set-netters. He said he helped come up with a spending plan for the $4 million set-netters were allocated that year.

He said they created a formula. First, each set-netter got a base $1,500.

“But no set-netter is the same," Shadura said. "It’s just like a retail store — location, location, location."

Shadura said a quarter of the fishery was harvesting three-quarters of the fish, and the allocation team wanted to reflect that. So it determined permit-holders’ five year harvesting averages and split up the rest of the pool that way.

"All in all, I think the process — a cumbersome and maybe clumsy process — actually came out with a fair distribution," Shadura said. "It’s supposed to allow you to continue to harvest and compensate you for your losses. But it’s definitely not supposed to make you whole. And it wasn’t set up, in our minds, at least, to compensate folks that normally didn’t harvest that much anyway.”

Bush, with Fish and Game, said it’s still too early to tell what this year’s plans might look like. She said they’re still looking for local input.

“We still have less than a dozen emails, specifically for the Upper Cook Inlet one," Bush said.

And some of the disaster funding is supposed to go to research. Bush said that component is designed to improve the information about the fishery and develop potential new management approaches. After the salmon crashes of 2012, for example, biologists embarked on a study of how salmon sharks impact king salmon populations in Alaska.

Shadura will be on the receiving end of funds this year. He’d like to see set-netters get a little more money than last time.

And he said if the department uses disaster funds for research, it will be important for third parties to be involved, too, since he said it’s in part management decisions that can contribute to the disasters in the first place.

"I think it would be appropriate for stakeholders to direct and advise what exactly studies we think would be most helpful, so the disaster doesn’t occur again," he said.

The Department of Fish and and Game is accepting comments on the spend plan until June 15. You can email comments to

After that, it’ll come out with a draft plan and stakeholders will have a chance to weigh in on that process. Once the department has that plan, fishermen will still be a year out — or more — to seeing checks come in.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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