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Feds declare economic disaster for east side set-net fishery in 2021, 2022

A buoy at a set-net site in Ninilchik in June.
Sabine Poux
A buoy at a set-net site in Ninilchik.

The federal government has declared a fishery disaster for salmon setnetters on the east side of Upper Cook Inlet for the 2021 and 2022 seasons.

Last year, east side set-netters didn’t fish for sockeye salmon at all, but revenue was declining for years before that. Set-netters and local governments asked Gov. Mike Dunleavy to request a federal disaster designation for both the 2021 and 2022 seasons, which he did in September.

In an April 8 letter, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo approved the disaster declaration. That means the fishery and related businesses and tribes will now be open to disaster assistance funds.

Ken Coleman is a set-netter, and the vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, a commercial fishing trade group. He’s an advocate for disaster declarations, but he says the process of receiving that money can be incredibly complicated.

“We the set-netter do our diligence by formulating what we think is our loss due to a closure or partial closure, and we forward that along with resolutions from our local government to the state Department of Fish and Game and the governor’s office,” Coleman explained.

If the state agrees, they send a request of disaster to the federal department of commerce, who sends it to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to do diligence on the request. Then it goes back to commerce, which approves or denies a federal disaster, then it goes back to the state, which develops a spending plan. The Alaska federal delegation then advocates for that money, but there are many steps after that before funding is dispersed to affected individuals.

Coleman said fishers still haven’t seen any money for the disasters declared for the fishery in 2018 or 2020.

“So it’s a long process, and frustrating for those who desperately need the help,” he said.

Coleman fears soon, the disaster money will dry up because of the way policy is written.

The issue annually facing set-netters is tight state regulations aimed at keeping king salmon, a stock of concern, out of the nets of commercial sockeye fishermen. Set-netters didn’t fish at all in the 2023 season after the state closed the fishery because of low king estimates. That means they didn’t make any money at all — and since disaster funding is based on lost revenue, it will affect the way set-netters ask for relief money in the future.

“Every year you go into the future with another disaster is a year that you have no revenue in the fishery, so there’s nothing to average,” Coleman said. “And at some point, five years hence or what have you, you could have a disaster, but there’s no revenue to apply to, because you didn’t fish.”

Things aren’t looking good for this year’s season either. The state issued an emergency order on kings two weeks ago, which closes the set net fishery until further notice based on king salmon estimates. The only way the fishery might open is if king salmon escapement surpasses 14,250 fish.

That’s the outcome of a king salmon management plan approved by the Board of Fisheries in a tight vote in March, which lowered the threshold slightly.

Coleman advocated this year for a 2023 disaster declaration. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and local city councils approved supporting resolutions in the fall, and the request is currently pending with the Department of Commerce.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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