Commercial fishing crews now eligible for federal COVID loans

Jun 26, 2020

A boat floats in the estuary near the mouth of the Kenai River in this June 2020 photo.

Like nearly every corner of the economy, commercial fishermen have had to adapt to the pandemic as Alaska heads into its busy salmon season. However, unlike other parts of the economy, commercial fishermen haven’t been eligible for all the federal aid available.

Until this week, a big chunk of fishermen’s payroll wasn’t eligible for help under the Payroll Protection Program, or PPP. That’s because many of them pay their crewmen with 1099s, as independent contractors. Until yesterday, they couldn’t use that to apply for the PPP. United Fishermen of Alaska executive director Frances Leach said that presented significant challenges for the fleet.

"We’ve been pushing our delegation as well as the delegation’s been working with the president and other legislators to accept 1099s, and it’s taken them this long to do it," she said. "So they can finally include 1099 payments in their payroll calculations, which will possibly allow them to qualify for a larger loan."

The U.S. Department of the Treasury announced a rule that changed that, making that 1099 income eligible under the PPP. But there’s another hurdle: the deadline is June 30. That’s five days from the announcement, including two weekend days, when lending institutions aren’t typically open. Leach said that’s a tight timeline, but Alaska’s congressional delegation has told them it’s not likely to be extended because that would require federal legislation.

"The biggest sticking point for us is that commercial fishermen are out fishing during this time, so a lot of them may not have even heard about this new program, so that makes it really difficult," she said. "We’ve been doing our best to tell the fleet, but a lot of them are out of communication."

Not all institutions are working with those loans anymore, either. Leach suggested fishermen who want to apply check out the Small Business Administration’s website at sba.gov for a list of financial institutions that may still be providing PPP loans.

Commercial fishing in Upper Cook Inlet kicked off this week in the central district. The central district drift fishery opened first, followed by the Kasilof-area setnetters.

So far, the fishermen in all of Upper Cook Inlet have netted 43,381 salmon. Of those, 41,181 are sockeye and 1,877 are kings. The Kenai-area setnetters don’t come online until later, according to Upper Cook Inlet management plans.

The main Kenai River sockeye sonar doesn’t turn on until July 1, but the Kasilof River sockeye sonar had counted about 49,360 sockeye as of Thursday. That’s ahead of last year, and on track for an escapement projection of about 298,000 sockeye. Drift gillnetting and Kasilof section setnetting will be open from 2-11 p.m. Saturday, according to the most recent commercial fisheries announcement.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@kdll.org.