The state released a second draft of its plan to divide $50 million in pandemic relief between sectors in Alaska's fishing industry.
It’s part of the federal CARES Act pandemic relief bill to help the fishing industry nationwide. Federal guidance suggests most of the funds go to seafood processors, a third to commercial fishermen and around 5 percent to sportfishing guides and lodges.
The state’s initial plan proposed splitting most of the money evenly between the three commercial sectors. But following pushback from industry groups and hundreds of individual comments, a new version would increase the share for commercial fishermen by $1.5 million at the expense of the charter fleet and lodges. Still, Roland Maw of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said his membership isn’t reassured.
“One of the most often questions we get here in the UCIDA office is, ‘How am I gonna pay my heating oil? Can you help me with that?’ And we’d like to,” Maw said. “But with this document, there’s so many presumptions and assumptions with the numbers in here. That you just can’t give an answer.”
Rachel Baker, deputy commissioner for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said more than 200 comments were received on the initial draft. In response, the state is also increasing pots of money for subsistence fishermen. And the sportfishing sector would receive $2.5 million less than previously proposed.
Ben Mohr is the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. He said it was a little disheartening to see his sector’s allocation decrease.
“But that being said, I think the percentage being sent to the sports charter sector is a recognition of how hard the sector has been hit,” Mohr said. “The fact that we’re getting more than NOAA and NMFS had originally recommended is a real recognition of the significant impact that COVID had on the sport fishing industry and how closely related we are to the tourism industry, which we saw take a huge hit in Alaska this year.”
But before any applicant can qualify for pandemic relief, they’ll need to document a 35 percent drop in revenue over a specific time period.
Baker said until the applications are processed there’s no telling how many payouts there will be across sectors.
“We are doing the best we can to estimate the impact on the individual sectors due to COVID,” she said. “And on its face, given the decline in sport charter license sales and some of the impacts we heard from participants in the sport charter sector through health mandates and travel restrictions, their season was very severely restricted. We also heard similar things about challenges in the commercial harvesting sector this year for very different reasons. But for the most part, commercial fisheries did take place.”
Seafood processors have also argued that they were only able to operate this season after investing tens of millions in COVID-19 safety measures. The current formula might make it difficult to recoup those expenses.
Both Maw and Mohr said it’s not a matter of commercial versus sports fishing, and that they just want to make sure the money gets where it’s needed most.
Fish and Game is accepting comments on its second draft until Nov. 15. Once the plan is finalized, the plan will be forwarded to the federal government. The relief funds will be distributed through the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.