Federal disasters declared for 14 Alaska fisheries

Daren Jennings loads up his skiff to deliver Bristol Bay salmon to Lower Yukon River communities. The Yukon salmon fisheries saw their lowest runs ever in the summer of 2021. Yukon River families were not allowed to fish for subsistence, and the commercial fishery remained closed. (Olivia Ebertz/KYUK)

Fourteen Alaska fisheries have been declared federal disasters by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Gina Raimondo issued the declarations last Friday, and the announcement could lead to federal funding for fishermen.

The disaster declarations include the 2020 Kuskokwim River salmon fishery and the 2020 and 2021 Yukon River salmon fisheries. These fisheries saw significant salmon declines both years, with the Yukon salmon fishery seeing its lowest runs ever in the summer of 2021. Yukon River families were not allowed to fish for subsistence, and the commercial fishery remained closed.

Executive director for the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association, Serena Fitka, helped lead a group of Yukon River tribal and fishing organizations to campaign for the Yukon disaster declarations.

“I give the credit to the Yukon River communities, everyone that pulled together to make their voices heard that we are in crisis mode right now,” Fitka said.

The groups issued a letter last fall that listed the impacts of the salmon collapse on residents, “which include cultural loss, food security, psychological impacts, and the overall wellness of the people along the river.”

With the disasters now declared, Congress could choose to allocate federal funding for assistance. It’s an action that both Alaska’s U.S. senators signaled that they are ready to push for in a statement celebrating Secretary Raimondo’s decision.

“Our great fisheries resources provide a pillar within Alaska’s economy and culture. Now that a fishery disaster has been declared, we can work to secure appropriations to fund these fishery disaster declarations,” Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan wrote in a statement.

On the Yukon River, Fitka is once again mobilizing the same groups that campaigned for the disaster declarations. This time they will campaign for federal funding.

“That’s really making sure that the fishermen get the assistance they need. Not only for commercial, but for subsistence users as well,” Fitka said.

On the Kuskokwim River, Mike Williams Sr. chairs the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. He said that he hopes the disaster declarations will provide relief to Kuskokwim and Yukon River families. For years, these families have not met their subsistence needs through king salmon, and other species runs are also declining.

“I just hung two chums on my rack all summer, and our hearts go out to people on the Yukon, because they got zero,” Williams Sr. said.

He criticized how long it took the federal process to declare the fisheries as disasters. Some of the fisheries listed in other areas of Alaska are from as far back as 2018.

“Right now, the only thing I can say is better late than never,” Williams Sr. said.

He said that he hopes some federal funding will go toward researching why the salmon are declining.

Secretary Raimondo issued determinations that fisheries disasters occurred in:

  • 2018 Upper Cook Inlet east side set net
  • 2018 Copper River Chinook and sockeye salmon
  • 2019 Eastern Bering Sea Tanner crab
  • 2020 Prince William Sound salmon fisheries
  • 2020 Copper River Chinook, sockeye, and chum salmon fisheries
  • 2020 Eastern Bering Sea Tanner crab
  • 2020 Pacific cod in the Gulf of Alaska
  • 2020 Alaska Norton Sound salmon
  • 2020 Yukon River salmon
  • 2020 Chignik salmon
  • 2020 Kuskokwim River salmon
  • 2020 Southeast Alaska salmon fisheries
  • 2020 Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries
  • 2021 Yukon River salmon fishery

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