Story last updated at 12:27 p.m. Friday, September 6, 2002

Western Alaska fish disaster declared
Sepp Jannotta
WESTERN ALASKA IS A DISASTER once again. Last week, Gov. Tony Knowles declared the region an economic disaster for the fifth time in six years, paving the way for state agencies to step in with financial assistance and other aid. With salmon economics depressed by low prices brought on by a market glut of farmed salmon and complicated by poor runs, fishermen from Bristol Bay to Norton Sound are suffering, Knowles said. The total ex-vessel value of Bristol Bay's commercial salmon harvest this season is projected to be around $31 million, which is nearly 10 times lower than it was in 1989, when fishermen received $305 million for their catch. The average Bristol Bay drift gillnet permit is currently around $20,000, compared with $250,000 in 1989. Nearly half of the permit holders in Bristol Bay chose not to fish this season, and a few of those who did found the economics of the endeavor a losing proposition. "People have been reluctant to go out fishing because they can't hardly cover any of their expenses," Quinhagak tribal administrator Henry Mark told the Bristol Bay Times. The economic depression in the salmon industry will continue to make for hard times in the coastal villages of Western Alaska, Knowles said. "The loss of fishing income is as if the Big Three automakers had suddenly pulled out of Detroit, or Boeing and Microsoft had suddenly closed their doors in Seattle," Knowles said in a press release. "The impact is multiplied throughout the entire community as lost fishing income means less business for local stores and services." Knowles sought to help the fishing communities by waiving the summer reduction of public assistance payments to two parent families that have been affected by the fisheries disaster and by making more food stamps available to fishermen and their families. The Knowles administration will also seek to allow Western Alaska families to take advantage of the Low Income Heating Assistance Program this winter as well as lending general aid to regional Native groups.

JOHN HILLSTRAND WAS NAMED Mariner of the Year in a ceremony at Monday's Seafair Safety Rodeo. David Hillstrand was on hand to accept the honor for his father, who died last month. Hillstrand was remembered as a tough and highly capable fisherman, said Drew Scalzi, who was at the Homer Spit ceremony as a presenter. "You'd hear stories of him fishing without gloves in the winter," Scalzi said. "He wasn't what we call a 'slipper skipper,' who would just stay up in the wheel house drinking coffee." Scalzi said beyond Hillstrand's fishing days, he was a generous friend to the fishing community in Homer. When a group of local fishermen approached Hillstrand with the idea that he might process some of the fleet's bycatch so that it might be legally donated to help feed Homer's seniors, Hillstrand said yes without batting an eye, Scalzi said. So for his dedication to the industry and the community, Hillstrand earned the distinction of Mariner of the Year. A clock adorned with a plaque was presented to David Hillstrand, who said he planned to hang it at Coal Point Trading Co., the company his father started. "I'm glad (my dad) was a mariner," David Hillstrand said, adding that he and his brothers will keep the Hillstrand fishing legacy going. "It's quite a life."

FISH ISSUES HAVE A VOICE on the campaign trail these days as both the major party candidates for governor have been pressing the flesh in Alaska fishing communities. Sen. Frank Murkowski, the Republican candidate, spent a few hours in Kodiak on Aug. 27, talking about fisheries matters on the very day voters went to the poles in the primary election. Meanwhile, Democrat Fran Ulmer was in Homer the following day. According to the Kodiak Daily Mirror, Murkowski met with fishermen at the Kodiak Inn for coffee and doughnuts and touted his record of supporting Alaska fishermen while serving in the U.S. Congress. The senator talked in general terms about what needs addressing in the commercial fishing industry: "There are three important issues here, marketing, quality control and transportation access." Ulmer sounded similar themes during her informal talk at the Gear Shed in Homer. When questioned about Alaska's suffering salmon industry, Murkowski said the key is to get more product to the processors. Murkowski also was asked about Bering Sea crab rationalization, which has been roundly vilified in Kodiak. The senator told his audience to wait and see how it goes. "It's not applicable down here," he said. "If Congress passes it and it becomes applicable in the Bering Sea, let's see how it works and then evaluate the situation in Kodiak." Murkowski and Ulmer have both said they would have a person in their administration who would specifically advise on fisheries issues.

CONSERVATION GROUPS THAT LAUNCHED a joint lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service in an attempt to reduce marine mammal bycatch in commercial fishing gear have drawn the ire of would-be-governor Frank Murkowski. The court action seeks to force the NMFS to live up to the time tables and standards that were set for it in 1994 when Congress amended Marine Mammal Protection Act to require more aggressive steps to protect marine mammals from being killed in commercial fishing gear. The environmental groups, including Oceana and the Center for Biological Diversity, contend that the NMFS has been dragging its heels on the implementation of federally mandated 'Take Reduction Plans' intended to safeguard species it has already identified as at-risk from mortality in fishing gear. Murkowski labeled the lawsuit as a direct attack on Alaska's fishing industry. "This attack on an industry already reeling from low prices and competition from farmed fish could devastate Alaskans who depend upon fishing for their living and way of life," Murkowski said in a press release. The lawsuit lacked good solid science, he added. "It is unfair to Alaska, which has the best managed fisheries in the world." While the Marine Mammal Protection Act called for marine mammal bycatch to be lowered to insignificant levels, the deadline for achieving this goal passed on April 30, 2001. The lawsuit contends that there was very little progress made by the NMFS.

Homer News reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at