After a summer of pandemic disruptions and poor salmon runs, Alaska fishermen await more federal relief money

The Naknek inriver opener on July 18, 2020. (Photo courtesy Sage Smiley/KDLG)

Many of Alaska’s commercial salmon fishermen faced a summer of poor fish runs and market impacts driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Government relief money has helped fishermen, and the state is finalizing a plan for how to spend another $50 million in federal dollars for the industry.

For some fishermen, it can’t come soon enough.

“The season was, it was almost a complete loss,” said Mike Webber who gillnets for salmon on the Copper River and in Prince William Sound. “Meaning the return numbers were down very low. We went almost a month without a fishing period this year.”

Webber sells some of his fish to processors, but a lot of it gets marketed directly to individual customers and restaurants. And, while he saw strong individual sales:

“Bottom line, we lost pretty much all of our restaurant markets,” said Webber.

Webber says he lost about two thirds of his gross earnings this year, compared to 2019. He did get some money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but was out fishing and missed the opportunity to apply for other relief money.

Dan Lesh is a consultant with McKinley Research Group. He specializes in seafood industry analysis. He says, in terms of harvest, some areas of the state did well.

“Salmon, the big story is just how different it was between different regions,” said Lesh. “Bristol Bay and Kodiak had good years whereas everyone else pretty much had a really poor year.”

According to preliminary data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the value of this year’s salmon harvest, including all species, is about half of what it was in 2019. The total number of fish harvested was down 44%.

Not only were fishermen catching fewer fish, in many cases they were getting paid less for them. Processors faced steep bills for implementing COVID mitigation strategies. Lesh says, the value of sockeye was the lowest it’s been in more than 10 years. The same goes for chum salmon.

“The markets were dramatically impacted by COVID this year of course,” said Lesh. “And that did drive prices lower. You saw that restaurant market disappear and just general cost increases for processors.”

Lea Klingert, with the Alaska Commercial Fishing and Agriculture Bank, says, in terms of how fishermen did financially this summer, it’s a mixed bag. For some, government assistance made a big difference.

“For some it was a lifesaver in an otherwise poor showing of fish,” said Klingert in by email, but she says it wasn’t an even playing field.

Klingert said a concern going forward is that not all of this year’s trouble can be blamed on the pandemic.

“What will future years look like without government money,” said Klingert.

In May, to help offset pandemic impacts, the federal government allocated $300 million for fisheries assistance in coastal communities through the CARES Act. Alaska got $50 million. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been working on plan for how to spend that money.

Rachel Baker is a deputy commissioner with the department.

“It has been a somewhat challenging process because there’s no, you know, cookbook for how to do this,” said Baker. “This is a brand new type of plan, type of spending plan, than we’ve developed before.”

On top of that, she says, the data isn’t yet available to show how all of the different parts of Alaska’s fishing industry were impacted by the pandemic. Without that data, the state has had to rely on conversations from industry representatives and guidance from the government. ADF&G has produced several draft spending plans and received public comment on each of them.

The most recent draft spending plan allocates $17,150,000 to commercial fisheries, $15,680,000 to seafood processors, $13,230,000 to the sport fishing charter sector, $2,450,000 for subsistence fishing, and $490,000 for aquaculture.

Once the department finalizes the spending plan, it will be reviewed by the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and the federal government. Once it gets all its approvals, members of Alaska’s fishing industry will be able to apply for funds.

That milestone will be a relief for Stacy Corbin, who owns a charter fishing company on the Kenai Peninsula.

“I get it that it’s complicated,” said Corbin. “You got, you know all different levels of businesses on both sides of it. The commercial and the sport fishing side of it and the charter side of it. But, you know, our bills come due every month. That money has been allocated for quite a while. We need it now.”

Corbin just wrapped up his second difficult season in a row. In 2019, wildfires burned throughout the summer near the Kenai River, disrupting the tourism season.

This year, Corbin was surprised by the amount of business he did get. And, he says, fishing was pretty good. Still, amid pandemic-driven disruptions to the tourism industry, he says, he lost a lot of money.

“You know, despite another season of coming in in terms of about half of normal income, we still were able to operate and stay afloat and as of now are still able to pay the bills,” Corbin said.

Corbin did receive some grant money from the Paycheck Protection Program and from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But, that made him ineligible for grant money that became available later in the summer.

“We were obviously very grateful that we were able to operate at all,” said Corbin. “And just went to great lengths to try to do that as safely as possible.”

Webber, in Cordova, says he’s seen his share of bad years in Alaska’s fishing industry.

“It was a tough year,” said Webber. “Mentally it was tough and emotionally it was tough. But it came to an end and we’re hunkering down again, working our way though it and definitely looking forward to the 2021 season.”

He says he hopes 2021 will be a good year — the kind you use to rebuild your business.