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Gov. Walker declares economic disaster for Chignik fisheries

Mitch Borden/KDLG

Chignik River sockeye came in far below escapement this summer, and there were no commercial fishing openings targetting reds. On August 23, the governor declared it an economic emergency.

On August 23, Gov. Bill Walker declared an economic disaster for the Chignik fisheries region, prompted by devastatingly low sockeye returns.

The Chignik River fell far short of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s minimum escapement goal of 550,000. When the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stopped counting on August 20, only 490,000 reds had returned. There were no commercial salmon fishing opportunities in the region targeting sockeye this summer, and there was only a brief opportunity to fish for pink and chum salmon.

“Chignik is used to catching more than a million sockeye every year.” said Walker in a statement. “Salmon is the economic and subsistence staple in these communities and the failure of this year’s fishery is a one-two punch. It is critical that we do what we can to support them as they work to recover: that’s what we’re here for.”

Axel Kopen, a fisherman from Chignik Bay and president of the Chignik Seiner’s Association, called the summer “depressing and miserable.” Though he hopes a disaster declaration will help the community in the short-term, he is concerned for the sustainability of his community.

“This whole region is basically teetering on the brink right now...What is kind of getting glossed over is we had a horrible red season last year too," said Kopen, pointing out that 2017's harvest of 900,000 sockeye was well below the  1.5 million average. "We were lucky we were able to catch some pinks last year. This year we caught nothing. Nobody made any money. What happens if we have another bad run next year?”

The governor's disaster declaration allows the legislature to appropriate money for assistance grants for the communities of Chignik Bay, Chignik Lagoon, Chignik Lake, Perryville and Ivanof Bay.

The governor can also make budget recommendations to accelerate the region’s existing capital projects and provide funding for new ones. Additionally, the declaration waives specific provisions of Alaska Statute and regulations relating to capital project requirements, employment, and contractor preference. These allowances could create more jobs in the region to supplement residents’ income this winter.

Additional support for Chignik area residents is available from the Division of Public Assistance, which provides food relief and financial assistance to Alaskans in need. 

Contact the author at 907-842-5281.

Izzy Ross is the news director at KDLG, the NPR member station in Dillingham. She reports, edits, and hosts stories from around the Bristol Bay region, and collaborates with other radio stations across the state.