Last week's Yukon River economic disaster declaration by the nation's commerce secretary may not help all of the people in Western Alaska affected by two years of low salmon runs -- and a village leader from the area says it's time to move beyond fishing for a stable future.
Confronted with low runs of chinook salmon in 2008 and 2009, the state took drastic measures to ensure enough salmon arrived in Canada in an attempt to meet annual returns mandated by an international treaty.
Commercial fishing, the region's sole economic engine, provides much-needed cash boosts for families to buy heating oil or fund fall hunts. When fishery managers blocked river access in order to get enough Canadian-bound salmon across the border, restrictions hit beyond the commercial sector. Subsistence fishermen -- those people fishing to fill their freezers for the winter, not for profit -- also faced lost opportunities.
But the economic disaster declaration doesn't target people who live off the land. Instead, it offers relief for people and regions that lost money in connection with the event, which has been deemed a "natural disaster."
Aid may still trickle down to non-commercial fishing families, but exactly how that might happen remains unclear, as does the amount of aid on the horizon. A congressional appropriation is also required. No such appropriation currently exists, but Alaska's congressional delegation and Gov. Sean Parnell have committed to see that aid gets to where it needs to go.
"The declaration is focused on the commercial fishery because that is how the federal law reads," Sharon Leighow, the governor's press secretary, said in an e-mail. "However, relief can be used for any project within the region that could restore the fishery, prevent a similar failure in the future, or assist a fishing community affected by such a failure."
While he's pleased to see a door open up for federal relief, a leader in one the villages heavily impacted by the lack of fishing says he's puzzled about why it took so long, and he thinks attempts to exclusively revive the fishing industry is the wrong approach.
Martin Moore has served for 13 years as the city manager of Emmonak, a village of about 800 close to where the Yukon River meets the Bering Sea. Moore says depleted Chinook runs started in 2000, when an otherwise robust fishery went into near ruin. Large processors pulled out, some with federal aid, but little to no aid came to the fishermen who had seen their income severely plummet, Moore said.
"The loss of fishing income has not only eroded our economic base but also threatened survival of our communities," Moore recently wrote in a letter to Alaska's USDA Rural Development office urging the quick release of federal funds for new projects.
Years of lost wages and a high cost of living have had a ripple effect throughout the community. Heating homes and buying gas and groceries has been an ongoing struggle. And at the city level, local sales taxes and revenue streams are down, making it harder for the city -- which relies on state-approved loan programs to purchase fuel -- to make ends meet, Moore said.
Last winter Emmonak made headlines with a humanitarian crisis as many families ran low on fuel and food. Moore says while things appear to be better this year, it's time to realize the region must look beyond fishing alone for any hope of a stable financial future.
"Realistically, our community cannot expect to replenish or replace the lost income from commercial fishing," Moore wrote, adding, "our region lacks a substitute emerging economy."
Years from now, Moore imagines Emmonak as a place full of possibilities. Perhaps electricity will be generated from the river, or natural gas piped in to help lower energy costs, and with lower utility costs, locals could go into business manufacturing clothing or furniture. Moore says the city is about to advertise for a project manager to oversee construction of a $40 million water and sewage upgrade, compliments of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as well as $10 million in road improvements and other projects, including a new dock.
Oil and gas development is another area in which Moore sees exceptional potential. He'd like to see four villages -- Emmmonak, Kotlik, Nunam Iqua and Alakanuk -- join together as part owners in land-based development and exploration, but he knows it's a tough sell. The villages, with no economic power in the own right, would have to find investors, and locals would have to feel comfortable that projects will not threaten the environment.
The lower Yukon is where the fish come in, and the belugas and the seals, and where the birds lay their young, Moore said. Without the ability to protect those animals and their subsistence way of life, when it comes to oil and gas development, the people will not move, he said.
Moore said he sees the disaster declaration as good news for an area where progress on an old problem has otherwise been slow. The outlook for fishing is grim, Moore wrote in his letter to the USDA Rural Development office. Emmonak "must seek to replace lost economic value with development of other work producing industry."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com.