Alaska fishermen face ‘perfect storm’ of problems during COVID but state grants could help

F/V Kaia in Aurora Harbor in Juneau. (08/06/2020)
F/V Kaia in Aurora Harbor in Juneau. (08/06/2020)(KTUU)
Published: Aug. 6, 2020 at 7:05 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s commercial fishermen are facing poor salmon returns, low fish prices and challenges connected to the COVID-19 pandemic, but state grants could help ease the financial pain.

On Friday, the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development announced that the COVID-19 small business grants program was being expanded. Starting Aug. 6, commercial fishermen across Alaska can apply for grants worth between $5,000 and $100,000. Before that date, fishermen were ineligible for help as they typically don’t have business licenses. 

Many in Alaska’s fishing industry need the assistance. Robert Venables, the executive director of Southeast Conference, said fishermen across the region had been reporting poor returns. 

“This year it’s been a perfect storm, the slump has continued. The catch is even worse than last year, by far,” Venables said. 

The expansion of small business grants to fishermen is expected to help but the grants are said to be unlikely to make anyone whole. “These programs have just been to stem the immense economic bloodletting that’s been going on across the board,” Venables said.

The 2020 fishing season was initially hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

KTOO reported in February that the geoduck season had closed due to slumping demand in Asia. Frances Leach, the executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, said some seafood processors also opened late as they were preparing for COVID and not all of them were buying fish. 

“It’s been an absolutely devastating year for commercial fishermen,” Leach said.

When processors began buying fish, many commercial fishermen found that prices across the board had dropped, explained in part by a drop in demand globally. “The restaurants aren’t buying fresh seafood because they’re not open,” Leach said.

Prices for some salmon species are said to be up to 50% lower than last year’s prices. Leach said that chum salmon, the “bread and butter” of Southeast, are also showing poor returns.

Ryan Beason has been commercial fishing since he was old enough to go on his father’s boat. He also works as a chartered accountant and has been helping friends apply for federal help.

“Every dollar counts at this point,” Beason said of the fishermen who are struggling. “It’s going to be a tough winter for a lot of those people who didn’t make that money this summer.”

Fishermen may need to be patient. It’s been a slow process getting state grants out to small businesses since the $290 million-program launched in June.

As of Wednesday, the Commerce Department reports that 2,574 grant applications have been received. Just over 700 applications have been approved or are pending approval. Five hundred and ten applications have been paid out across Alaska worth just over $20 million.

The Commerce Department hopes that a new online portal will help expedite the approval process. 

Conrad Beaudin runs a tender boat out of Aurora Harbor in Juneau. He spent Thursday morning looking into his options for financial help.

In late-June, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was expanded to allow fishermen to apply for loans. The deadline to apply is Aug. 8. If someone takes a federal loan over $5,000 they become ineligible for state help.

U.S. Congress passed the CARES Act in March, allocating $50 million to Alaska to help the state’s fisheries impacted by the pandemic. The state Department of Fish and Game is required to design its own program to disburse the funds. It likely won’t be ready for months.

“Right now we are talking with industry groups to gather input on the draft. After we have that draft we will go back to the public for review and comment,” Kari Winkel, the officer manager at the commissioner’s office, wrote by email. 

Beaudin said he has been less impacted than fishermen by the poor returns and low prices. “Guys are going to be lucky to make half of what they made last year,” he said. 

Beaudin is contracted directly by processors but has also seen his working days cut back. 

Younger fishermen with outstanding boat and fishing permit payments are said to be most at risk from the poor fishing conditions. “A lot of people are recognizing that they aren’t even breaking even with their fuel and their groceries, and that’s a real problem,” Leach said. 

State grants should help cover COVID costs but they can’t be used to make up for poor returns. 

“We can’t say ‘that there’s no fish and that we should get more money,’ that’s a completely different thing,” Leach said, before explaining that some regions will likely apply for disaster relief when the season ends due to run failures. 

Poor returns and low prices won’t stop fishermen who need the money to survive.

Beason said some fishermen will sell up but most will persevere. “It’s not going to be a good year by any means but we’ll get through it, we’ll make the best of it and hopefully life gets back to normal sooner rather than later,” he said. 

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