Southeast Alaska reeling as 17% of jobs are lost during pandemic and fisheries want disaster declarations

Southeast Alaska has recorded the highest percentage of job losses across the state during the...
Southeast Alaska has recorded the highest percentage of job losses across the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 22, 2020 at 7:03 PM AKDT
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Southeast Alaska has seen the highest percentage of job losses in the state during the COVID-19 pandemic and three communities have filed for state disaster declarations for dismal salmon runs.

The grim economic news for the region was presented at Southeast Conference’s annual meeting on Tuesday morning. Meilani Schijvens, an analyst with Juneau-based consulting firm Rain Coast Data, said 7,020 jobs, or 17% of the total workforce, had been lost across Southeast during 2020.

The Southeast unemployment figures have been the highest in the state during the pandemic, Schijvens said, compared to 11% in job losses seen in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. “We’ve just been pummeled at a higher rate,” she added.

The biggest hit to employment has been a 50% drop in jobs in the transportation sector, which is linked to the cancellation of cruise ship arrivals during the pandemic. The leisure and hospitality industries have also seen 39% of jobs lost in 2020.

At least three Southeast communities want the state to declare fisheries disasters so they can receive federal assistance. Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan are all looking for help, particularly with a 57% drop in the number of chum salmon caught by local fishermen in 2020 compared to last year.

Although the numbers aren’t final for the season, Schijvens also projects that Southeast will see a 64% decline in the number of sockeye salmon caught in 2020 compared to 2019.

Rorie Watt, Juneau’s city manager, said the City and Borough of Juneau is also planning to seek a state fisheries disaster declaration for commercial fishermen.

There are multiple reasons for the dismal 2020 salmon season, including poor returns, low prices and declining demand with restaurants closed across the country.

The governor’s Chief of Staff, Ben Stevens, spoke at the annual meeting held online and said the state is looking closely at the applications to see if they meet the criteria for disaster declarations. If they do, the state would work with the federal government to ensure fishermen receive assistance.

A major cause of the grim economic news has been from the loss of cruise ship arrivals, a major driver of seasonal employment across Southeast.

Before the pandemic, Schijvens projected that 1.4 million cruise ship passengers would arrive in Southeast in 2020 and spend $793 million in the region. Cruise ship cancellations due to COVID-19 meant the number of visitors to Southeast dropped to virtually zero.

In response to the loss of visitor spending, the City of Ketchikan is planning to declare a “tourism disaster,” said Lacey Simpson, the city’s assistant manager.

Mouhcine Guettabi with the Institute of Social and Economic Research said federal and state assistance is vital to easing the impact of COVID-19 on the Alaska economy. He projects that employment numbers will start ticking upwards in 2021 and that under an optimistic scenario, Alaska could be close to returning to pre-pandemic job levels in 2023.

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