Disaster requests for Bering Sea crabbers highlight difficulty of getting financial relief to fishermen

A deck of a boat pulling up crab pots
Crew from the Silver Spray empty snow crab pots while fishing in the Bering Sea. (Courtesy of Bill Prout)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy requested $287 million from the federal government last month for fishermen impacted by the Bering Sea snow crab and Bristol Bay red king crab fisheries closures. The current process of getting financial relief to fishermen is cumbersome and takes a long time, but Bering Sea crabbers are hoping the plight of the snow crab population might change the way financial relief is delivered to fishermen.

Bering Sea crabbers are usually heading west in the fall to the Bering Sea fishing grounds, This year, many are tied up at the dock. (Photo courtesy Gabriel Prout)

Gabriel Prout is a second generation Bering Sea crab fisherman from Kodiak; he owns the F/V Silver Spray with his dad and brothers. He said there’s one big problem with the current process for handing out fishery disaster funding.

“If you’re going to have a fishery disaster request program, you should be able to make it so the money is getting into the hands of those affected very quickly,” said Prout.

Right now, it takes years for money to reach skippers and their crews. 

After a governor requests a disaster declaration, it needs to be approved by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce – and Congress needs to appropriate funding. The money goes through several agencies on its way to fishermen, who have to apply for a slice of it. And most fishermen have to figure out how to stay in business years before the money hits their bank accounts. 

Wait times for subsistence fishermen can take even longer. And in the meantime, it costs money to stay tied up at the dock.

Bering Sea crabbers like Prout are following the process closely.

“Right now, the big hurdle is it’s sitting with the [U.S.] Secretary of Commerce and waiting for her approval to sign off on it,” he said.

Jamie Goen is the executive director for the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers – that’s a trade organization that represents the fishery. This year is the second in a row that the king crab fishery is closed, but she says the first-ever snow crab closure is devastating.

“People are still in shock. It’s been a lot to digest as far as what comes next,” said Goen.

About 60 vessels go out for Bering Sea snow crab each year. Goen said skippers and crew still have bills to pay, and without some sort of rapid relief, many won’t make it to the next season.

“We’ve been telling Congress that we need money within 6 months to a year for these small businesses to be able to weather this,” she said.

Bering Sea crabbers aren’t the only ones waiting on the current system. Earlier this year, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce approved more than a dozen disaster requests for fisheries in Alaska, spanning the years 2018 to 2021. 

At the same time, improving the current fisheries disaster funding process has gotten attention from policymakers, but climate change has made that conversation more complicated. 

The Arctic is warming more quickly than other parts of the world – that includes coastal Alaska. Researchers don’t know for sure what caused the snow crab population’s collapse, but they think warming ocean waters caused by climate change had something to do with it. 

Gunnar Knapp is a retired University of Alaska Anchorage economics professor who has studied Alaskan fisheries for decades. He said fishermen have always shouldered financial risk, and over the years, many can attest to having good and bad years. But the recent crab fisheries closures highlight just how much climate change is tipping the scales. 

“Now with the sort of dramatic changes that are occurring in the global climate and in our waters and in our climate, we don’t know whether fisheries that decline will come back,” said Knapp.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s office recently announced a Working Waterfronts Framework that seeks input on the disaster funding process. And ideas for fixes have included something similar to crop insurance for farmers. But Knapp says if fisheries are failing more frequently, that might not be the answer.

“If the problem is serious enough, then neither private insurance nor government insurance is really going to work cause it’s just too expensive if whatever has caused the loss of income is happening too regularly,” he said.

Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers’ Goen said she’s hoping the fishery’s total closure will expedite the process of getting money to crabbers, and that the attention the snow crab collapse has gotten will bring about bigger changes for the commercial fishing industry as a whole.

“What’s happening in our fishery right now I’m hoping will be a tipping point to creating a new program that’s faster and more efficient. Or reforming the current program,” she said.

Biologists say the Bering Sea snow crab population will likely continue to decline for the next few years. Prout, the Kodiak fisherman, said he hopes his family doesn’t have to wait that long until there’s a better program in place.

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