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Alaska villages brace for new fishing disaster

BY SUSAN KIM | WESTERN ALASKA | January 7, 1999

In Bosco Olson's freezer there are 30 one- pound plastic bags of chum salmon. That means Olson, a

fisherman in the Yukon village of Emmonak, and his family will have enough food to survive the winter, thanks to a state emergency response

program activated in August, shortly after a poor salmon run wiped out subsistence fishing in more than 100 rural Alaskan communities.

"We're doing okay," Olson said -- but he wonders and worries about next year's fishing harvest. The 30 bags in his freezer are the remaining

half of his food supply.

Already the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is predicting another disaster, and the Fisheries Research Institute in Oregon projects a catch

of only 19 million salmon this year, compared to around 35 million in an average harvest. Last year, fisherman were able to bring in only 9.7

million fish, the year before 12.5 million.

Rural Alaskans are used to a tough life -- but not quite like this. "We've always survived the hard times, but in my 30 years of commercial

fishing I've never seen anything this bad," said Frank Chingliak, president of the Moravian Church of Alaska. "My family had to budget way

down on our giving during the holidays, and we've learned a lot about financial management and looking for bargains," he said.

After more than 100 rural communities on the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, Bristol Bay, and Alaskan peninsula were declared disaster areas

last summer, state funds helped avert starvation for more than 7,000 families. But churches and food banks are still actively working together to

help those whose needs go unmet. Families who depend on fishing for food are eligible to receive up to $4,000 in state aide to help pay for

food and utilities.

The Rev. William Nicholson, senior pastor at Bethel Moravian Church, said that, though the state program has had a visibly positive impact,

church and community response is still crucial. "I myself am a beneficiary of state funds, and it takes some of the pressure off. But there is still

a need for food and there are still crises that require short-term, immediate help," he said.

"Two weeks ago I had a family call with no food in their cupboard and a child with no milk. Our church responded to that distress call."

To help answer other such calls, the state's churches, food banks, and community organizations have been working together to collect and

distribute food and other supplies. The Alaska Food Coalition, Food Bank of Alaska, Lion's Club, Second Harvest, Lutheran Social Services,

Church World Service, Alaskan Moravian Church, United Way, and the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corps have set up community warehouses

to help communities pull through the winter.

The crisis has affected not only fishermen themselves, but also cannery workers, bookkeepers, distributors, buyers, processors, and anyone else

associated with the fishing industry. Since many state aide programs are directly targeted toward fishermen, often it is others who find

themselves in emergency situations. Food banks report that hundreds of families are still seeking assistance.

Just when need is high, churches throughout the area have seen a sharp decrease in giving. "The disaster has definitely impacted church

funding," said Chingliak. "We have received minimal offerings, and we have already used our 'rainy day option' funds. The state aide is an

temporary problem solver, but we as a community still need to do a lot more planning."

In many small Alaskan fishing villages, people commonly eke out a living under local unemployment rates of more than 50 percent, according

to the most current Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. In a state where the median household income in 1997 was $50,992, according the U.S.

Census, and the cost of living is notoriously high, small rural villages fare much worse, with average household incomes usually falling below

$15,000.

The American Red Cross, which initially distributed emergency rations and supplies before the state could respond, is remaining on standby,

while Toys for Tots and the National Guard collected toys and clothes for children during the holidays.

Church and community leaders, along with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (HSS), anticipate additional mental health

problems associated with the stress of the disaster, including a rise in alcohol and drug abuse, suicides, and child abuse.

"People I've talked with in villages impacted by the fishing disaster, are reporting higher levels of dysfunctional behavior, more drinking, more

interpersonal violence, more self-destructive behavior," said Susan Soule, a suicide prevention coordinator for the Alaska Department of HSS.

"People are worried about paying bills, getting through the holidays, what will happen with fishing in the future, and their ability to live as they

have lived."

Locally, villagers are also employing their traditional values of cooperation, pooling money and sharing boats so that all may eat. Village leaders

are also working with missionary priests and state-provided village counselors to recognize and cope with stress among villagers.

The lack of positive predictions for the upcoming fish harvest has increased stress on fisherman and their communities.

Oceanographers theorize that the poor salmon runs are caused by the weather phenomenon El Nino, which alters prevailing winds and prevents

cold, nutrient-rich waters from reaching Alaskan fishing waters. Without cold water, plankton and other creatures fare poorly, leaving salmon

little to eat. In addition, warm-water predators invade and feed on defenseless young salmon, resulting in massive declines in salmon

populations throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.


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