By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Alaska's governor asked the Obama administration on Saturday to declare a fisheries disaster for parts of the state where weak salmon runs are taking a toll on Native Alaskan villagers who rely on wild fish for food and as one of their few income sources.
Governor Sean Parnell made the request to acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank in a move that could free up some financial aid for impoverished residents of villages that depend on salmon from the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers in western Alaska.
"Residents in the Yukon and Kuskokwim regions experience some of the highest poverty rates in the country. Earnings from even small commercial fisheries are critical to make it through Alaska's winters," Parnell said in a statement.
"Even more important to these residents' survival is the ability to engage in subsistence harvests," he said.
If granted by the acting secretary, the disaster declaration would not automatically trigger financial aid. Such aid, available under federal law, would have to be appropriated by Congress, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
On the Kuskokwim River, the 2012 salmon return is shaping up as one of the worst in state history, according to state Department of Fish and Game figures. There have been rolling closures there for even the traditional subsistence harvests.
The Kuskokwim run of king salmon, also called Chinooks, was poor last year, too, limiting the commercial catch of that species to a negligible amount, Parnell said in his letter to Blank.
On the Yukon River, whose kings are among the most prized of Alaska salmon because of their high oil content, size and taste, returns of king salmon were so low as to force a ban on commercial harvests, the Department of Fish and Game said.
The Yukon River commercial king salmon harvest is usually worth $3 million a year, Parnell said. Last year's Yukon River king run was also extremely weak.
But this year's Yukon River run of lower-priced and lower-quality chum salmon is above the historic median, allowing for some commercial harvests to continue, according to a summary issued on Friday by the department.
Parnell said runs of king salmon in the Cook Inlet region near Anchorage were also extremely low, and may qualify for a disaster declaration as well.
The governor said state officials were gathering scientific data to back their request for a disaster declaration and trying to determine the reasons for the poor runs.
(Editing By Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)