August 19, 2003
Friday Murkowski conferred by phone with Josh Bolton, director of the federal Office of Management and Budget in Washington, who decided to approve a request by Murkowski to change a key definition in the Trade Adjustment Assistance regulations. By the change Alaska's open water fishermen will finally be able to qualify for part of a $90 million compensation fund for this year being established by the Bush Administration to help workers who have been unfairly affected by competition because of foreign trade.
"Alaska fishermen are farmers. Rather than grow crops in fields, they harvest our seafood crops from the seas. They clearly deserve the exact same aid that farmers receive when they face lower commodity prices because of foreign competition. I have been asking for such assistance for months. By this decision the Administration has understood and accepted our arguments and has decided to give Alaska fishermen the aid they deserve," said Murkowski. "I really appreciate the efforts of the President, of Mr. Bolton at OMB, of Secretary (Ann) Venneman at the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Trade Representatives Office to make this aid a reality for Alaska's thousands of fishermen who directly earn their livings from the sea," she said.
Murkowski said that OMB on Friday formally approved a definitional change in the proposed TAA assistance for farmers so open water fishermen, such as those in Alaska, will qualify for the TAA aid. The aid will formally become available next week after the formal regulation change is published by the Department of Agriculture in the Federal Register.
Murkowski as recently as July 31st had publicly renewed her calls for Alaska fishermen to qualify for the aid when the Senate, without her vote, approved the Chilean Free Trade Agreement, which likely will expand Chilean sales of farmed canned and smoked salmon in America.
As an outgrowth of the approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the approval of the global free trade agreement (GATT), Congress several years ago expanded aid to workers who have been badly impacted by competition because of free trade. Alaska fishermen, who have seen the prices for wild salmon cut in half or worse over the past five years*, have not actually benefited from TAA because they frequently work on boats with fewer than three workers or independently operate their own vessels, selling to local fish processors or canneries not larger corporations. Under the old definitions they generally did not qualify.
Murkowski said under the new definition, most Alaska fishermen should now qualify for federal assistance. Under the program Alaska fishermen may qualify for cash benefits of up to $10,000 annually when 1) increased aquaculture imports have contributed "importantly" to a price decline and 2) the national average price for fish is less than 80 percent of the preceding 5-year average - both conditions already met for most Alaska fishermen.
Murkowski said a key problem is that fishermen, who are currently still fishing, will have a very short time period to apply for the aid. And she added the aid requests may exceed the $90 million available during the rest of this fiscal year, so aid could be prorated at a lower level to all qualified fishermen and farmers. Once the rule is published next week in the Federal Register, fishermen will have to apply no later than Aug. 31, as the available funds to pay the compensation expire on Sept. 30th. Murkowski said the government intends to send out the checks to fishermen in early January 2004. "For too long Alaska fishermen have had nowhere to turn for relief. By this decision we are no longer treating Alaska's fishermen as second-class citizens, compared to American farmers and steel workers. We are not giving fishermen handouts, only the aid they deserve until government and fishermen, working together, can help straighten out the markets for seafood and turn the pricing process around," she said. "But everyone will have to act really quickly to gain this aid for this year," said Murkowski, who urged fishermen to apply as soon as the Federal Register notice is published. Murkowski said her office is in contact with the Department of Agriculture and will have application forms and backup materials at her state offices as soon as they are prepared by the Department, hopefully this week.
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