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Poor walrus harvest leads to economic disaster for Bering Strait island

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Posted: Saturday, August 31, 2013 9:08 am | Updated: 9:20 am, Sat Aug 31, 2013.

JUNEAU, Alaska — Gov. Sean Parnell has declared an economic disaster for residents living on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.

Parnell said he made the declaration because of a historically low walrus harvest, which is causing a significant economic challenge to the residents of Gambell and Savoonga.

Parnell said only 340 walrus were taken during the spring harvest, or 36 percent of the average for the last 10 years.

"Carved walrus ivory is a significant regional economic driver," Parnell wrote in a letter to Senate President Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, and House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski. "Walrus also provide a critical subsistence food source for local residents."

Alaska law doesn't allow any immediate access to emergency funds.

However, the Alaska Legislature could appropriate money for assistance grants, and Parnell could recommend in his budget that capital projects in the area be accelerated and new projects be funded.

Figures provided in the declaration estimate the 2013 family income in Gambell is $35,876, below the federal adjusted cost-of-living poverty guidelines of $50,271. The estimated income in Savoonga is $38,007, compared to its adjusted federal poverty guideline of $47,293.

Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Commissioner Susan Bell has compiled a list of possible aid programs which St. Lawrence Islands residents might qualify.

"To ensure residents received the assistance they need in the coming year, the list includes not only State and federal programs, but also nonprofit, Native corporation and regional economic development organizations that offer help with food and utilities, as well as tools to assist business," Parnell wrote.

Staff from divisions of economic development and community and regional affairs will coordinate assistance with community members and leaders, along with tools to assist local businesses.

"I look forward to working with the Legislature to ensure the residents of St. Lawrence Island receive what they need to rebuild their economy," Parnell said in the letter to Huggins and Chenault.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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