Pre-statehood Fishermen’s Fund Remains True to Course
The Alaska’s Fishermen’s Fund paid out more than $8 million in benefits to members of the Last Frontier’s commercial fleet in the last decade, helping cover their medical costs and getting them back to work.
Established in 1951 during the 20th Territorial Legislature and signed into law by Governor Ernest Gruening, the Alaska Fishermen’s Fund is the only pre-statehood dedicated fund still in existence in the 49th State.
“Since inception, the Alaska Fishermen’s Fund has successfully stood the test of time and has benefited thousands of injured mariners. It is exciting to recognize this unique Alaskan institution for seventy years of operation,” Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Tamika L. Ledbetter says.
The 1920 Jones Act for decades was the primary legal path forward for Alaskan commercial fishermen to receive compensation for injuries at work. The Alaska Fishermen’s Fund offers an alternative way for commercial fishermen to receive medical compensation for injuries.
“Vessel owners in Alaska aren’t required to have any type of work-related coverage for a crew member,” says Velma Thomas, a program coordinator for the State of Alaska and administrator for the Alaska Fishermen’s Fund. “And so, in essence, their remedy under the Jones Act would be to take the vessel owner to court.”
Instead of crewmembers needing to sue vessel owners, they can apply for benefits through the Alaska Fishermen’s Fund. The fund can be used to cover costs associated with medical treatment visits, hospitalization, prescriptions, therapy, and transportation related to medical care and treatment.
It is only open to crewmembers who have a valid commercial fishing license or limited entry permit before the time of the injury.
“We can approve benefits up to $10,000 as long as they qualify,” Thomas says of the fund administrators. “Anything beyond $10,000, a simple letter requesting additional benefits beyond that would be reviewed by our counsel.”
In addition to reviewing requests for more than $10,000, the five-member council also looks through all the cases in which administrators have denied benefits to ensure that nothing was missed that would allow them to approve a request.
The fund has approved more than 13,000 claims in the last decade.
Every year, 39 percent of money derived from the commercial fishing licenses—with a cap of $50 per license holder—is invested in the fund. A percent of the fees for limited entry permits are also put in the fund.
The fund currently sits at about $12.8 million, explains Thomas.
“The Fund has remained true to its mission to provide emergency medical benefits to crewmen injured while commercial fishing in Alaska. Commercial fishing can be a hazardous industry and the Fishermen’s Fund remains committed to meeting the needs of injured commercial fishermen,” states a news release commemorating the fund’s 70th anniversary.
Commercial fishing off the coast of Kodiak.
While the Alaska Fishermen’s Fund has weathered the storms of time, there have been a few small but important adjustments to better meet its intended goals.
“A lot of the fishermen that get injured … they want to keep fishing until the season is over,” Thomas says. “Because of that we actually requested to extend the time for them to seek initial treatment from 60 days to 120 days.”
While that change was made in 2020, a decade earlier the Alaska Fishermen’s Fund raised the benefit limit per injury/illness from $2,500 to $10,000.
Thomas recalls helping one fisherman who was injured at the docks. He’d taken a fall and done serious damage to his back. There was a large claim to cover the medical costs. But, with the help of the Alaska Fishermen’s Fund he was eventually—two years later—able to return to commercial fishing.
“The fishing industry can be very dangerous,” Thomas says, before reiterating how important it is that the state helps fishermen injured on the job with treatment and care.
“Since inception, the Alaska Fishermen’s Fund has successfully stood the test of time and has benefited thousands of injured mariners. It is exciting to recognize this unique Alaskan institution for seventy years of operation.”