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Salmon harvest will be slashed; Klamath's woes force cuts for the thriving Sacramento run

 

Sacramento Bee 5/31/05

By David Whitney, staff writer

WASHINGTON - Salmon fishermen from Northern California and Oregon are facing steep cuts in their harvest this summer, a result they blame on warm water and low flows in the Klamath River in 2002 that killed off a sizable number of young fish that should be returning to spawn this year.

Fishery advocates said the cuts, up to half of last year's commercial ocean season harvest in some areas, are especially damaging this summer because fall chinook returning on the Sacramento River to spawn are forecast to hit record numbers.

Because salmon stocks mingle in the ocean as they head back to their native rivers to spawn, harvest restrictions to preserve the few returning Klamath River fish mean that huge numbers of Sacramento River returns - perhaps a million or more - will go unfished.

The restrictions, which vary by coastal location, will slice the number of days open to commercial fishermen by up to half.

"There's going to be fish washing up on the banks of the Sacramento River system that are basically going unused," said Chuck Tracy, salmon staff officer in Portland, Ore., for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets West Coast fishing seasons.

Exactly how bad it will be is unclear, but some estimates put the damage at $100 million or more. It's not just the value of the fish, but processing and service-industry jobs as well. Millions of dollars more will be lost in the sport fishing and tourism industries, fishery managers say.

The developing situation has extensive and bitter political undercurrents.

The Klamath chinook collapse four years ago occurred at a time when, faced with a drought, federal water managers had to balance Klamath River water distributions between protected fish and angry Klamath basin farmers.

Now the Bush administration, through the Commerce Department and its fisheries arm, has to decide whether the consequence of providing more water for farmers created an economic disaster for fishermen. If they find that it did, the Republican-controlled Congress will have to decide how much federal taxpayers will pay to compensate for those policies.

Stirred into this boiling political cauldron is the federal Endangered Species Act, which is a key part of the mix in determining water flows to protect endangered fish on both the Sacramento and Klamath rivers.

Federal efforts to improve flow and wildlife habitat along the Sacramento have resulted in improved fish returns. This year, three times as many chinook are expected in the river system than 20 years ago. A staggering 1.68 million salmon are expected when, according to federal fishery biologists, only 180,000 or so are needed to spawn an average 2009 run.

By contrast, the return of spawning 4-year-old chinook on the Klamath will be the worst in 20 years, and roughly a third of what returned last year.

Federal fisheries managers anticipate a Klamath run of 48,000, which is just 13,000 more than needed to spawn an average 2009 run.

"The Sacramento River run has been an Endangered Species Act success story," said Glen Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "The Klamath River is an ESA disaster."

In 2001, the Bureau of Reclamation angered Klamath Basin farmers by turning off irrigation supplies to save fish. By the next spring, the agency reversed course under pressure from Republican lawmakers and the Bush administration, and river flows dropped to preserve water for irrigators.

This was the very period that little fish that should be this year's chinook harvest were getting their start. Spawned by returning 2001 adults, the juvenile fish encountered low flows and warm water on their way out to sea in early 2002, and most didn't make it.

Later that fall, more than 30,000 returning adult chinook also turned up diseased and dead in lower reaches of the river.

The Federation of Fishermen's Associations, one of the harshest critics of the Bush administration over Klamath policy, jumped on the forecast of weak 2005 returns last year, and in a letter to President Bush last July asked for preparations for economic disaster relief.

"The low flows causing the fish kill were the direct result of actions taken by the Klamath Irrigation Project, operated by the Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation, which diverted water from the river that year that was needed for fish survival," wrote W.F. "Zeke" Grader Jr., the association's executive director.

That letter triggered an economic disaster study under way by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries arm. The study is required for the administration to issue an economic fisheries disaster determination, a precursor to a congressional relief package.

Eric Chavez, a sustainable fisheries specialist for the agency in California who is doing the report, said part of the calculus will be the foregone fishing opportunities on the huge Sacramento run.

"Part of the fishermen's frustration is knowing that all those salmon will be out there but can't be fished because of the need to protect the Klamath numbers," he said.

He said the study is precedent-setting in that never before has the agency been called upon to make a determination so early in the process. The salmon season, which runs through the fall, only recently opened.

When asked if a disaster declaration can be made before a season ends, Chavez said: "That's a good question. This has never been done before."

Democratic lawmakers from California and Oregon already are pounding on the administration's door over the situation.

In a letter May 12 to Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, all 37 Democrats from the two states demanded completion of the economic disaster finding by June 1, in time for Congress to include disaster relief in spending bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, said his office contacted Republicans from both states urging them to join in on the letter but all declined. #

http://www.sacbee.com/content/politics/story/12983923p-13830922c.html

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