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California-Oregon Fishery 'Failure' Declaration Triggers Financial Aid

By Steve Chawkins, LA Times, August 11, 2006
Federal officials Thursday declared a "commercial fishery failure" along a 700-mile stretch of California and Oregon coastline, triggering a process that will bring financial aid to fishermen and communities ravaged by the virtual shutdown of the commercial salmon season.

It is only the second time a fishery has been so clearly stricken that the government has deemed it a failure even before the season's end, officials said.

Last month, the federal government made salmon fishermen eligible for emergency loans from the Small Business Administration a move that was criticized as inadequate by many in the fishing community. Congress is currently considering a $10-million appropriation for communities hit by the season's virtual shutdown, although one Northern California congressman has estimated the loss at more than $80 million.

Thursday's declaration by Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez is designed to prompt speedy congressional approval of grants to an industry whose revenues have plunged by more than 80% since the season started in May, according to Commerce officials.

Fishermen on Thursday said help can't arrive too soon.

The failure designation "acknowledges the obvious," said Dave Bitts, 58, of McKinleyville, Calif.

"This year has been a disaster," he said. "I've had virtually no income from the salmon fishery, and it's usually half or more of my annual income. A lot of people especially younger people saddled with loans are going crazy trying to figure out how not to lose their boats."

In April, the government imposed severe restrictions on salmon fishing from Oregon's Point Falcon to Point Sur in California. At issue were the plummeting numbers of salmon swimming into the ocean from the once-productive Klamath River, which empties into the sea south of Crescent City, Calif.

Hundreds of thousands of young salmon have been killed there by parasites, which, according to some biologists, flourish because of the dams that block the river's natural currents and the irrigation that reduces its typical flows.

Others aren't sure why the parasites thrive.

For the idled fishermen, the more immediate question is how much aid Congress will deliver after it receives formal requests from the governors of California and Oregon. The Commerce Department has pegged the loss of revenue to the fishermen at $16 million, but officials say an appropriation would also include relief for dock operators, fish processors, gas stations and other businesses that rely on the salmon harvest.

"It's two years too late, but it's still good to have," said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Assns. "We warned them in July 2004 that there was a problem at hand, but they chose to ignore it."

Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) said the problems experienced by the fishermen in his Northern California district have been "devastating."

"Families have lost their homes," he said. He also said he knows of fishermen desperate to learn new trades who have been forced to drop out of school for lack of cash.

Thompson has been pushing for an aid package of about $81 million. On Thursday, he said that figure might not be far from the amount that will be requested by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

In addition to helping the fishermen, he said, Congress must also help the ailing Klamath River. He and other critics blasted a 2002 Bush administration decision to channel more of the Klamath's water to agriculture, saying it made the salmon's survival more difficult.

Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) sounded the same note.

"Salmon fishermen were being unfairly penalized for mishandling of the Klamath River habitat," he said in a statement.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) is a member of the appropriations committee that approved $10 million in aid last month. She said the government's unusually swift declaration "underscores the seriousness of the disaster."

Since the early 1980s, the salmon fishery on the West Coast has been deemed an economic disaster at least twice.

Some in the industry fear that severe restrictions on salmon catches will remain in place next year as well.

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