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Feds release millions in salmon disaster aid for West Coast fishermen

September 17, 2008,  by Michael Milstein, The Oregonian

Federal officials released $100 million in disaster aid Wednesday for fishermen and related businesses hurt by the shutdown of West Coast ocean salmon fishing this summer -- and warned that next year might not be much better.

About $25 million will go to Oregon, $12 million to Washington and $62 million to California. The breakdown is based on the projected economic impact of the shutdown in each state.

An additional $70 million in aid will be released once that money is spent, officials said.

Commercial fishermen, processors, wholesalers, charter boat owners and related businesses such as motels are eligible to apply for aid. NOAA Fisheries, a federal agency, provided the money as a grant to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, which will distribute the money.

Get applications and information on the disaster assistance.

Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez issued a fishery disaster declaration in May, and Congress appropriated the $170 million in disaster relief in July.

The shutdown was triggered primarily by the collapse of Sacramento River fall chinook salmon, a mainstay of West Coast salmon fishing. Roughly 80 percent of salmon caught off Oregon each summer come from the Sacramento River.

A task force of scientists is assessing the cause of the collapse, but most experts think the key factor was unusually warm ocean conditions that knocked the bottom out of the marine food chain when young salmon first went to sea. That left them little to eat.

Though ocean conditions have improved, that's unlikely to translate into stronger chinook returns for another two years, said Robert Lohn, NOAA Fisheries regional director. That means offshore fishing is likely to face limits again next year to protect the ailing Sacramento stocks.

All indications so far are that "next year will be another poor year," Lohn said.

Managers will not set next year's offshore fishing season until biologists learn how many fall chinook return to the Sacramento. The number is expected to be at record lows.

-- Michael Milstein; michaelmilstein@news.oregonian.com

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