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No help from feds for idled salmon fishermen

David Whitney McClatchy News Service, 12/13/06 The Tribune

WASHINGTON Ė Congress adjourned over the weekend without sending any disaster assistance to commercial fisherman idled this year by the nearly total closure of the salmon season off the California and Oregon coasts.

But in what may be a precedent, it ordered federal fishery managers to write a plan for the recovery of the endangered coho salmon runs in the Klamath River, the wellspring of problems that caused the fishery closures.

The salmon fishery was severely reduced this spring because of forecasts that salmon would be returning to spawn in the Klamath in numbers below what is needed for healthy propagation.

Because itís impossible for fishermen to distinguish between a Klamath River salmon and fish from other rivers, the shortened commercial season meant closures from Morro Bay along the central California coast to the Columbia River.

The closures not only idled the salmon fleets but the fuel dealers, ice providers and other enterprises that serve the commercial boats. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez declared a fishery failure in August because catches were expected to tumble to 88 percent of average.

Later, Gutierrez appealed personally to Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, to include $60 million in emergency assistance to the fishing industry. That appeal followed letters by Oregon and California governors and lawmakers, the California Chamber of Commerce, the Klamath Water Users Association and others asking for the emergency aid this year.

But Congress adjourned last weekend without passing a spending bill or including any money in temporary measures to keep the government funded through mid February.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said the emergency aid fell victim to postelection politics, where congressional leaders decided not to open the temporary measure to disaster earmarks. Had they done so for the fishermen, Thompson said, it would have opened the floodgates on billions of dollars in farm aid.

Thompson said it is unclear how early Congress will be able to act next year.

That was worrisome to the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermenís Associations.

"We need some sort of supplemental disaster bill early in the next Congress," said Glen Spain, the federationís northwest regional director. "If this has to go through the full process next year, fishermen will go a full year without assistance. The whole infrastructure already is in danger and teetering on collapse."

More than 1,000 commercial fishing boats in the two states depend upon the salmon season for much of their income. Spain said they have been helped in California by a good crab season, but not all fishermen and businesses benefit from that.

Thompson said the 2007 commercial salmon season could further compound the problems because runs are also expected to remain low next year.

"The sad thing is, this was a manmade disaster," Thompson said.

Federal management of the water in the Klamath River has been blamed for the spread of parasites that killed thousands of salmon in 2002 and 2003.

The one bit of good news for fishermen was the inclusion of a provision in a federal fisheries bill requiring the National Marine Fisheries Service to complete in six months a recovery plan for Klamath River coho salmon.

"Weíve never done that before," Thompson said. But he said the coho was listed as endangered in 1997, and still nothing has been done to protect the fish as its numbers fall.

"They have got to figure out a better water policy," Thompson said. The fisheries bill is on its way to the White House for the presidentís signature.


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