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Trollers want disaster declared

Hallmark Fisheries worker Harry Moulton brushes ice from a Chinook salmon at the plant in Charleston in December 2006, prior to the closure of the state season for commercial fishing near Port Orford. Many South Coast commercial trollers are asking for the 2007 season to be declared a disaster, too '€” but not because of a closure. Instead, it'€™s because the fish didn'€™t show up this year.World File Photo

History of disaster salmon seasons

Oregon commercial trollers are requesting the 2007 salmon season be declared a disaster.

The 2006 season was considered a regulatory closure. Federal fishery managers eliminated seasons in Southern Oregon and Northern California in the hopes of allowing more fish to return to the Klamath River to spawn.

This year, fishermen went to sea for much of the year but came back often with their fish holds nearly empty. They don'€™t consider it a regulatory problem but, rather, a natural disaster.

Last year'€™s formal declaration of a salmon disaster wasn'€™t the first for Pacific Northwest salmon, but it was the largest in terms of appropriated funds. There were three others, according to the Congressional Research Service:

* In 1994, $12 million was appropriated for industry assistance in the form of fishing permit buybacks, habitat restoration jobs and data collection jobs.

* Again, in 1995, $13 million was made available for industry assistance in the form of permit buybacks and habitat restoration and data collection jobs.

* In 1998, $3.5 million was appropriated for a fishing buyback program.

* In 2007, $60.4 million was appropriated for various kinds of assistance to the industry due to regulatory limits and closures in 2006.

Fishermen say the past three years have been rough, between three months of the season being closed completely in 2005, the extended closures in 2006 and the loss of fish in 2007. The industry has paid the price in terms of fishermen losing their boats, infrastructure such as ice plants closing, and fishermen leaving the industry.

* In 2004, the most recent year in which there was a full season, 595 vessels delivered Chinook for a total value of $9.9 million and an $16,672 per vessel.

* In 2005, when June, July and August were closed to commercial catch on the South Coast, 565 boats caught fish for a total value of $8.5 million and an average of $15,077 per boat.

* In 2006, some South Coast fishermen traveled north, where the season was open above Florence. A total of 358 fishermen participated for a total value of $2.7 million and an average of $7,545 per boat.

* This year, 2007, most of the season was open, but only 424 boats fished. The total value for all the fish delivered to processors was $2.7 million '€” the same as in 2006 '€” but the average income per vessel dropped to $6,378.

'€” Susan Chambers, staff writer

CHARLESTON — Disaster checks for 2006 are barely in the bank and local salmon trollers already are asking that the 2007 season also be declared a failure.

“It turned out costing the fleet more money to have a season with no fish than no season with fish,” commercial fisherman Rick Goche said Thursday.

Fishermen were shocked when the season opened in April. Many were expecting their lines would be vibrating with fish after not being able to fish in 2006.

But were they ever in for a shock.

Catches were sporadic.

The fish were relatively small.

The catches, even smaller.

“Nobody could believe there were no fish,” Goche said.

The situation was so unbelievable that fishermen didn’t give up. It’s not uncommon to find only few fish in April, but later in the summer and fall, nothing changed.

They set to sea again and again, only to be disappointed.

“Everybody who went early on in the season were losing money,” Goche said, “with very few exceptions.”

Goche lives in Coquille and fishes the Peso II out of Charleston. His strategy was different. He chose to wait.

“The reports were so bad that I didn’t even wet a hook. I just kept trying not to spend money until the tuna showed up,” he said.

And it’s mostly tuna money carrying him through the winter.

By the numbers

Fishermen find the numbers as hard evidence of what they experienced on the ocean.

Preliminary figures from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife show that, indeed, the average income per vessel was worse in 2007 than it was in 2006 — the year when there was no season at all for commercial fishermen south of Florence.

The department shows that more fishermen delivered salmon this year — 424 — than in 2006, when only 358 boats brought fish to the dock.

However, the total value to the fishermen for this year’s season was only slightly higher: $2,704,296 vs. $2,701,269 — a difference of little more than $3,000.

“In that respect, those dollars, spread over more boats and more effort, as far as the salmon troll fleet was concerned, it was a costlier disaster than ’06,” Goche said.

He’s written e-mails to lawmakers and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, requesting a disaster declaration — or, at the very least, a meeting to discuss the matter.

Through Oct. 28, three days before the end of the season, Oregon fishermen caught 34,729 Chinook coastwide. Last year, 31,892 Chinook were caught, but only in the area between Florence and the Washington border.

“The volume of fish was not there,” Charleston fisherman Brendan Bates said.

Bates fishes the F/V Pacific Marit and depends on other fisheries for a living. He’s now working on his crab gear, like many other fishermen, anticipating the opening of the Dungeness season in December. Some of his friends say his boat caught more fish than most on the coast.

Still, it was below Bates’ personal expectations.

“It was bad,” Bates said. “It sounds like a disaster to me.”

The 2006 disaster

The 2006 season, in which federal fisheries managers closed much of the Southern Oregon Coast and Northern California Coast to salmon fishing, was officially a disaster. Fishermen also tried to have 2005, when June, July and August on the South Coast were completely closed to commercial fishermen, declared a disaster, to no avail.

But last year’s predicament was a political mess. The complete closure was readily identified by lawmakers as a problem. Congressmen in both states  asked and asked again for an official declaration from the U.S. Department of Commerce. It finally came late in the year, but the next hurdle was money.

At the end of 2006, no federal money was appropriated to help trollers out of a bad spot. The state stepped up, but it was only a stop-gap measure, enough to allow fishermen to pay for some moorage, a cell phone bill, a liferaft repack or a month or two of credit card bills.

It wasn’t until May of this year — thanks to a bill appropriating funds for the Iraq War — that federal money was made available.

President Bush signed the bill that made $60.4 million available to salmon fishing businesses in Oregon and California. Oregon’s share was about $24 million for boats, gear shops, processors, etc.

The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission has distributed about $9.8 million in disaster funds to Oregon fishermen. About $462,000 has been doled out to processors and $81,500 to related businesses, commission Executive Director Randy Fisher said.

“We’ve set the world record in terms of getting federal money out,” he said.

California fishermen have yet to see a dime. The commission and the California Department of Fish and Game had to work out some computer system details before funds could start flowing south. Fisher said the glitches should be worked out this week.

The Oregon salmon industry has until Dec. 31 to file for money.

“Oregon fishermen have been really good to work with,” Fisher said.

Political pressure

Fisher said fishermen may be facing an uphill battle when it comes to getting this year declared a disaster.

“To me, the chances are so slim,” he said.

Passing muster with the public may be even more difficult.

Some critics see trollers driving late-model trucks and taking vacations and ask what the money really went for.

“They got their salmon checks, paid their bills and parked their boats,” Hallmark Fisheries Production Manager Scott Adams said.

His concern is more about the greater industry: the businesses, the deckhands, the gear stores and ice plants.

“That’s where the governor should start,” Adams said, “with all the businesses in town.”

Some fishermen, though, are still struggling.

Jeff Reeves, one of the trollers who worked with lawmakers last year, said his disaster check barely covered accrued bills. He drives the same truck he has for a few years and he has yet to get a new generator for his boat before crab season.

He plans to appeal the amount of his salmon check.

“In my opinion, this season is worse than 2006,” Reeves said.

Like Goche, he depended on better tuna fishing, spending weeks at sea, farther offshore, instead of wasting fuel trying to find the salmon.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act was reauthorized in 2006 and amended to include the Regional coastal Disaster Assistance, Transition and Recovery Program, according to an Oct. 15 Congressional Research Report for Congress on commercial fishery disaster assistance.

“A catastrophic regional fishery disaster is defined as a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or tsunami, or a regulatory closure to protect human health or the marine environment,” the report says. A declaration of a commercial fishery failure by the U.S. secretary of commerce under section 312(a) of the MSFCMA would qualify.

It goes on to say, “Salmon fisheries are sensitive to natural changes in oceanic conditions; however, especially for salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest, salmon abundance has also been affected by environmental degradation resulting from dams, irrigation, grazing, mining and forestry practices.”

And that is what trollers are hoping the governor, lawmakers and the Secretary of Commerce will pay attention to.

Two years of regulatory closures followed by fewer fish being caught should qualify, they say.

“Though the 2007 numbers ... are preliminary, the season is long past and those numbers will change very little,” Goche wrote to the governor’s office in an e-mail.

“They certainly will not change enough to show 2007 as anything but another complete disaster for Oregon salmon fishermen.”

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