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Fishermen aid requests inflated

Pacific salmon industry - Congress debates $81 million in relief, but evidence suggests $32 million would suffice
May 21, 2006

With Pacific Coast salmon trollers facing the loss of much of their season, no fewer than three bills have been introduced in Congress calling for $81 million in public money to cover the industry's losses.

Trollers from central California to northern Oregon are being told to drastically reduce fishing this year in a 700-mile stretch of coastline to protect imperiled runs of king salmon to the Klamath River. As a result, they are seeking federal aid for direct payments to fishermen, related business and communities affected by the clipped season.

Yet, real losses to fishermen and their communities are anticipated to be less than half of what is being asked for in Congress. Economists interviewed by The Oregonian, and numbers developed by the federal government, show the real range of the expected losses is more like $28 million to $32 million, based on average revenues from the commercial trollers in the past five years.

Backers of the bills cited at least two sources for the $81 million request, which skeptics said appears rooted more in politics and the lobbying efforts of fishing interests than in economic reality.

"It's the pig-at-the-trough syndrome. Because everybody is so used to thinking that federal money is free and if you are going to ask for something you might as well ask for something bigger," said Hans Radtke, a natural resource economist based on the Oregon Coast. "Politicians love to be in the position of saying yes, we'll get you some money. We'll get you what you need."

Radtke is the former chairman of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which monitors and regulates the health and harvest of ocean fisheries in the Pacific. He is an independent natural resources economist, who still advises the council as a member of the council's scientific and statistical committee.

Whether any of the bills will pass remains unclear. Proponents face growing skepticism in the face of a rising federal deficit and competition on other fronts, such as money to rebuild New Orleans and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sen. Gordon Smith introduced one of three bills April 25, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, asking for the $81 million. He said last week that the money might not be enough.

"I am going to do every thing I can to help the fishermen. It's the right thing to do. We have fishermen without a fishing season and they need aid as soon as possible," he said in a written statement. "These are preliminary numbers, and they may require more. I am going to keep working until these struggling communities have what they need."

His insistence on the need for higher amounts was echoed by Glen Spain, who was lobbying for relief in Washington, D.C., last week. Spain is with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.

The $81 million "is quite reasonable,." he said. "We cannot dither for a year while people can't pay their mortgages and feed their families."

In each of the three bills there is language requiring the return of any money not used or obligated to be returned to the Treasury. Such returns, however, are rare, congressional staffers agreed.

Staff from three membersof Oregon's congressional delegation all said they believed the $81 million number came from the governors' offices in Oregon and California.

A spokesman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski said his office gave a figure of $20 million for the loss to Oregon, while a spokesman for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said his office estimated $60 million for losses to California.

But the California number assumed a complete closure of the ocean salmon fishing season from Cape Falcon in Oregon down to Point Sur in California, said Sonke Mastrup, with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The Oregon number assumed only a partial closure, but added extra cash for "unforeseen impacts that might require attention," according to Lonn Hoklin, a spokesman for the Kulongoski.

But federal projections by ocean fishery managers, like those of Radtke and the Corvallis-based Research Group, are far lower than the $81 million proffered in Congress. Projections by the federal government are that the value of this year's catch will be down about 63 percent from the five-year average, or about $31 million to $32 million, according to calculations by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which closely monitors and advises the federal government on setting fishing seasons off the Pacific Coast.

Smith's office called to verify the $81 million with the council, said Jim Seger, an economic analysis coordinator with the council. Seger said the higher number could be justified, but only by going back into the 1980s and 1990s and averaging out a longer period than the more recent five-year average.

Shannon Davis, with the Research Group, said relief requests should face economic analysis and not simply be added into legislation without solid research. Davis worked with Radtke on his analysis of the 2006 relief numbers.

"You want to see some rigor in this thing. You don't want to have somebody just cutting a fat hog," Davis said. "If they need some assistance because things happened not of their making . . . I think we're all generous about that, but you want the amounts and the programs justified."

Officials with the U.S. Department of Commerce are now doing their own economic study to determine the extent of losses to the Pacific trolling fleet, said Jeff Donald, a spokesman for the department.

Kulongoski, along with Oregon and California congressional delegations, have asked the U.S. secretary of commerce to declare a commercial fishery failure. That would allow for federal payments to fishermen. A similar request last year due to a reduced salmon trolling season was turned down.

Peter Sleeth: 503-294-4119; petersleeth@news.oregonian.com




Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:15 AM  Pacific

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