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Schwarzenegger backs $35 mil. relief package for Calif. fishermen

TERENCE CHEA , Mercury News

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday announced a $35 million relief package to help California fishermen impacted by the federal government's decision to severely restrict salmon fishing along the West Coast.

The governor said he asked state Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley, and Sen. Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, to introduce legislation that would offer $5 million in grants, $20 million in no-interest loans and $10 million in loan guarantees to fishermen and businesses who depend on salmon fishing.

"I think this will be tremendous help for the fishermen and those communities," Schwarzenegger said during a conference call with reporters. The fishing restrictions "will literally wipe them out if they don't get help. Those families depend on fishing."

Chesbro said he was "very optimistic" the bill would win Senate and Assembly approval and get the governor's signature in August after Legislature returns from its summer recess. The assistance would become available immediately once the governor signs the bill, he said.

"The administration in Washington has singled-handedly created this disaster. Now it's up to the state of California to help our people," said Chesbro, who blamed the federal government for mismanaging the Klamath River, whose poor salmon returns led to the curtailed salmon fishing season.

Schwarzenegger also added San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara and Trinity counties to a list of 10 counties where he proclaimed a state of emergency earlier this month. The proclamation ordered the state Department of Finance to provide $10 million in loan guarantees to fishermen affected by the restrictions.

California fishermen welcomed news of the relief package, and hoped the move would get Washington's attention.

"It's going to provide some badly needed relief," said Zeke Grader, who heads the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association. "It may be the thing that spurs the federal government to act."

The Bush administration sharply restricted commercial fishing in April to protect the dwindling population of endangered chinook salmon in the Klamath River.

Under the new rules, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials say they expect about 40 percent of the normal catch on the West Coast this year. But salmon fishermen expect only 10 percent of normal in the 700-mile stretch of Oregon and Northern California affected by the restrictions.

In Washington, California and Oregon lawmakers, frustrated with the Bush administration's failure to declare a West Coast fishery disaster, resorted to guerrilla tactics Thursday as they forced a meeting with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

At least seven lawmakers from the two states waited for Gutierrez as he went to testify on an unrelated matter, and then they met briefly with him behind closed doors.

While they received no guarantees, lawmakers emerged far happier than after a contentious meeting earlier in the week with officials of the NOAA, which is part of the Commerce Department.

"Night and day," said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif. While NOAA officials were "completely unhelpful" on Tuesday, Gutierrez at least promised to review the situation and get back to Congress with answers, Thompson and other lawmakers said.

Richard Mills, a spokesman for Gutierrez, said the secretary was happy to meet with the lawmakers - however it came about.

"The bottom line is we're fully aware of the problems our fishermen are facing, and we want to find a solution that strikes the right balance as soon as possible," Mills said.

The meeting comes one day after the House - at the insistence of West Coast lawmakers - approved $2 million for salmon fishermen suffering from the sharply curtailed fishing season. The money is a fraction of the $81 million West Coast lawmakers want, but they hope the vote will keep the door open to add more money later.

Thompson and other lawmakers said Thursday that Gutierrez promised to turn over copies of a May 19 memo from NOAA's regional office in California. The memo, which recommends that he declare the West Coast salmon season a disaster, was rejected by NOAA officials in Washington, who sent it back. NOAA Administrator Conrad C. Lautenbacher declined to release the memo to lawmakers this week, calling it an internal matter.

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Associated Press Writer Matthew Daly contributed to this report from Washington

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


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