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Commerce Secretary Releases $53.1 Million in Salmon Disaster Relief

by Dan Bacher
U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has extended the 2008 West Coast salmon disaster declaration for California and Oregon in response to expected poor returns of Chinook salmon in the Central Valley rivers this year.
Commerce Secretary Releases $53.1 Million in Salmon Disaster Relief

By Dan Bacher

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke announced Thursday that he would release $53.1 million in badly-needed disaster funds to assist California and Oregon communities devastated by the second year of salmon fishery closures along the coast.

Locke said he is extending the 2008 West Coast salmon disaster declaration for California and Oregon in response to expected poor salmon returns to the Sacramento River.

“Salmon returns are expected to be near record lows again this year,” said Secretary Locke. “The extension of the disaster declaration will ensure that aid will be available to affected fisherman and their families to help offset the economic impact of the closure of the commercial fisheries.”

Locke said funds can also aid fishing-related businesses, such as ice and bait and tackle suppliers, who are struggling with the financial effects of the closure.

Only 66,264 adult Chinooks returned to spawn in the Sacramento River and its tributaries in the fall of 2008, the lowest number on record. Federal and state biologists estimate that this year’s run will be better, but even without any fishing only 122,196 fish are expected to return to the Sacramento River this fall. The Sacramento run numbered nearly 800,000 fish only seven years ago.

Locket said NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service will work with the states and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission to distribute the $53.1 million in remaining salmon aid from last year’s $170 million Congressional appropriation to help fishing communities impacted by the poor returns. Of the remaining $53.1 million, Locke has allocated approximately $46.4 million to California and $6.7 million to Oregon.

Last year President George W. Bush tried to raid $70 million of the salmon disaster relief in order to pay for the U.S. Census, but bi-partisan opposition to the move spearheaded by Congressman Mike Thompson prevented Bush from taking the money away from working fishermen and woman.

Representatives of commercial and recreational fishing groups were glad that the relief was released, but used the disaster declaration as a call to action to restore salmon populations.

“It’s fitting that the disaster declaration occurs on May Day, an international call of distress,” said Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “It is also fitting that May Day is International Workers Day – these funds will benefit working fishermen and women impacted by the salmon closures.”

Regarding whether there are any plans to seek further funds for salmon disaster relief, Grader doesn’t see that in the cards now. “Our feeling is that the funds appropriated by Congress last year were enough to last for these two years,” said Grader.

He said instead that the PCFFA is concentrating on establishing a “National Fishery Trust Fund” that would dovetail with the existing Sport Fish Restoration Funds, provided by an excise tax on fishing tackle and boating supplies. “We look to assess a fee on all seafood sold in the U.S. to pay for research, make investments in fishing communities and to provide matching funds to the Sport Fish Restoration Fund,” he stated. “We are currently trying to generate interest for the fund in Congress.”

"The disaster relief funding is a welcome announcement for over 1,000 California businesses that rely on salmon mainly for their livelihood," said Dick Pool, administrator of Water for Fish and a member of the California Department of Fish and Game's disaster relief advisory committee. "It won't match the funds from 2008, but will hopefully maintain the majority of the infrastructure for the recreational and commercial salmon fishing industry for another year. The industry welcomes the temporary relief, but what we really need is our salmon back."

NOAA fishery biologists continue to persist in their contention that the 2008 collapse was “triggered primarily by climatic conditions that produced little food in the ocean, compounded by too much reliance on fish produced in hatcheries instead of the wild,” as stated in a Department of Commerce press release.

“NOAA will continue to work with the states and our partners in the region on habitat and hatchery issues that may be contributing to the difficult fishery management problems that the Sacramento River system has been experiencing,” claimed Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator.

It is revealing that she didn’t say a word about increases in water exports and declining water quality– factors that a broad coalition of recreational fishing groups, commercial fishing groups, conservationists and independent scientists contend helped spur the salmon collapse. Although ocean conditions certainly played a role in the sudden decline, Lubchenco’s failure to mention water exports and declining water quality as factors to be addressed is very problematic.

Salmon advocates believe that Lubchenco and NOAA scientists, by chanting the “ocean conditions" mantra as the reason for the collapse, are continuing in the Bush administration tradition of avoiding any responsibility for the decline. However, this contention diverges dramatically with a rewritten draft “biological opinion” issued by the same agency in December. That report concluded that increases in Delta exports and the operation of Shasta Dam and other reservoirs pose “jeopardy” to the continued existence of imperiled Central Valley spring-run and winter-run salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon and the southern resident killer whale population.

The state and federal governments have thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at “salmon restoration” projects in the Cal-Fed program and other fiascos that have yielded little tangible results while salmon and steelhead populations, with the exception of the Butte Creek spring Chinook run, have declined.

“What the salmon need to recover is not more dollars,” quipped Grader, “but more water. Fish need water to swim.”

The Closures: Commercial salmon fishing in ocean waters off northern California and southern Oregon is closed for the second year in a row, due to the collapse of Sacramento River fall run chinook salmon. Recreational ocean salmon fishing is closed also with the exception of a 10-day season in late August and early September from the California-Oregon border to Horse Mountain. Salmon fishing is banned in all Central Valley rivers, including the Feather, American and Yuba rivers, with the exception of a season on the Sacramento River from Red Bluff to Knights Landing from November 16 through December 31. A synopsis of the final regulations is available online:
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