Saturday, 25 May 2024

Commerce secretary extends disaster declarations, releases millions in disaster funds

NORTH COAST With salmon populations still showing troubling declines, the federal government announced Thursday that it is extending fishing restrictions to protect the fish.

 

US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said Thursday he was extending the 2008 West Coast salmon disaster declaration for California and Oregon in response to expected poor salmon returns to the Sacramento River, which have led to management reducing commercial salmon fishing off southern Oregon and California to near zero.

 

Locke also announced that he would release $53.1 million in disaster funds to aid fishing communities.

 

“Salmon returns are expected to be near record lows again this year. 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,” said Secretary Locke. “These funds can also aid fishing-related businesses, such as ice and bait suppliers, who may struggle with the financial effects of the closure.”

 

Locke’s announcement followed the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s April 8 recommendation that California’s commercial salmon fisheries be closed for the 2009 season. Following its recommendations, California's Fish and Game Commission took action to close recreational ocean fishing.

 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will formally adopt the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s full recommendations, made in April, halting virtually all commercial salmon harvests off the West Coast south of Cape Falcon, Ore. A recreational coho fishery and a limited commercial fishery will be allowed off Oregon. Salmon season formally begins May 1.

 

On April 21, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oregon Governor Theodore Kulongoski sent a letter to Locke, requesting the disaster declaration extension of additional federal aid for those impacted by the closure. Schwarzenegger also declared a state of emergency in California in response to the salmon situation.

 

On Thursday, Schwarzenegger thanked Locke for taking the action. “California’s salmon are not only a vital part of our state’s overall economy, they directly affect the livelihoods of thousands of California fisherman and their families.”

 

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service will work with the states and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission to distribute the $53 million in remaining salmon aid from last year’s $170 million Congressional appropriation to help fishing communities affected by the poor returns.

 

Based on the economic impact, of the remaining $53 million, Locke has allocated approximately $46.4 million to California and $6.7 million to Oregon.

 

Sacramento River Fall-run Chinook are the foundation of the West Coast’s commercial salmon harvest and in typical years 400,000 to 600,000 of them return to spawn. Under current federally approved rules for managing the ocean salmon fishery, a minimum of 122,000 Sacramento River Fall Chinook must be predicted to return to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system before any harvest can take place.

 

Last year, barely 66,000 Fall Chinook returned to their spawning grounds in the system. This year, a greater number of Chinook are expected, but only marginally more than the 122,000 needed to maintain the health of the fishery. Agency biologists said 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.

 

“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,” said Jane Lubchenco, Ph.D., Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator.

 

Earlier this week, three bills by Sen. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) aimed at helping salmon and the industry based on them cleared a key legislative hurdle.

 

On Tuesday, the Senate Committee on Natural Resources & Water voted to approve Senate Bills 539, 670 and 778, which now move to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

 

Senate Bill 539, which the committee approved 7-4, directs the state Ocean Protection Council (OPC) to give the Legislature a report that ranks the solutions to reversing the alarming decline of salmon and steelhead populations and lists the costs to implement those actions. The OPC is the state arm that coordinates state agencies’ efforts to protect and conserve coastal and oceanic ecosystems.

 

In her testimony before the committee, Wiggins said that the OPC’s mission “is to ensure California maintains healthy, resilient, and productive ocean and coastal ecosystems for the benefit of current and future generations. SB 539 enlists the OPC in restoration efforts by authorizing it to engage in the full range of activities needed to bring back salmon and steelhead.”

 

Senate Bill 670, which the committee approved on a bipartisan vote of 8-3, prohibits the use of suction dredge mining equipment in rivers and streams that provide critical habitat to spawning salmon until the state Department of Fish and Game (DFG) completes its court-ordered overhaul of regulations governing the controversial recreational activity.

 

In presenting SB 670, Wiggins noted that “the salmon numbers are so low that the National Marine Fisheries Service has placed a ban on all salmon fishing along the coast of California and Oregon. This ban affects the livelihoods of thousands of commercial fishermen, fish processors, and charter boat operators. Yet while fishermen are being told to stop fishing, suction dredge mining is allowed to continue. SB 670 is about equity. We simply cannot ask an entire fishing industry to stop their work while a small group of hobbyists are allowed to continue.”

 

Senate Bill 778, which the committee approved on a bipartisan vote of 9-1, requires the state DFG to provide a thorough accounting of funds generated from commercial salmon fishing permits, known as “salmon stamps.” The self-taxation funds paid by fishermen are required to be spent on fisheries and habitat restoration.

 

There is growing concern in the fishing industry that the money is not getting to top priority projects. SB 778 would incorporate measures, based on an audit, to strengthen the program and, with agreement from fishermen, will increase the price of the “stamp” in order to ramp up protection efforts during the ongoing salmon crisis.

 

In her testimony, Wiggins said SB 778 “continues the tradition of commercial fishermen dedicating a portion of their permit fees to help restore the salmon fisheries that sustain their industry. The dedicated portion of the fee is managed by the DFG for salmon regeneration. Because of the salmon crisis, fishermen are volunteering to raise the cost of salmon permit to $350. The bill also seeks to require the DFG to provide a better accounting for the expenditures of this fund. This will ensure that the funding goes directly to priority projects, in a timely manner.”

 

Wiggins, who chairs the Joint Legislative Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, said that it’s imperative that the Legislature and the responsible state agencies do all that they can to protect the invaluable salmon populations.

 

“Salmon are not just trophy and sport fish. They form the backbone of California ecosystems, tribal cultures, local economies, a commercial fishing industry and a once-plentiful, wonderful food. We must work together to give these magnificent fish a chance to recover,” Wiggins said.

 

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