Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez has agreed to take the first steps toward declaring an economic disaster for salmon fishermen in Oregon and California, whose season has been virtually shut down to protect dwindling returns to the Klamath River.
Gutierrez said Thursday in a conference call with members of Congress and governors from the two states that he was declaring a fisheries resource disaster, which makes fishermen and associated businesses eligible for loans, but not grants.
"We will move quickly to implement both a short- and long-term effort to find ways to help," Gutierrez said in a statement from Washington.
Until now, efforts to secure $85 million in aid have been stymied by the lack of a declaration. Gutierrez is sending the head of NOAA Fisheries, William Hogarth, to the West Coast on Monday to start gathering the information needed to decide whether to issue a higher-level commercial fisheries disaster declaration. That will make it possible for Congress to appropriate direct grants and other aid, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.
"We don't really need loans, we need cash grants and assistance," DeFazio said after the conference call. "It's a start. We appreciate that."
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is pushing for $45 million in state aid, called the federal efforts welcome but long overdue. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who worked with the Legislature to provide a $3.5 million package of state aid, was disappointed that more federal help wasn't immediately forthcoming, said spokesman Lonn Hoklin.
"What the Bush administration has promised today is low-interest loans," Hoklin said. "And loans and debt are not what the fishers need."
Federal fisheries managers last spring drastically curtailed commercial salmon fishing on 700 miles of the California and Oregon coast for this year to protect dwindling returns of wild chinook salmon to the Klamath River in Northern California.
The restricted seasons have allowed the 3,000 fishermen in California and Oregon to land about 2 percent to 3 percent of what they would land in a good year, said Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations.
Some commercial fishermen from Oregon, supported by property rights advocates, sued over the curtailment, arguing that hatchery fish ought to be counted along with wild fish in deciding whether to restrict the commercial ocean harvest.
On Thursday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco agreed with a lower court that the rules were reasonable in managing a fishery "to maintain its long-term viability."