Salmon Fishermen Reeling In Your Tax $$

Drift net fishermen unload red salmon from net, 1998/8/1
The salmon population is mysteriously dwindling in California and Oregon.

It's gotten so bad, fishing has been closed for the season and the government has even declared a "disaster."

But help is on the way. For the second year in a row, hard-hit fishermen and businesses will get cold, hard cash to make up for their losses.

But it's not just to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead - this may be among the most generous aid packages ever to come from Congress. And you're paying for it.

Consider that the lost salmon catch amounts to $22 million dollars. Federal officials put the economic ripple effect including businesses like charter boats and ice houses at $82 million.

But taxpayers are being forced to shell out $174 million. That's on top of $60 million given out last year.

The salmon bail-out is so huge, it might not have survived debate in Congress. But it didn't have to, thanks to California's own Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. She used her clout as Speaker of the House to insert the massive salmon relief into the Farm Bill as an earmark without a vote.

Read more about the salmon fishermen reeling it in on Couric & Co.
But what's really flipping out critics ... is how it works: Fishermen and business owners get to pick their "best" year, from 2002 to 2005, when they made the most money off salmon, and they get a check for that entire amount.

"You get to literally cherry pick through your earnings over the past five years and pick the best one," said Tim Phillips of the group Americans for Prosperity. "Just another example of how out-of-control this thing is."

And they aren't just poor fishermen struggling to make ends meet.

Some of them got more than $100,000 in salmon-relief last year - and will get a six-figure check again this year ... all at taxpayer expense. Compare that to what Katrina victims got: less than $2,500 per average household.

Pelosi was unavailable, but we spoke to her colleague, California Congressman Mike Thompson, who helped craft the earmark.

"Well, they need an income to keep the wolves away from the door," Thompson said.

"Is it really 'emergency' aid if somebody gets $200,000 or more in cash payments from the federal government for not catching fish?" Attkisson asked.

"It's emergency aid because they lost their ability to go out and make a living.

There are other fish in the sea, and some salmon fishermen are switching to other catches to earn a living ... yet still reeling it in ... for what they didn't catch.

  • Sharyl Attkisson
    Sharyl Attkisson On Twitter»

    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.