Salmon disaster declaration needed now

Times are hard for industries all across America, but they may be toughest for salmon fishermen on the Oregon and California coasts.

For three consecutive years, dismal salmon returns on the Klamath River have resulted in disastrous seasons for West Coast fishermen and the communities that rely on the business they create for small ports.

The coming year could be the worst of all — the first complete shutdown of both the commercial and sport seasons ever on the West Coast.

A closure order could come as early as this weekend, when the Pacific Fishery Management Council meets in Sacramento. The council is weighing three options, ranging from a bare-bones season to a total ban. Fishermen are expecting the worst and for good reason.

While the Klamath River runs have improved, returns on the Sacramento River have collapsed. Only 90,000 Chinook returned to spawn last year, a 90 percent decline from just five years ago.

Projections for 2008 are abysmal — so low that any fishing, even for scientific research, will require an emergency order from U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service.

That's bad news on any river, but the Sacramento has by far the most important salmon run on the West Coast. By some estimates, the Sacramento supports 90 percent of the ocean fishery off the California coast and 50 percent off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

If the council announces a ban or even a repeat of the severe cutbacks ordered in 2006 the federal government must begin immediately the process of issuing the disaster declaration needed before Congress can approve emergency assistance for the fishing industry.

The governors of California, Oregon and Washington have asked Gutierrez to declare a fishery disaster, as have Sen. Ron Wyden and other members of Oregon's congressional delegation.

The message should be clear to Gutierrez that there must be no repeat of the 2006 debacle in which the Bush administration took months to declare the salmon season a failure. As a result of that needless delay, some fishing families and businesses are just now getting some of the $60 million in aid that finally was authorized in the summer of 2007.

Gutierrez should pay a visit to ports in Oregon to get a firsthand feel for the extent of the problem. Without assistance, fishermen who barely have managed to hang on by turning to other species, such as tuna and crab, won't be able to make it through another year.

With no income from salmon, they'll be unable to cover boat mortgage payments and moorage fees. Businesses that rely on income from fishermen may fail, as will an Oregon Coast where the economy is built on a foundation of salmon.

It's frustratingly unclear why the traditionally robust run of Sacramento chinook has fallen to such perilously low levels. The most widely held theory is that a shift in ocean conditions has wiped out the salmon's food supply.

But fish biologists rightly point out that a long chain of interlinked factors are also to blame, including overfishing, pollution, excessive water diversions to farms and cities, an overreliance on hatchery-produced fish, and, perhaps most importantly, the debilitating impact of dams. It's revealing that the fishery management council plans to review 46 possible causes of the collapse of the Sacramento runs.

The solution to restoring runs on the Sacramento won't be any less challenging than it is on the Klamath. It will require the combined effort of the fishing industry, farmers, Indian tribes, water-control agencies, utilities and environmentalists to rescue the Sacramento's dwindling salmon runs.

But the first step must be to help the people who catch salmon for a living and the coastal communities where they live and work.

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