State may rescue ailing salmon industry

An unabated crash in West Coast salmon numbers prompted a federal department to extend an emergency declaration, potentially providing millions of dollars for out-of-work fishermen and affected businesses.

Chinook salmon once swarmed from the Pacific Ocean — where they were caught by slow-trolling fishermen using lures and baited hooks — through the San Francisco Bay and up delta waterways toward spawning grounds.

But the number of king salmon, as they also are known, estimated to have migrated up the Sacramento River crashed from 770,000 in 2002 to a record low of 39,500 last fall.

The salmon runs provided economy-lifting recreational fishing opportunities and supported the livelihoods of more than 1,000 California commercial fishermen, who spent their earnings and purchased supplies at shops, marinas and other waterfront businesses.

For millennia, the runs also carried calories, nutrients and other biological riches contained in salmon bodies up to rivers and lakes, where they were eaten by bears and birds or rotted to fertilize plants.

But growing exports of water from streams for farms and households and consecutive years of poor ocean conditions drove down the population, leading authorities to ban salmon fishing in 2008 and 2009 and limit commercial fishing to eight days this year.

Late last week, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke agreed to a request from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to extend a 2-year-old federal emergency declaration, which may provide new disaster assistance for businesses and fishermen that relied on the fishery for their livelihoods.

Congress provided $170 million for West Coast salmon fishermen after the emergency was first declared, but the money ran out.

“Secretary Locke’s declaration means that it is now up to the Congress to provide relief to help these fishermen get through the year,” U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, said in a statement. “It is a difficult time and nothing is assured, but we will do our level best.”

The eight days of fishing allowed this year proved unproductive, worsened by strong winds, according to Mike Hudson, president of the Small Boat Commercial Salmon Fishermen’s Association.

The season formerly extended for nearly half the year.

“We’re not getting our water,” Hudson said. “Once you give these salmon a chance, they will flourish.”

 

Collapsing resource

  • 601: Fishing boats trolling California waters for salmon in 2007
  • $8.2 million: Value of salmon caught commercially in California in 2007
  • $18.1 million: Average value of salmon caught commercially in California in previous years
  • 769,900: Salmon that returned to Sacramento River to spawn in 2002
  • 39,530: Salmon that returned to Sacramento River to spawn last year

Source: Pacific Fishery Management Council

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