For Pacific fishing towns, a trying season ahead

With sharp federal reductions in salmon fishing, some lawmakers are calling for emergency disaster assistance.

Up and down the Pacific Coast, those who rely on fisheries for their livelihood are facing what some say is a perfect storm of environmental, economic, and political challenges.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) has declared a state of emergency for coastal communities affected by sharp, federally mandated reductions in commercial and sport salmon fishing this season along a 700-mile stretch of the coast.

Members of Congress from the region have proposed emergency disaster assistance for fishermen and for habitat restoration, putting pressure on federal agencies and the Bush administration to do more about fundamental problems that have been building since major development began in the West a century ago - mainly involving water resources.

One possible sign of trouble these days: By this time of year, about 80,000 chinook salmon should have passed the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, fighting their way upstream to spawn. But as of last week, no more than 2,300 had gone through the fish passages.

But it's not just about salmon, that icon of the Pacific Northwest that has seen its numbers drop steeply due to dams, agriculture, and development. Puget Sound populations of steelhead, a species of trout that divides its time between freshwater rivers and the ocean, have plummeted to the point that federal officials have proposed listing it as an endangered species.

Meanwhile, the Marine Fish Conservation Network reported this week that "mismanagement of fish populations in federal waters off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington [from three to 200 miles offshore] continues to stymie the return of healthy ocean fish populations and vibrant fishing communities."

As a result, this coalition of some 180 environmental, fishing, and science organizations warned, only 18 percent of fish populations off the Pacific Coast are healthy. Part of the problem is overfishing, including what critics say is the failure to control the "bycatch" - the catching and disposal of fish not considered to be of economic value. But it's also tied to demands on water from the rivers where salmon and steelhead spawn.

"The health of West Coast fish populations and of West Coast fishing communities is suffering under the current management regime," says Tony DeFalco, West Coast organizer for the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

Last week, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration approved a federal order limiting ocean salmon fishing from northern California to a point near Oregon's northern border, some 700 miles. The restriction is linked to declining runs of chinook salmon in the Klamath River.

"It's really going to have a severe impact on the coast," says salmon troller Mike Becker of Newport, Ore.

Fishermen like Mr. Becker have joined forces with environmentalists working to restore salmon runs to a river that has been dammed for hydropower and drawn down to provide irrigation. Such activity affects the temperature and purity of the water - both crucial to anadromous (seagoing) young fish as they head out to sea, then return several years later to spawn.

As with other resource-based industries such as timber, economic vitality and environmental well-being are closely tied. "If we're going to maintain the health of these rural communities, we have to maintain the health of the rivers," says Jim McCarthy, an environmental consultant working with river conservation groups and coast fishermen.

Although many West Coast communities have diversified economically with a new emphasis on tourism, the traditional work there adds to the attraction. "The working port is one of the big draws to the coast," says Becker. Counting support industries and related recreational businesses, he estimates that reductions in sport and commercial fishing this year could cost Oregon coastal communities from Brookings north to Astoria up to $35 million in tax revenues.

Bills just introduced in Congress would allocate $81 million for fishermen, fish processors, and related businesses, as well as for affected communities. Another $45 million would go to improving fish habitat on the Klamath River. In the end, that may mean taking out or reengineering the four dams on the river as well as reducing irrigation for agriculture.

Though it's easy to cast the environmental and economic challenges in terms of fishing versus farming, salmon troller Becker doesn't see it that way. "The one thing you don't see me doing is picking on those farmers," he says. "Our hope on the coast is getting the river healthy without putting the farmers out of business."

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