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Loans Available for Storm-Plagued Fishermen


California fishermen who lost millions as the warm waters of El Nino swept away their catches may now apply for low-interest disaster loans, federal officials announced Tuesday.

The U.S. Small Business Administration approved Gov. Pete Wilson's April request for an economic injury disaster loan declaration to help the state fishing industry and related businesses, from fuel suppliers to restaurants. The businesses have suffered from the disastrous decline in the populations of squid, herring and other fish.

Tuesday's announcement came two months after President Clinton granted the disaster designation to much of California, making Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance available to homeowners, renters and businesses that suffered property damage or economic losses because of El Nino.

Ineligible for FEMA assistance, fishermen persuaded the state to seek the disaster status for their industry.

"The biggest help . . . is for the squid fishermen," said Chris Williams, president of the Ventura County Commercial Fishermen's Assn. "The squid have retreated from the warm waters into areas that are not fishable, and it's gotten real tough for those fishermen."

According to industry and government estimates, California's squid catch has plummeted from 100 million pounds last season to virtually nothing this year.

Tuesday's disaster declaration gives squid fisherman Michael McLenaghan hope that his loan application, which he said he mailed to various federal and state agencies about six months ago, won't just sit around collecting dust.

"I'm a happy man," said McLenaghan, who lives in Seattle but fishes up and down the California coast. "But I'm skeptical until they show me the money. I've been through this before and been denied."

This year's fishing disaster declaration is retroactive to June 1997. Applications must be filed by January 1999.

The last time such a declaration was issued was in 1984, after a smaller El Nino effect hit the California fishing industry, according to the Small Business Administration.

The program applies to fishermen and small business owners in 17 coastal counties. Owners of small fishing businesses and other related industries may call the Small Business Administration to apply for a disaster loan at (800) 488-5323.

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