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Salmon Fishermen Angered by Lack of Bailout

They blame politics for the plan's failure and now look to Congress.

September 02, 2006|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Commercial fishermen hit hard this year by a virtual shutdown of salmon fishing in West Coast waters voiced anger Friday after a $25-million bailout package died in the waning days of the legislative session.

They blamed intramural politics for undercutting the relief legislation, which sought direct cash grants as well as zero-interest loans to fishermen, bait shops and other on-shore businesses that support the beleaguered salmon industry.

The salmon harvest so far this year has been about 10% of average because of fishing limits set by federal officials concerned about ebbing returns of adult fish to the Klamath River.

Though several West Coast tributaries are seeing robust salmon runs, the Klamath has suffered sharp declines blamed on drought, a proliferation of disease and parasites that afflict fish, dams that block migration, and river flows lowered by water diversions to farmers.

The bill died despite a bipartisan effort.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger sponsored the legislation and two Democrats -- state Sen. Wesley Chesbro of Arcata and Assemblywoman Patty Berg of Eureka -- attempted to shepherd it through the Legislature.

Fishermen held Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) responsible for the measure's demise, saying he refused to push any meaningful bailout.

"I know I've been this angry before, but I can't remember when," said Dave Bitts, a Eureka fisherman. "This seems to lie squarely on the shoulders of the speaker, and I don't understand how a Democrat would turn his back on working people and abandon an industry to die."

When the bill ran aground earlier this week, a Nunez spokesman blamed the governor's office for failing to settle differences with opponents of the bill, in particular yacht harbors in Southern California worried about their own funds being drained to help the fishermen. Fishermen, however, said those qualms had been settled.

At a news conference Friday morning, Nunez had to check with staff when he was asked why the Legislature failed to pass a bill to help the salmon industry.

"What did we do with salmon relief?" he asked his aides.

They said a bill failed to reach the Assembly from the Senate.

"I know that at one point I had Assemblywoman Berg and Sen. Chesbro in my office," Nunez said, "but there were about a thousand other things going on so I told Danny Eaton [Nunez's chief of staff], work this out."

Later, Nunez spokesman Richard Stapler said there wasn't enough time to craft effective legislation.

"We need to look for a long-term solution for the fishing industry -- and we cannot do this in the last and busiest week of the legislative session," Stapler said, adding that Schwarzenegger should use his emergency powers to provide immediate help.

The failure of the Legislature to approve funding contrasts with actions in Oregon, where commercial fishermen have received bailout checks.

Now the hopes of California fishermen and the salmon industry will turn to Congress.

On Aug. 10, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez declared a commercial fisheries failure for the West Coast salmon industry after months of prodding by Schwarzenegger and the other West Coast governors, U.S. senators and representatives.

The declaration opened the door for Congress to approve relief funding. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-St. Helena) is pushing for more than $80 million in disaster relief as well as money to fix the Klamath River's environmental ills.

"We're disappointed the state wasn't able to pass the disaster legislation," said Thompson's legislative director, Jonathan Birdsong. "But my boss and other lawmakers from the affected region are still dedicated to getting emergency dollars appropriated."

That could take time. Congress is scheduled to recess at the end of this month and not return until after the November elections.

Times staff writer Nancy Vogel contributed to this report.

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