Relief bills seek $140 million aid for California crab and salmon fishery disasters

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California lawmakers introduced new legislation last week seeking to unlock $117 million in federal disaster aid for commercial fishermen and other business owners financially scarred by a series of catastrophic crab and salmon seasons threatening to upend the state’s fishing industry.

North Coast representatives including Congressmen Jared Huffman and Mike Thompson, state Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood, also have petitioned Gov. Jerry Brown to seek a disaster declaration for this year’s severely restricted salmon season, which already portends severe hardship with commercial fleets still in port.

The renewed push comes on the heels of previous campaigns that have failed to secure relief for losses sustained over two-plus years in which drought-ravaged salmon stocks and harmful algal blooms took their toll on commercial trolling and crab fleets in Bodega Bay and elsewhere. Any federal relief appropriation made now would not be available until 2018, Huffman said.

“Hardworking fishermen and coastal economies along the North Coast are experiencing real economic hardship from several disastrous fishing seasons in a row, causing these fishermen to miss boat payments or even decide to leave their fishing business altogether,” Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in a statement.

“They have played by the rules, and the state and federal governments have agreed that they’re eligible for financial relief, but now that the money is owed Congress has fallen down on the job.”

It’s not clear how much traction coastal Democrats can get in a Republican-led Congress, though Huffman noted that the 2017 appropriations bill included flood relief for Northern California.

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the 700-member Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association, said he worried that animosity toward California Democrats could affect the effort.

“If these were coal miners,” Oppenheim said, “we’d be seeing money right now. These are blue-collar jobs. These are workers. They just happen to be represented, in political terms, by a party other than the one that is in power.”

The crab and salmon fisheries, both fundamental to the ocean-going traditions of the North Coast, shrink and swell cyclically, by nature. But the combined impact of a historic five-year drought and a period of unusually warm ocean waters cut substantially into landings that help pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the state economy each year.

The Chinook salmon catch worth $23 million to California fishermen in 2013 was in 2015 worth barely more than $8 million after landings plummeted, according to federal records.

Then in the fall of 2015, a persistent bloom of toxic algae contributed to widespread contamination in the ocean food web, closing the Dungeness crab fishery through the lucrative fall and winter holiday season and delaying its opening until the following March. The current Dungeness crab season, which began last fall, was again delayed, though only by weeks.

The 2016 salmon season was even worse, and projections for this year hit a record low, leaving commercial boats tied up until at least August, depending on where they’re berthed. Commercial salmon fishing is prohibited this year off the Klamath River, and sport and tribal fisheries have been equally hurt.

A $138 million relief bill introduced in March 2016 by Huffman and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, died in committee, in the absence of a formal disaster declaration. That came in January, when outgoing Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker declared nine West Coast fishery failures, including two in California: the 2015-16 Dungeness and rock crab and the 2016 Yurok Tribe Klamath River chinook salmon fisheries.

In an April letter to congressional leaders, 17 West Coast lawmakers made a bid for funding in the 2017 appropriations bill, without success. The new legislation was introduced as a result.

“We have to be very squeaky wheels here,” Huffman said.

Two bills are included in the package, both co-sponsored by Huffman and Speier. One seeks $22.5 million in 2016 disaster assistance, habitat restoration and monitoring for the Yurok Tribe Klamath River chinook salmon fishery. The second seeks $117.4 million in 2015-16 crab disaster assistance, including $1 million for domoic acid sampling and monitoring and $5 million for research on domoic acid toxicity and algal bloom prediction.

Local fishermen, many of them proud and not especially trusting of government, said people who could use assistance aren’t holding their breath.

But help, they say, is still needed, especially among younger, heavily leveraged captains and those with smaller boats, who have to be more particular about the kind of conditions in which they can fish and who have to come ashore more often to retrieve gear and deliver their catch.

“There’s a fair amount of cynicism among fishermen in regards to how we regard the government, in comparison with the rest of the populace,” said Humboldt County fisherman Dave Bitts, 68, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

But “it’s pretty chintzy of Congress, to just basically thumb their nose at us, which is just what they did,” he said.

Bodega Bay skipper and restaurateur Tony Anello, 68, whose family depends on the fishery, said he’s spent through his savings meeting obligations during recent fishery crises. But he said many of those struggling hardest wouldn’t want to say so publicly.

Anello wondered aloud if the lapse in time between high-profile coverage of the Dungeness crab season delay hurt the cause.

“They took their time to declare it a disaster,” he said. “When it was fresh in everybody’s mind, and the public was aware of it, then they would support you. They would say, ‘Aw, you poor guys.’ Now they’re just going to say, ‘Heck, it’s been over a year, and you’re still on the water. You’re still fishing. You’re still surviving. So why give you a subsidy?’ ”

Oppenheim said getting support for appropriations would require significant grass-roots efforts on the part of fish processors and other affected businesses, as well as trollers and crabbers, “because you show up, or you get rolled,” he said. “That’s how this works.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249.

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