Feds declare salmon fishery disasters

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

HUMBOLDT –  California’s 2016 and 2017 commercial ocean salmon seasons have been declared as federal fisheries disasters, one of many declarations for the state and the rest of the West Coast.

Declared by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce late last month, the West Coast fisheries disasters include the Klamath River fall run Chinook commercial ocean salmon fisheries of both California and Oregon and the 2017 Klamath fisheries of the Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribes.

Those declarations are among a dozen for the West Coast alone and at this point, only $20 million has been appropriated for federal disaster relief.

Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), said that amount might expand but the process of responding to fisheries disasters is flawed.

“As with the crab fishery disaster, which is going to end up taking up over three years to deliver disaster aid to stakeholders, we now know the system is broken and we need to come up with better risk management solutions for the commercial fishery,” he said.

In response to the multi-year lag time between the occurrence of disasters and the arrival of relief payments, the PCFFA is advancing an alternative proposal for dealing with fishery disasters – establishment of a federally-administrated disaster insurance program similar to the one that’s used for agriculture.

“We think that creating an insurance product for closures and fisheries disasters is something that there’s an appetite for and something the marketplace can finally handle,” said Oppenheim. “We have so much data about commercial fisheries and how they operate – we can use that to manage risk in a sophisticated way using the financial markets.”

Cooperation between state and federal agencies will be needed. “But I have a lot of confidence in this kind of approach, I think it can work,” said Oppenheim.

The poor performance of recent ocean salmon seasons reflects the aftermath of the drought that ended two years ago. The effects have been compounded by the pressures of water diversion and in 2016, the season didn’t even meet pessimistic ocean abundance forecasts.

Statewide ex-vessel or off the boat commercial landings only reached $5.3 million in value in 2016. The average value of the seasons between 2011 and 2015 was $12.6 million.

The salmon landings value of the state’s 2017 season was even less, at $4.8 million.

Although this year’s salmon season has been similarly depressed, there are indications that the state’s Chinook fisheries will enter a rebound phase. Ocean conditions have been beneficial for juvenile salmon this year, the winter of 2016 saw record rainfall and recent state water management plans are based on the concept of fisheries crisis response.

Despite restrictions on fishing, both the Sacramento River and Klamath River fall run Chinook stocks have been listed as “overfished” – a designation that refers to low runs.

Oppenheim said the designation will mandate conservative salmon season management but ocean abundance will likely increase next year. “The pendulum is swinging in the right direction but a lot remains to be seen,” he continued.

Jennifer Simon of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Ocean Salmon Project said fishermen have released many sub-legal juvenile salmon this year, which is “great news” because younger fish will make up the fall runs of near future seasons.

But the overfished designations trigger stock rebuilding plans and Simon said it’s “too soon speculate” on how improved ocean abundance would relate to fishing allowances.

This year’s declarations have also included the 2015 to 2016 California Dungeness crab season, which was approved for $25.8 million of disaster relief last June. 

The process for distributing disaster relief begins with each state developing spending proposals which are reviewed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The plans are then advanced to the Pacific States Marine Commission, which administrates payouts to fishermen based on the criteria of the approved plans.




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