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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commercial fisheries disaster opens door to federal relief for Washington communities

Anglers begin to clean the day’s catch of king and coho salmon while fishing in the Pacific Ocean. Commercial fishing communities along the central coast of Washington and some areas of Puget Sound are eligible for federal disaster funding because of poor fishing in 2015 and 2016. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
By Dan Hammock Daily World (Aberdeen, Wash.)

Commercial fishing communities along the central coast of Washington and some areas of Puget Sound are eligible for federal disaster funding because of poor fishing in 2015 and 2016. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzer named nine fisheries groups or areas in an announcement Wednesday, including Westport and Willapa Bay non-treaty commercial coho fisheries.

Congress still needs to appropriate the funds for the relief program.

Each of the nine fisheries “experienced sudden and unexpected large decreases in fish stock biomass due to unusual ocean and climate conditions,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a news release. “This decision enables fishing communities to seek disaster relief assistance from Congress.”

Along with Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay coho, other Washington commercial fisheries benefiting from the declaration include:

– Quinault Indian Nation Grays Harbor and Queets River coho salmon fishery (2015)

– Ocean salmon troll fishery (2016)

– Fraser River Makah Tribe and Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe sockeye salmon fisheries (2014)

– Nisqually Indian Tribe, Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, and Squaxin Island Tribe South Puget Sound salmon fisheries (2015)

– Quileute Tribe Dungeness crab fishery (2015-2016)

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell has been pushing for the declaration since December, according to the senator’s spokesman Bryan Watt, who added the declaration is critical for the region’s fishing communities, which have suffered through several years of lower-than-expected catch. The federal fishery disaster declaration will make communities eligible for funding for projects such as fisheries recovery, job training, and infrastructure investments in the communities hardest hit.

“Our coastal economies, culture, and heritage rely on maintaining strong, vibrant fisheries. These declarations are an important step in helping communities struggling as a result of these fishing disasters secure the funds they need,” said Senator Cantwell. “I look forward to continuing to work with coastal and tribal communities to identify meaningful investments that can be made to restore salmon populations for generations to come.”

The process began with Cantwell, along with Sen. Patty Murray and Congressman Derek Kilmer, presenting the results of the last few seasons to Gov. Jay Inslee to request federal relief. After Inslee’s approval the request for the declaration was sent to the Commerce Secretary’s office, where “it sat for several months,” said Greg Mueller, President/Executive Director of the Washington Trollers Association. Finally, with pressure from Washington’s Congressional delegation, the declaration was signed Wednesday.

“This is great news for jobs,” said Kilmer. “Fishing is a way of life and central to quality jobs in our region. But the past few years our salmon runs have been hit hard and dropped to alarmingly low levels. The decline has impacted everyone from the worker behind the counter at the bait and tackle shop to the captain running a boat. This declaration will make it easier to get the resources we need to restore our runs and keep our economy moving forward.”

The 2015 coastal salmon season was even worse than the 2008 season, which was the last time coastal fisheries were declared a disaster. This declaration signing Wednesday “could mean money in the fishermen’s pockets by some time in February,” said Mueller.

The amount of funding up for approval is based on the best year’s fishery in the 10 years prior to the fishery described in the declaration; it would be unique to each fishery, but in the case of commercial trollers, Mueller said “2015 was a good season with some of the guys generating $80,000 in gross revenue commercial salmon trolling.” Once approved, the distribution of those funds will be handled by a state or regional entity.

“The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission handled all the money last time, which is what we want again,” said Mueller. “In 1994 the state managed the money and to put it bluntly they screwed a lot up.”

The relief is needed by commercial fishermen and a number of younger, less established captains in particular.

“We have a number of younger guys who have bought charter boats, not established yet, holding on by a thread from their boats going back to the bank,” said Mueller. Mueller also wanted to stress how much the influence of the state’s congressional delegation had in pushing the disaster declaration through. “They spearheaded the whole effort, getting the Secretary of Commerce to sign off on it. When Murray, Cantwell and Kilmer come through about once a quarter they always take the time to set up a meeting to discuss these types of issues.”

Under the Interjurisdictional Fisheries Act and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Commerce Secretary can determine a commercial fishery failure due to a fishery resource disaster, which then provides a basis for Congress to appropriate disaster relief funding to provide economic assistance to affected fishing communities, including salmon and crab fishermen, affected by the disaster.

“The Commerce Department and NOAA stand with America’s fishing communities. We are proud of the contributions they make to the nation’s economy, and we recognize the sacrifices they are forced to take in times of environmental hardship,” said Samuel D. Rauch III, deputy assistant administrator for regulatory programs, NOAA Fisheries. “We are committed to helping these communities recover and achieve success in the future.”