West Coast senators lift hold on fisheries bill


WASHINGTON — Two Democratic senators let a fisheries management bill go forward Thursday after Senate leaders agreed to a provision making West Coast salmon fishermen eligible for disaster assistance.

Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Barbara Boxer of California had said they would block a bill reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act until the Senate considered steps to help coastal communities in their states survive a sharply curtailed salmon fishing season.

Magnuson-Stevens is the major law governing fisheries in the United States. A Senate vote is expected in the next few days.

"After waiting months for a disaster declaration from the secretary of Commerce, our salmon fishermen can now finally see some movement to help address their immediate financial needs," Wyden said.

Wyden, Boxer and other West Coast lawmakers criticized Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez for refusing to declare a salmon disaster despite repeated requests from Oregon and California lawmakers and governors of both states.

The Bush administration sharply reduced the commercial salmon fishing season in a 700-mile stretch of Oregon and Northern California coastal waters, an effort to protect struggling returns of chinook salmon in the Klamath River.

Frank Lockhart, an official for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the requests remain under consideration.

"Many factors such as price of fish, behavior of fishermen, catches in open areas and environmental conditions that affect the final economic impacts must be taken into consideration," Lockhart said.

Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said the Senate amendment puts the two states one step closer to a solution, but he said that getting federal money to the local communities remains the greatest challenge.

"The bottom line is, we have fishermen without a fishing season, and our fishing communities need help," Smith said. He estimated economic losses in Oregon alone at more than $20 million.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week proclaimed a state of emergency in 10 counties affected by the federal restrictions on salmon fishing.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski also has declared an emergency, and he and Schwarzenegger have asked the Bush administration to declare a federal disaster for coastal communities.

Such a declaration would trigger federal financial assistance.