For Pacific Fishing Towns, a Trying Season Ahead ; with Sharp Federal Reductions in Salmon Fishing, Some Lawmakers Are Calling for Emergency Disaster Assistance

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Up and down the Pacific Coast, those who rely on fisheries for their livelihood are facing what some say is a perfect storm of environmental, economic, and political challenges.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) has declared a state of emergency for coastal communities affected by sharp, federally mandated reductions in commercial and sport salmon fishing this season along a 700-mile stretch of the coast.

Members of Congress from the region have proposed emergency disaster assistance for fishermen and for habitat restoration, putting pressure on federal agencies and the Bush administration to do more about fundamental problems that have been building since major development began in the West a century ago - mainly involving water resources.

One possible sign of trouble these days: By this time of year, about 80,000 chinook salmon should have passed the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River, fighting their way upstream to spawn. But as of last week, no more than 2,300 had gone through the fish passages.

But it's not just about salmon, that icon of the Pacific Northwest that has seen its numbers drop steeply due to dams, agriculture, and development. Puget Sound populations of steelhead, a species of trout that divides its time between freshwater rivers and the ocean, have plummeted to the point that federal officials have proposed listing it as an endangered species.

Meanwhile, the Marine Fish Conservation Network reported this week that "mismanagement of fish populations in federal waters off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington [from three to 200 miles offshore] continues to stymie the return of healthy ocean fish populations and vibrant fishing communities."

As a result, this coalition of some 180 environmental, fishing, and science organizations warned, only 18 percent of fish populations off the Pacific Coast are healthy. Part of the problem is overfishing, including what critics say is the failure to control the "bycatch" - the catching and disposal of fish not considered to be of economic value. But it's also tied to demands on water from the rivers where salmon and steelhead spawn.

"The health of West Coast fish populations and of West Coast fishing communities is suffering under the current management regime," says Tony DeFalco, West Coast organizer for the Marine Fish Conservation Network. …