September 24, 2008

Fishers Get Financial Relief for Loss of Salmon Season

By Julia Scott

PRINCETON-BY-THE-SEA -- Fishers preoccupied with financial worries since the unprecedented loss of the 2008 salmon season will be seeing some money -- in some cases, a lot of it -- thanks to a federal salmon disaster relief package announced last week.

Dennis Baxter, skipper of a charter boat named the New Captain Pete, has not pocketed more than $44,000 a year in net profits since 2004, due to shaky salmon population numbers. This year he made much, much less.

But Baxter will likely see $225,000 this winter, the maximum amount of federal aid possible for a single fishers, thanks to the salmon relief package containing $63 million in federal appropriations for California fishers and salmon-related businesses.

"I've never encountered this chunk of change before," said Baxter. "I'm just exuberant... I've been totally preoccupied about not being able to support my family. And there's no market for my kind of boat right now if I were to sell it. This definitely gives us a little breathing room."

The formula administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service allows fishers like Baxter to compare their losses in 2008 to their most profitable year between 2002 and 2007 and then reap the difference. In 2004, Baxter's boat carried 10 times the number of salmon passengers he carried in 2007. At $85 a head per passenger, that's nothing to sneeze at.

Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission spokesman Randy Fisher said that his agency would begin distributing $100 million to affected fishers in California, Washington and Oregon on a first- come, first-served basis. The lion's share of that money, $63 million, should be more than enough to fully reimburse the roughly 1,200 fishers in California who derive at least 20 percent of their income from salmon fishing, he said. Although a small group, fishers unleashed a powerful lobby to persuade Congressmen to save their fleet from bankruptcy after authorities barred all fishing for chinook salmon in the face of historically low salmon returns from the Sacramento River.

"We know what the fishermen will request. What we don't know is how many businesses will request payment," said Fisher.

Congressmen who backed the disaster relief bill made it clear it was a one-shot deal, but it's unknown whether ocean conditions will improve next year. Authorities will be looking closely at how many jacks, or young salmon, swim up the Sacramento River as a measure of how many will be coming down later in the year.

"There's a lot of concern over 2009, whether the returns are back to normal. We won't know for another month," said Fisher.

This is not the only payout fishers will have received this year. Seventy-five percent of salmon fishers docked at Pillar Point Harbor also harvest Dungeness crab in the winter, and fourteen of them took part in a large class-action lawsuit against the owners of the Cosco Busan after the container ship spilled enough oil in the Bay to foul the first two weeks of crab season last November -- generally the season's most profitable period.

Those local fishers and their crews were part of a larger group that received settlement payments ranging from $20,000 to $120,000 since the accident. And they are likely to receive even more since lawyers with Hanson Bridgett LLP are also asking for punitive damages, attorney's fees and compensation for potential long-term damage to the crab fishery here in the Bay.

Captain Bill Webb of the Cricket has been making it through the year between his Cosco Busan settlement money and his profits from the rest of the crab season, but "it's been really, really tough," he said. He's not excited about the terms of the salmon aid package, either, which reimburses commercial fishers like him by using a different formula than for charter boat captains.

"They're giving us $3 a pound for salmon, and I was selling it off the boat for $7 or $8 a pound," said Webb.

Fishers who had the equipment were able to eke out some pocket money this summer with limited halibut runs, mostly in the Bay. Webb is taking a big gamble this week by traveling 160 miles down the coast for some albacore tuna he heard about south of Monterey. With diesel prices running even higher for fishers than motorists, he's hoping to make just enough to tide him over until crab season opens on Nov. 15.

He knows he's luckier than others, however.

"There's a lot of boats that don't have crab permits -- I don't know how they're hanging in," said Webb. "I've given some of them food off my boat, and I've given them money. At least I'm not starving to death. A lot of these guys are trying to figure out how to get enough money together to eat."

Staff writer Julia Scott can be reached at (650) 348-4340 or at [email protected]

Originally published by Julia Scott , San Mateo County Times.

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