WASHINGTON — Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez declared a commercial fishery failure Thursday, clearing the way for Congress to send financial aid to fishermen and related businesses hurt by the ban on salmon fishing off California and Oregon.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said West Coast lawmakers are working on an emergency aid package that could be worth as much as $170 million.
The ban has shut down the commercial salmon harvest this year along the California coast and most of the Oregon coast to boost dwindling numbers of Sacramento River chinook.
Fishermen from Morro Bay to Washington state depend on the salmon fishery for much of their income.
Gutierrez's action came after West Coast lawmakers sent a letter to the Commerce Department chief earlier this year when it became clear that few chinook salmon were returning from ocean waters to the Sacramento River to spawn.
It can take months for emergency aid to clear Congress and the White House and result in checks to fishermen and related businesses, like ice and fuel providers.
About $60 million in aid related to a poor Klamath River salmon season two years ago reached fishermen earlier this year.
Thompson, whose district includes California's North Coast, said the Commerce Department's quick response should help speed checks this year.
"We usually have to wait for the end of the salmon season to determine what the loss is," he said.
The effort will now turn to trying to get a relief package included in an election-year spending bill, Thompson said.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said the declaration is a big help to Morro Bay fishermen, hard hit by the shutdown.
"Our fishing industry is facing many challenges, and this just adds to them," she said.