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Government says salmon disaster money on its way

By MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press Writer
September 17, 2008 -- WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration on Wednesday released $100 million in disaster relief to West Coast salmon fishermen, $70 million less than the amount Congress approved to help those hurt by the sudden collapse of the Pacific Coast salmon fishing industry.

The salmon collapse left thousands of fishermen and dependent businesses struggling to make ends meet, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said, adding that the disaster aid package will help them get back on their feet.

Of the initial $100 million, about $63 million will go to California, $25 million to Oregon and $12 million to Washington state, officials said. The breakdown is based on the projected economic impacts of the fishing shutdown in each state.

The failure stemmed from the sudden collapse of the chinook salmon run in California's Sacramento River, where the salmon return to spawn. Scientists are studying the causes of the collapse, with possible factors ranging from ocean conditions and habitat destruction to dam operations and agricultural pollution.

Salmon advocates and congressional Democrats complained that the Bush administration was shortchanging fishermen in the three states by $70 million. Congress approved $170 million in disaster relief as part of a recent farm bill.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., accused the Bush administration of "trying to steal money from salmon fishermen to give it to an incompetent defense contractor" that is overseeing the 2010 Census.

The Bush administration announced in June that it wants to divert $70 million from the salmon relief fund to help pay for higher-than-expected costs of the conducting the census. The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau and NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for salmon recovery and planning.

Bob Lohn, northwest administrator of NOAA Fisheries, said the salmon money was not being diverted, but merely delayed until the new budget year begins in October.

Over the next few months, the remaining money will be made available to fishermen as they apply for assistance, Lohn said. He denied that the administration was engaged in any accounting tricks or attempts to shortchange fishermen.

"Will the money be there when the people apply for it? The answer is yes," he told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.

A total of 4,229 applications for assistance have been sent out to ocean fishermen, processors, wholesalers and charter boat owners in the three states, said Randy Fisher, executive director of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is administering the salmon payments.

Roughly half the requests for assistance are in California, one-third from Oregon and about 15 percent from Washington, Fisher said.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., said fishermen up and down the West Coast "have been economically harmed. They were caught in a disaster, Congress responded and the Bush administration has once again failed the American public."