Commerce department declares West Coast salmon disaster

Chinook salmon have been in short supply.

In declaring a fishery disaster on Sept. 25, the U.S. Department of Commerce determined that West Coast commercial salmon fisheries suffered during the warm ocean conditions of 2015 to 2017 off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, in addition to the commercial sardine fishery off California.

“The Department of Commerce and NOAA stand ready to assist fishing towns and cities along the West Coast as they recover,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said. “After years of hardship, the department looks forward to providing economic relief that will allow the fisheries and the communities they help support to rebound.”

Between July 2016 and March 2018, multiple tribes and governors from Washington, Oregon and California requested fishery disaster determinations, a Commerce news release said.

The secretary, working with NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, evaluated each request based on the available data and found that all but one (the California red sea urchin fishery) met the requirements for a fishery disaster determination, Commerce said.

The determinations for West Coast salmon and sardines now make these fisheries eligible for NOAA’s fishery disaster assistance and the 2018 Consolidated Appropriations Act provided $20 million in disaster assistance. The Department of Commerce is determining the appropriate allocations of these funds to eligible fisheries.

Unusually warm ocean temperatures, referred to as “the Blob,” encompassed much of the West Coast beginning about 2014, combining with an especially strong El Niño pattern in 2015. The warm conditions have now waned, although some after-effects remain, according to a status report by the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Northwest Fisheries Science Center in March 2018.

Those residual effects are:

• Feeding conditions have improved for California sea lions and seabirds that experienced mass die-offs caused by shifts in their prey during the Blob.

• Plankton species, the foundation of the marine food web, have shifted back slightly toward fat-rich, cool-water species that improve the growth and survival of salmon and other fish.

• Recent research surveys have found fewer juvenile salmon, and consequently adult salmon returns will likely remain depressed for a few years until successive generations benefit from improving ocean conditions.

• Reports of whale entanglements in fishing gear have remained very high for the fourth straight year, as whales followed prey to inshore areas and ran into fishing gear such as pots and traps.

• Severe low-oxygen conditions in the ocean water spanned the Oregon Coast from July to September 2017, causing die-offs of crabs and other species.

The U.S commercial fishing and seafood industry (including imports) generated $144 billion in sales in 2015, a 6 percent decline from the previous year, and supported 1.2 million jobs, a 15 percent decline from 2014, although this is still above the 5 year average, according to a 2017 NOAA Fisheries report. Factors such as the “warm blob,” marine toxins, and El Nino affected the Pacific marine environment in 2015, and West Coast fishermen saw lower landings and revenue for several key commercial species.

Even as the effects of the Blob and El Niño dissipate, the central and southern parts of the West Coast face low snow pack and potential drought in 2018 that could put salmon at continued risk as they migrate back up rivers to spawn, according to NOAA.

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