State, federal officials vow to take quick action on Federal Fishery Disaster Declaration for salmon fishing industry

Gloomy day at Fisherman's Wharf
Photo by Anderson Djumin on Unsplash

Officials vow to push for speedy action to support a salmon fishing industry facing full season closure.

April 7, 2023, 11:54AM

State and federal officials are vowing to move quickly to secure disaster aid for Californians affected by the closure of this year’s commercial and recreational salmon season, which could have an economic impact of $1.4 billion, according to one industry group.

The administration of Gov. Gavin Newsom requested a Federal Fishery Disaster Declaration from U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo after a decision Thursday by the Pacific Fishery Management Council to recommend full closure of both commercial and recreational salmon seasons this year.

At a press conference Friday on the waterfront in San Francisco, which normally would be bustling with crews preparing to start harvesting king salmon, Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said he and other coastal representatives were prepared to do the work to get help to those who need it as soon as possible.

“My colleagues in Congress and I are going to go to work to make sure that Secretary Gina Raimondo quickly follows up with that federal declaration,” said Huffman, whose sprawling North Coast district includes key commercial ports and historic fishing tribes.

“In years past, some of you know that it has sometimes taken a long time to get that disaster relief to the people who need it,” he said. “In some cases, it has taken two years or more. That’s not going to work right now.”

He noted that elimination of the season comes on the heels of other struggles, including the early closure the Dungeness crab season, “so we can’t afford to wait for years.”

“There’s a lot of fear and panic up and down the coast,” said John McManus, senior policy director for the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

Closure of the commercial ocean fishing season still requires formal action by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The California Fish and Game Commission, which governs recreational and inland river fishing, must adopt the closure, as well.

But historically low salmon forecasts have left no real question about the need to allow the stock to recover.

Full closure was the only option considered during the five weeks of deliberations about when to set dates for the season. Representatives for the commercial fleet even requested the season be closed for the greater good.

Unanimous approval of the formal management council recommendation Thursday prompted immediate release of a letter from Lt. Gov. Elena Kounalakis, standing in for Gov. Gavin Newsom, to Raimondo requesting Federal Fishery Disaster Declaration.

It’s unclear what that might mean in terms of total dollars and eligible stakeholders.

It’s also unclear how quickly aid could be delivered. Commercial crabbers and seafood processors affected by a 4 ½-month delay in the start of the 2015-16 Dungeness crab waited until summer of 2019 to receive $22.8 million in direct disaster aid.

Huffman, who was joined at Friday’s press conference by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Rep. Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, said changes in federal law during the past few years should speed the process this time. A $300 million appropriation already made could provide a head-start, as well, he said.

There remain significant uncertainties ahead.

“It’s very difficult for people especially that are right on the border line,” maybe facing a boat mortgage payment or needing fuel to move their crab pots north of the Sonoma-Mendocino county line, where commercial crab harvest is still allowed, Dick Ogg, vice president of the Bodega Bay Fishermen’s Marketing Association, told The Press Democrat.

“Nobody’s expecting it (relief) to come overnight, but to have to wait three or four years would be very difficult,” Ogg said.

Ken Elie, owner of Cotati-based Outdoor Pro Shop, was among representatives from the commercial fishing, gear and tackle sales, fish processing, fish sales, charter boat operation and related industries to speak at the Friday event, illustrating the ripple effects of the closure and putting a “human face on this challenge.”

He said salmon fishing accounts for 40% of his business, drawing anglers from hundreds of miles away for the gear and expert advice his staff provides. Elie also said he has already laid off 10 of his 39 employees and probably would need to let go of more in anticipation of the “multiple seven figures” in losses related to the closure. And there’s potential for another closure next year, he said.

Larry Collins, vice president of the Pacific coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association and a commercial fisherman with his wife since 1984, said there were 4,700 commercial permits in California at that time. Now? it’s down to about 400.

“We’ve lost 90% of our fishery,” Collins said.

“Much like COVID, there will be people who do not make it to the end of this disaster,” he added.

David Goldenburg, chief executive officer for the California Salmon Council, said in an interview that the total closure of the fishery should hasten the disaster declaration and clarify the process of assessing loss.

But he said it was far too early to determine who all would be eligible and how much relief might be available.

The first and last time the salmon fishery was closed — 2008 and 2009 — the federal government provide $170 million in disaster aid to California and Oregon.

While the Golden Gate Salmon Association estimates total economic benefit of the fishery at $1.4 billion, the actual 5-year average paid to commercial boat owners is just over $15 million, the Kounalakis letter says.

Accounting for additional impacts in coastal communities and personal income derived from commercial and recreational ocean salmon fishing, the impact to California is closer to $45 million, it states.

Huffman said there will be an opportunity for those affected to demonstrate they suffered losses from the closure and said eligibility would extend well beyond those directly harvesting or handling fish.

But there will be limits to eligibility, he said.

“The way you put disaster relief together, it doesn’t even attempt to reach the entire economic value” of the closure, Huffman said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.