The chairman of a state fisheries committee has said commercial fishing is in a “precarious state,” as record low salmon runs may trigger a disaster declaration and a proposed catch fee increase would drastically raise costs.
Senator Mike McGuire chairs the state’s Joint Committee on Fisheries and Aquaculture, which held a March 29 hearing focusing on fisheries challenges. Titled “Fisheries in a Changing Climate,” the hearing noted the harmful effects of drought, low river flows and warm water temperatures both in-river and in the ocean.
“Our state of the fishery right now is in trouble,” McGuire said in his opening remarks. “The hard-working fishermen of this great state are dying the slow death of a thousand cuts – California’s formerly robust fisheries are facing unprecedented challenges.”
The hardships include a depressed 2015 to 2016 Dungeness crab season due to toxic algae blooms, the likely cancellation of the upcoming sardine season due to low biomass and projected all-time low fall returns of Klamath River Chinook salmon.
Saying that coastal fishing communities are “threatened by this historic crisis,” McGuire described the situation as a “true calamity” that is taking the fishing industry to “the brink of economic ruin.”
Intensifying those concerns, a dramatic hike in off-the-boat catch fees paid by fishermen is being proposed by Governor Jerry Brown and the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (DFW).
Costs are exceeding revenues by $20 million a year in a DFW fund that includes fisheries management. The governor’s proposed budget seeks to increase catch fee revenue by $12.4 million, which McGuire said will translate into a 1,300 percent increase for salmon and over 13,000 percent for crab.
McGuire acknowledged that catch fees haven’t been increased since 1992 but he said that if the Consumer Price Index is used as a basis, a fee increase of 80 percent would be proposed.
“I, for one, cannot support this proposal and we are going to fight it in the budget process,” McGuire said, adding that “no industry should have to absorb these hikes.”
Assemblymember Jim Wood, the committee’s vice-chair, said he’s also “adamantly opposed” to the fee increase.
“I have a budget problem,” Charles Bonham, the director of the DFW, said flatly. He described his department as “one of the most over-mandated and under-funded” in the state and one that is headed toward a deficit.
Bonham said commercial landing fees now comprise “the smallest slice” of revenue and are calculated at 0.5 percent of catch value. The value of commercial landings in 2015 was $133 million, he continued, and catch fee revenue was $322,000.
When McGuire said the state should be funding the DFW through its General Fund, Bonham told him that it wouldn’t be sustainable and would introduce annual uncertainties.
“I need a portfolio of revenue streams,” Bonham said, adding that “I hope one of them is an increased contribution from commercial landing fees.”
Many states face similar challenges, he continued, and Missouri and Arkansas “may have achieved the gold standard” with a general sales tax percentage devoted to fish and wildlife management.
McGuire was doubtful, saying that approach would need two-thirds legislative support and “the only ability to be able to move that vote is going to be the administration engaging.”
In presentations, representatives of various fishing organizations said the proposed fee increase attempts to draw revenue from the wallets of fishermen who can’t afford another hit.
Noah Oppenheim, the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations (PCFFA), said the fee increase as proposed is “absolutely untenable” and will be “a devastating blow to the crab fishery.”
Buyers will look to catches from other states, he continued, saying the fee hike will “absolutely shock the industry.”
There was plenty of commentary on the industry’s inability to absorb another shock. The commercial salmon season for the Klamath Management Zone from Southern Oregon to north of Shelter Cove will be closed this year and Eureka fisherman David Bitts, the PCFFA’s president, said fishing in other areas will be closed early or limited to “scraps” below Point Arena.
But Bitts also said that even a restricted season would have value. He said that last year, salmon were worth about $100 apiece at the dock.
“As California’s troll salmon advisor, I feel it’s my duty to go for every bit of fishing that we can get and hope that some people will make enough out of that to get through this year,” Bitts added.
Restrictive salmon season alternatives include a coastwide closure and Bitts said it’s not too early to prepare for a disaster declaration request.
In closing the hearing, McGuire said doing that and increasing the range of funding for algae bloom preparedness are takeaways, along will opposing the catch fee increase.
The committee will hold another hearing in May to review the status of the state’s salmon stocks.