A lot of Oregon fishermen had docked their boats in Newport by April 3 because of low seafood prices and uncertain markets during the coronavirus pandemic.

A lot of Oregon fishermen had docked their boats in Newport by April 3 because of low seafood prices and uncertain markets during the coronavirus pandemic.

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The Oregon commercial salmon fishing seasons of 2016 and 2017 were declared a disaster by the federal government. Now, the Oregon Salmon Commission and a group of coastal legislators are asking Gov. Kate Brown to start the disaster declaration process for 2018, 2019 and 2020 as well. We talk to Oregon state Rep. David Gomberg (D, Central Coast) and Mark Newell, owner of Newell Seafoods in Newport, about how bad the last few years have been for salmon fishing off the coast.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: The Oregon commercial salmon fishing seasons of 2016 and 2017 were declared disasters by the federal government. That freed up federal relief money. But the halls and subsequent years have actually been worse. Now the Oregon Salmon Commission, along with a group of coastal lawmakers, are asking Governor Kate Brown to start the disaster declaration process for the 2018, 2019 and 2020 fishing seasons as well. State Representative David Gomberg, Democrat from the Central coast, signed onto the letter. He is a Chair of the Coastal Caucus. He joins us now, along with Mark Newell, who is the owner of Newell Seafoods in Newport. What led you to ask Governor Brown to formally request disaster relief for these three recent salmon seasons?

Rep. David Gomberg: Well, thanks for asking. Commercial salmon and the commercial salmon industry is a cornerstone of our coastal economy. And really, salmon are an iconic part of our entire Oregon heritage. In 2014, salmon landing values were at about $14 million, but by 2016, that had dropped to $4.2 million. So from $14 [million] down to about $4M in two years. It was 2016 when the first disaster was declared. That declined the next year to $2.1 million.

And here we are in 2020 where the landings are $1.5 million. Obviously there’s a concerning trend underway here. The Salmon Commission approached us in the legislature asking us to request that the Governor start this emergency declaration process. Frankly, it’s not going to put any more fish in the water. But it is going to put a few more dollars into the pockets of the salmon industry and help them work their way through this very troubling time.

Miller: Mark Newell, what have these last five or six years meant for fishermen and for seafood processors?

Mark Newell: It’s been a real struggle to keep the fleet alive and sustainable. You know, it takes a lot of money to maintain your boat, the life saving gear, and life rafts. So we’ve got to have some income or the boat just tends to deteriorate. And our fleet has shrunk. We have about 900 permit holders, but we only have about 150 commercial fishermen that participate in the fishery. And unfortunately it’s because of the drought in California with most of the salmon that we harvest off Oregon coming from the Sacramento and Klamath Rivers. Those runs are depressed and are just not available in any numbers up here in Oregon. And our days on the water had been cut quite drastically, especially the last two years.

Miller: How much financial relief do people in the industry in Oregon need right now? What would the ask of the federal government be?

Newell: Well, it would probably be based on your landings. You would have to have landed fish in the last whatever year that they are going to consider disaster relief, the last year or in the last couple of years possibly. In the past it was based on your landings. So it only helped the fishermen that depended on this fishery.

Miller: In other words, you have to show that you have been there for a while and show what your previous returns were and how much lower they were in the years in question. And that would actually give the federal government a sense for how much relief they might give you.

One of the things I’ve been confused about is asking the governor to declare these Federal disasters for years. Going back three years now for 2018 would be the earliest one here. Why wait until now to make a request that’s getting sort of old?

Gomberg: You have to consider that two years prior to that, we had the disasters declared in 2016 and 2017. So we’re spending these requests now, as I said, to try and keep our salmon fleet on their feet. And I want to make sure that we understand the process here because we’ve made the request of the Governor and the Governor would forward that to the federal government. And if the request is approved by the U. S. Department of Commerce, then it would be Congress who decides how much money our fishermen and women are going to receive.

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Miller: Has the Governor’s Office responded? Has she given you a sense for whether or not she does intend to forward this request onto the federal government?

Gomberg: A final decision has not been made yet. But we’re getting positive signs that with the request of the Coastal Caucus and the Salmon Commission, these series of requests would in fact be forwarded to the federal government.

Miller: Are all of the fishermen and fisherwomen who were impacted, [for example] by the 2018 season even still in business?

Newell: No, no, they’re not. Some have passed. I’ve lost three boats (not my own boats but those) that I bought fish from - two of them have sunk and one of them was involved in a collision. So boats go away for various reasons and the fleet is getting older. I think the average age of an Oregon salmon fisherman is probably close to 60 years old now. We’re not getting any new blood in because the fishermen are barely holding on trying to make a living. You only have 3 or 4 months out of the summer. And a lot of those months, you only have maybe 10 or 12 days to fish [in order] to make a season. So it’s really, really a tough business industry to be in long term.

Miller: You mentioned drought in California or throughout the US west that’s affecting particular California rivers, which is where the salmon that Oregon fishermen would catch in better years, as they go north. So that’s one reason for these bad years. What do you see as some of the others?

Newell: Mainly it is the drought. We have huge problems in the River of warm water. And the warm water causes disease in the Klamath - a parasite. A lot of water [diverted from] the Sacramento, drawing the water out of the Sacramento and increases the water and behind Shasta right now at Shasta Dam the water in the reservoir is almost completely empty. So it’s just a terrible situation. As commercial fishermen and partners with the sport fishermen and the charter boats, we are the canaries in the mine. And there’s not very many of us canaries left.

Miller: This gets to something that you wrote in the letter to the Governor. You wrote, “Our commercial salmon industry needs the reassurance that the State of Oregon and the federal government are willing to lend their support during difficult times.” But if this request is granted, then the 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons would all have been declared disasters. At what point is it time to acknowledge that this is not about a difficult time, but a fishery in a seemingly permanent and ongoing crisis?

Gomberg: Well, I’m certainly willing to use the phrase “ongoing”. I’m not going to call it a “permanent crisis” yet, but there are disturbing paradigm changes underway, David. Mark has talked about stream flows and warming waters having an effect, particularly with the fish that are coming up from California. We also need to acknowledge that there are systemic changes in our ocean chemistry underway, with hypoxia and acidification, that are going to have a long term trend here. I’m a coastal legislator. I’ve got an industry that is suffering. And my first priority is going to be helping them actually stay alive as we talk about what’s next for the salmon industry.

And this relief is going to be focused on the folks that go out there in the water and catch the fish. But let’s remember that this problem is not limited to them because we’ve got the folks that process the fish. We’ve got the folks that sell the fish, whether it’s in restaurants or in grocery stores. And at the end of that food chain it is all of us that eat the fish. So we’ve all got a stake in the outcome here. And yes, your question is a prime one. At what point does this stop being a limited disaster and start being a long term change? We’ve got to figure out what the future of our salmon industry is here on the Northwest coast.

Miller: What does the future of the industry look like to you? As we’ve just heard, we’re talking to a large extent about at least regional and and perhaps global issues here. We’re talking about climate change and ocean acidification and ocean warming and loss of salmon habitat. Those are both global and regional in various ways. What does the future of the Northwest salmon fisheries look like?

Newell: It doesn’t look good unless we get out of this route that we’re in and address the dams on the Klamath, the water quality, the disease problem. How we’re gonna supplement these fish and deal with water diversions and keeping water in the River. It’s not a good looking future for the salmon industry at this point.

Miller: To turn back to more recent history and current life, the request for this federal disaster relief includes two years that precede the pandemic as well as the year 2020. How much has the pandemic itself affected the ability of fishermen to catch fish as opposed to the issues we’ve been talking about, which is fewer fish to catch?

Newell: Last year we thought the epidemic was going to affect the market. Whether you’re an Oregonian or Californian or anybody, everybody loves salmon. And the prices came up much faster than we thought. Prices are still very good for salmon. I’ve gotten calls today from people asking me, “when can I get salmon?” But there’s none coming in. I’ve hardly bought any in the last couple of weeks. It’s really, really slow out there for fishing. So, the marketing isn’t really a problem. It’s just a matter of getting the product, getting the fish. That’s the problem.

Gomberg: I’d like to answer the question a little bit differently if I could, because if I’m not mistaken, about 60-70% of the seafood that we bring ashore in Oregon ends up in Oregon restaurants. And throughout the pandemic, of course, most of our restaurants were closed or limited in their operation. As a result of that, the Cares Act provided about $2 million dollars in support for our fishing industry, not just for salmon fishing, but for all of our fishing industry. Those dollars were intended to supplement lost incomes due to markets being closed and not to address the disaster that the salmon industry is facing with the reduction of fish flows. So, yes, the pandemic is having an effect on this. But at the end of the day, the real question is, where are we going to find fish in the future?

Miller: David Gomberg is a Democratic State Representative from Oregon’s Central coast. He represents District 10. He’s the Chair of the Coastal Caucus. Mark Newell is a member of the Oregon Salmon Commission and the owner of Newell Seafoods, based in Newport.

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