Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is asking the federal government for disaster relief for the state’s struggling commercial salmon industry.

The governor submitted the formal aid request Monday to the U.S. Department of Commerce. In her letter Brown said the economic return from commercial salmon fishing along most of the coast since 2018 has been less than one-third of what it was in prior years. This continuing trend, she said in the letter, is having severe effects on already distressed rural communities and businesses that depend on salmon.

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Two fish swim together near the floor of a river.

Heat-stressed sockeye salmon were filmed in the Little White Salmon River. These sick salmon are taking shelter in the cooler waters of the Columbia River tributary.

Conrad Gowell / Provided by Columbia Riverkeeper

Brown said salmon are a vital component for the state’s natural resources and provide significant commercial, recreational, economic and aesthetic benefits. Salmon are also very important for Native American tribes in the region.

“While economic assistance will be essential to address the impacts of closures and restrictions on our salmon fisheries, it is vitally important that federal, state, tribal, and local governments continue to work together to recover and restore salmon populations and develop management strategies to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of our salmon fisheries,” she said in the letter.

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State Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, is the chair of the Oregon Legislature’s Oregon Coastal Caucus, which urged Brown to seek disaster aid. If the relief money comes through, Gomberg said it will help buy time while longer-term solutions are worked out.

“The problem here is pretty straight forward. We got diminished stream flows, we got warming waters, we got ocean acidification and hypoxia,” he said. “Some of these issues can be addressed in the medium to short term, some of them are going to require long term solutions. All of them are going to take some time.”

Gomberg said about 900 salmon fishing licenses were issued last year but only about 150 boats went out fishing.

“We’re just struggling to keep this industry alive,” he said.

The aid money would primarily help those fishermen most directly impacted by the poor catch levels of recent years. But Gomberg said the impact of the assistance would go beyond those people who make a living catching fish.

“It’s also the people that are processing and cleaning the fish. It’s the people that are selling the fish, whether it is in restaurants or in groceries stores or at some of our coastal fish stands,” he said.

There is no timeline for when the U.S. Department of Commerce might make its decision.

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