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TROUBLE IN SALMON COUNTRY
PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
April 4, 2006

  GO TO VIDEO & AUDIO TRANSCRIPT

Salmon fisheries in the Pacific Northwest are worried that conservation efforts and environmental problems could devastate the lucrative spring season.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: On fishing docks up and down 700 miles of the Oregon and California coasts, fishermen appear lost and anxious. The spring salmon fishing season was cancelled. Regional fish managers this week are expected to curtail the summer season, as well.

It's to protect a declining run of salmon that come to the ocean from the Klamath River near the California-Oregon border. Fisherman Dave Densmore of Astoria, Oregon, says this is a catastrophe.

DAVE DENSMORE, Commercial Fisherman: There is a hell of a lot of people up and down this coast here that are not sleeping nights, are walking the floor wondering, "What in the hell am I going to do?" There's guys going to lose their boats. There's guys going to lose their cars. There are going to be people trying to figure out how to keep their damn lights on.

FRANKLIN DICK, Commercial Fisherman: I don't know. I don't really know what the heck we're going to do. It's going to be a bad one. We're pretty hurting.

LEE HOCHBERG: Fisherman Franklin Dick of Charleston, Oregon, fears he'll have to pump gas. Doug Caesar says he'll scrap his planned surgery.

DOUG CAESAR, Commercial Fisherman: I was hoping we'd be able to fish salmon, because I could probably get the money I need to get my hip replacement. But now I don't know. You know, I just don't know; it's not right.

LEE HOCHBERG: The looming shutdown of the $150 million industry has left those who fish furious at the federal government. The Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended restricting the fishing season because it was the only action it could take to protect the Klamath salmon, but its biologists say the real problem is federal government mismanagement of the Klamath River itself.

REP. DAVID WU (D), Oregon: We are done bearing the burden of others' mismanagement.

LEE HOCHBERG: At a protest in Astoria, Democratic Congressman David Wu said Bush administration policy on the river has favored farmers and dam operators rather than fish.

REP. DAVID WU: The intentional -- the intentional mismanagement of these water resources have caused this crisis. And what has this administration done? It has come here and said, "You want to complain about the fish? Here's a sharp stick in the eye. We're going to make you stop fishing for salmon."

LEE HOCHBERG: Northwest Chinook salmon hatch in the Klamath and hundreds of others rivers and streams. They swim out into the Pacific and then, three to four years later, return to the rivers to spawn the next generation of fish.

The Klamath once was the West's third-largest salmon-producing river, with 1.5 million fish. But four hydropower dams were built on the river in the 1950s without fish passage, and much of the river's water is diverted to irrigate high desert farms along the Oregon-California border.

So the water flow in the river is lower and warmer than natural. That spells disaster for salmon. Only 30,000 are expected to return to the Klamath this year, too few to guarantee their own survival. Glen Spain of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Association.

GLEN SPAIN, Pacific Coast Fed. Of Fishermen's Association: The river is dying and is being systemically starved, strangled for lack of attention and for a long series of federal mismanagement moves and blunders.

LEE HOCHBERG: The management issues along the Klamath first drew national attention in the drought year of 2001. To support an endangered species of fish, irrigation water for farmers was withheld. Fields and businesses dried up.

The next year, President Bush's political adviser, Karl Rove, came to Oregon and promised farmers they'd get their water. The government's own biologists protested. They warned diverting water to irrigators would imperil salmon. But Interior Secretary Gale Norton flew to Oregon and ceremoniously opened the water gates to the farms.

PROTESTORS: Let the water flow! Let the water flow!

LEE HOCHBERG: Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio says that decision was based on politics, not science.

REP. PETER DEFAZIO (D), Oregon: We had the secretary of the interior down there opening up the irrigation dams. They went for the rural vote and the farmers to the exclusion of the fishers and the other interests who are concerned about the health of the river and these fish stocks.

LEE HOCHBERG: Bureau of Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Bill Rinne answers that the Klamath is a complicated ecosystem.

BILL RINNE, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation: We followed along in what's obviously a very complex situation. But we have followed very closely that script and that prescription of the best information we had and the best direction and requirements we had. And I think we would, from our perspective, leave -- quite frankly, we would probably do the same things.

LEE HOCHBERG: But later in 2002, the largest fish kill in California's history occurred. Up to 80,000 adult salmon died in unusually warm, shallow water on their way to Klamath spawning grounds. The state of California blamed the Federal Bureau of Reclamation for diverting too much water from the river.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded low river discharges did not provide suitable flows for salmon. It's those salmon that would have been returning to the Klamath this year.

The Bureau of Reclamation emphasized unusually warm weather and an unusually large return of fish contributed to the die-off.

BILL RINNE: There's multiple factors here at play. And, again, you just can't just say, "Well, it's just because of low water and it was the Bureau of Reclamations' operations, or, you know, it's through the department, the bureau's operations." It's not. There are more things at play here than that.

LEE HOCHBERG: Klamath basin farmers told us they're sympathetic to the fishermen's plight. Mike Byrne grows alfalfa and barley for his several hundred head of cattle.

MIKE BYRNE, Farmer: We feel very much for the fishermen. We were shut down in 2001, people just out of business overnight, you know? And people are coming back, but it's ruined families; it's ruined communities. You go downtown these little towns, and half the businesses are gone now. We don't want to see that for the fishermen.

LEE HOCHBERG: Burns says he's trying to be more efficient with his irrigation water and use less of it.

MIKE BYRNE: It's been a very, very wet year. I'm trying to get my crops in early so they can use the soil moisture so I don't even have to divert and apply as much water to get the same crops.

I have a couple hundred acres planted already, and it will come up, you know, without an irrigation because the soil's damp. And that water will be able to use for other purposes.

LEE HOCHBERG: Since 2002, there's been talk of a federal program to buy out the farmers' rights to the irrigation water and transition them to dry land crops that don't require irrigation. The federal government hasn't funded the idea, and some Klamath farmers are against it. Greg Addington, the head of the Water User Organization, says the salmon's problems are probably not caused by man anyway.

GREG ADDINGTON, Klamath Water Users Association: I'm just not so sure it's as simple as saying, "Well, the policies that have been in place are the reason," or, "Because we get water up here to irrigate, that means there's no fish." I don't think it's that kind of a linear equation.

The species has made it this far, and, you know, there's going to be ups and downs. And I think it is cyclical. If you ask us, I think nature has a lot more to do with it than the policies of man.

LEE HOCHBERG: Those who fish vehemently disagree.

FISHERMAN: If this is illegal, why aren't those people in jail? If I was to set fire to a forest and burn the forest down, I'd go to jail. The Bureau of Reclamation set fire to the Klamath River and burned the fish. Nobody's in jail.

LEE HOCHBERG: Two hundred attend a public hearing last week in Coos Bay, Oregon, to testify on the various options for a restricted salmon season.

FISHERMAN: None of your options are any good. If I had to support any option, I'd say option 2, but it's pretty disgusting.

LEE HOCHBERG: Many asked why they're paying for a problem caused by others up river.

RESIDENT: And it makes me wonder, what's the federal government doing? The river gets -- the fish get disease. They penalize our fishermen. So what's going on? Why are we stopping fishermen when you got dams on the river killing the fish? I mean, come on.

FISHERMAN: You wouldn't like it if somebody come up to you and said, "Hey, you're off six months, pal. See you." You'd be devastated. You'd be devastated.

(APPLAUSE)I mean, come on, we've got a problem; let's fix it. You have a problem with the river, fix the damn river. Blow it up, get rid of it, but fix it.

LEE HOCHBERG: In the meantime, fishing towns are bracing for hard times. One Oregon coastal community says it will lose $350,000 tourist dollars alone when it cancels its annual salmon celebration. Some idle fishermen say they'll try fishing for lower-value fish, like tuna, from their boats, but that season won't begin until later in the summer and restaurants and supply shops are suffering now.

Dan Morris owns Bass and Tackle in Charleston.

DAN MORRIS, Shop Owner: There ain't no sense in buying any trolling wire, or hootchies, or anything if there's not going to be a season. There's no reason to do it. They need supplies, yes, but they can't go fishing. So why buy the supplies?

LEE HOCHBERG: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced last week it will recommend the electric utility that operates the four Klamath River dams install fish ladders. Salmon could then access 300 miles of river that have been blocked for 50 years.

BILL RINNE: Anything that could help the fish, we're not opposed to that. That would be good.

LEE HOCHBERG: But fishing advocates say it will take much more to resolve the water woes on the oversubscribed Klamath. And until they're fixed, there will be only more Pacific fishing season closures.