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Bush Withholds Salmon Disaster Money as He Pushes for Corporate Bailouts

Thursday 25 September 2008

by: Dan Bacher, t r u t h o u t | Perspective

As George Bush pushes Congress to bail out Wall Street corporations, he refuses to immediately release $70 million out of the $170 million appropriated by Congress for disaster relief to salmon fishermen and businesses impacted by this year's salmon closures.

While George W. Bush wants taxpayers to give Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson a $700 billion blank check to bail out Wall Street for its reckless speculation and greed, the administration announced last week that it would release only $100 million of the $170 million appropriated to salmon fishermen and businesses impacted by this year's salmon fishing closure off the California and Oregon coasts and in Central Valley rivers.

Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) and Mike Thompson (D-California), along with ten other members of Congress, wrote to President Bush on September 19 urging him to distribute the full $170 million in disaster aid to fishermen and businesses suffering from the closure of the salmon fishing season on the West Coast caused by the collapse of the Sacramento River fall run Chinook salmon population.

"Playing games with the livelihood of fishers across the Pacific Northwest is yet another sign that the Bush administration has no commitment to protect our valuable river systems, and no interest in helping the fishing communities and economies that rely on them," the letter stated. "It is also completely unacceptable. We insist that you comply with congressional intent and immediately release the full $170 million in federal disaster aid for Pacific Northwest fishers."

The other representatives who signed the letter were Brian Baird (D-Washington), Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), Lois Capps (D-California), Anna Eshoo (D-California), Sam Farr (D-California), Darlene Hooley (D-Oregon), Doris Matsui (D-California), Lynn Woolsey (D-California), David Wu (D-Oregon) and George Miller (D-California).

"The Bush administration has once again put politics ahead of people," said North Coast Congressman Thompson. "Because of the administration's disastrous policies, Pacific Coast fishing families have been devastated. Congress appropriated $170 million in federal disaster relief, but this latest proposal by the Bush administration to withhold a large portion of these funds shows no regard for hardworking fishing families nor their livelihood."

"I am absolutely astounded that the administration is not distributing the full $170 million Congress allocated in the Farm Bill to deal with the salmon disaster," DeFazio said. "Instead, they are trying to steal $70 million from salmon fishermen and give it to an incompetent defense contractor. The fishing community of Oregon is already suffering because of the flawed Bush policies in the Sacramento River basin. They should not have to suffer again because the president has hired people in Florida who can't count. We've been there before."

In a news release, US Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez offered no reason the other $70 million owed to the fishermen and businesses wasn't being released immediately.

"The salmon fishery has been a mainstay of the West Coast's ocean fishing revenues for many years," said Gutierrez. "This year's closure left thousands of fishermen and dependent businesses struggling to make ends meet. This disaster aid package of $100 million will help them get back on their feet."

Brian Gorman, spokesman for NOAA Fisheries, said the remaining $70 million of Congressionally appropriated disaster relief money "is expected to become available later in the year as the $100 million is spent.

"The administration requested to transfer $70 million for the Census, but I have no idea if there is support for this in Congress," Gorman added. "If there is no vote to do otherwise, the funds will remain as originally designated and the disaster relief aid will become available after October 1. I expect all of the money to be distributed."

He noted that the agency would provide the money in the form of a grant to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. The commission will distribute the money, based on the agreements reached with the states, to fishermen and related businesses affected by this year's closure of the ocean salmon fishing season off California, Oregon and Washington.

The governors of all three West Coast states requested a federal disaster declaration as a result of the closures. The declaration, issued by Gutierrez in May, paved the way for Congress to appropriate the $170 million disaster relief package in July.

The states of Washington, Oregon and California estimated damages to the fishing industry to total $290 million. Of the $100 million released, approximately $63 million will go to California, $25 million to Oregon and $12 million to Washington State. The full disaster aid is needed immediately in order that fishermen can make boat payments, insurance payments, mortgage payments and keep food on the table.

In June, the Office of Management and Budget that puts together the president's annual budget sent Congress a revised budget request for more funding to carry out the 2010 Census. "The White House is requesting $546 million more for the Census and has proposed using $70 million of the $170 million in salmon disaster money allocated in the Farm Bill to pay for the cost over-runs," according to DeFazio and Thompson.

The administration entered into a contract with the Harris Corporation, a Florida defense contractor, to conduct the Census, but the contractor has run into serious cost over-runs amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars. Congressmen DeFazio and Thompson and 13 other members of Congress sent President Bush a letter at that time they say was "largely ignored" by the administration.

The refusal to disburse the $70 million in salmon aid relief now is particularly outrageous because the Bush and Schwarzenegger administrations are largely responsible for the unprecedented fishery collapse. The Sacramento fall run Chinook salmon population has declined from over 800,000 in 2002 to fewer than 60,000 fish this year.

The Bush and Schwarzenegger administrations claim "ocean conditions" are responsible for the collapse, but all of the available evidence demonstrates that it is water policies that favor agribusiness and corporate water developers over fish, the environment and local communities that caused the dramatic decline. The collapse undoubtedly occurred because of record water exports from the California Delta by the state and federal projects to drainage-impaired land in the San Joaquin Valley during the years returning salmon were supposed to go to sea. For example, 2005 was a record export year with 6.4 million acre-feet of water diverted from the estuary.

It is believed many salmon never made it out of the Bay-Delta estuary, but were instead chopped up in the Delta pumps, disoriented and stranded in dead end sloughs because of reverse flows caused by pumping, and deprived of forage. At the same time, the state of California failed to put its hatchery salmon into salt water acclimation pens, as they had done previously, during 2005 and 2006. This resulted in increasing loss of salmon to predators when the stunned salmon were released into San Pablo Bay.

I believe that you can't fully understand the Central Valley Chinook salmon collapse without understanding the dramatic decline of four California Delta pelagic species-delta smelt, longfin smelt, juvenile striped bass and threadfin shad. A team of federal and state scientists has pinpointed water exports as the number one cause of the "Pelagic Organism Decline," followed by toxic chemicals and invasive species.

As Peter Moyle, prominent U.C. Davis fishery scientist, recently stated, "Overall, blaming 'ocean conditions' for salmon declines is a lot like blaming Hurricane Katrina for flooding New Orleans, while ignoring the many human errors that made the disaster inevitable, such as poor construction of levees or destruction of protective salt marshes. The listings of the winter and spring runs of Central Valley Chinook as endangered species were warnings of likely declines on an even larger scale. Continuing on our present course will result in the permanent loss of a valuable and iconic fishery unless we start taking corrective action soon."

Meanwhile, the Bush administration, while trying to steal money allocated to the victims of a fishery collapse engineered by the Bush and Schwarzenegger administrations, wants to soak the taxpayers for another $700 billion for corporate criminals who should be in jail, not receiving another handout. That's on top of $1.1 trillion for other recent bailouts, including A.I.G., Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Bear Stearns. Just when you think the Bush regime has sunk to a new low, it will always find a way to reach a lower level of criminality in its policy of "socialism for the rich."

Note: The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on the Harris Corporation and the problems with the Census on June 11, 2008.

* * *

The text of the letter sent to President Bush is below:

September 18, 2008a
The Honorable Jim Nussle, Director
Office of Management and Budget
Washington, DC 20503

Dear Director Nussle:

We write with increasing concern regarding full disbursement of the $170 million appropriated by Congress to compensate fishers for the unprecedented closure of the West Coast salmon fishery.

Earlier this week, NOAA Fisheries (NOAA) indicated that it would be dispersing $100 million of the $170 million appropriated by Congress to provide aid to affected fishers. NOAA further indicated that the remaining $70 million may be disbursed if further need was demonstrated, and "if Congress did not act to rescind the funds.' We have been informed that NOAA is not dispersing the full amount now because OMB has not yet released the funds. We find this unconscionable.

First, as we expressed to you in June, it is unacceptable that the Administration has proposed-and now seems to be trying to implement-a plan to take disaster aid from the fishing communities of California, Oregon and Washington to pay for cost overruns associated with this Administration's questionable contract with the Harris Corporation to complete the 2010 census. Indeed, the reason why Congress had to step up to provide this emergency aid to fishers in our states is because of this Administration's unlawful and shortsighted policies regarding the Pacific Northwest's rivers.

Second, we have received no satisfactory explanation for why OMB can legally withhold funds that Congress has appropriated for a specific purpose such as this. The states of Oregon, Washington, and California have followed the process set out in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which provides for emergency assistance. Now that NOAA has accepted the application from Pacific Fishery Management Council, and has approved the $170 million grant to the states, OMB is legally obligated to release the funds so that affected fishers may receive the aid they desperately need. The law provides for no further "assessment of need,' and we are aware of no precedent for OMB's alleged "phased' disbursement of these funds.

To us, the fact that OMB is withholding $70 million, when it proposed in June to reprogram this exact same amount to pay for the Administration's mistakes with its census contract, smacks of political gamesmanship. Playing games with the livelihood of fishers across the Pacific Northwest is yet another sign that the Bush Administration has no commitment to protect our valuable river systems, and no interest in helping the fishing communities and economies that rely on them. It is also completely unacceptable. We insist that you comply with congressional intent and immediately release the full $170 million in federal disaster aid for Pacific Northwest fishers.


Brian Baird (D-Washington), Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), Lois Capps (D-California), Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), Anna Eshoo (D-California), Sam Farr (D-California), Darlene Hooley (D-Oregon), Doris Matsui (D-California), Mike Thompson (D-California), Lynn Woolsey (D-California), David Wu (D-Oregon), George Miller (D-California)

Dan Bacher is a local activist and an editor of The Fish Sniffer, "The No. 1 newspaper in the world dedicated entirely to fishermen."

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