WASHINGTON - The Pacific Salmon Commission, which manages fishing of endangered salmon in the United States and Canada, is running out of money and could close by the end of the year.
The commission, which is funded equally by the two countries under a 1985 treaty, brokered a major agreement in 1999 that sharply reduced the catch of Pacific Northwest salmon off the coast of Canada. Salmon runs in the Northwest have reached record levels in recent years, in part because of the agreement.
But the Vancouver-based agency may be forced to close because Congress has refused to fund the U.S. share of its budget - about $1.1 million.
"It's a major issue," said Larry Cassidy, a U.S. commissioner from Washington state. "Loss of the commission would mean our ability to manage chinook fisheries coastwide (on both sides of the border) would be dramatically impaired."
Loss of funding would not nullify the treaty, but would make it harder to enforce and could lead to renewed confrontations between Canadian and U.S. fishermen, Cassidy and others said. The commission is charged with assessing the strength of individual salmon runs, setting catch levels for fishermen on both sides of the border and resolving disputes.
Before the 1999 agreement, cross-border confrontations were common. The dispute reached a low point in 1997 when Canadian fishing boats blocked an Alaska state ferry from departing Prince Rupert, British Columbia, after Canadian fishermen claimed Americans were taking too many salmon.
Don Kowal, executive secretary of the salmon commission, said officials are puzzled why the United States has not contributed its share of the funding - especially since the amount is so small. Canada has paid its full share.
"We are not talking big money here, but there are big consequences," Kowal said.
The commission is preparing to dismiss some or all of its 22-member staff and expects to cancel a planned meeting in Oregon in October, Kowal said.
Bush administration officials said the president included funding for the commission in his budget request for the current fiscal year, but money for the salmon agency and five other international panels was taken out when Congress approved the 2003 budget. The State Department has been trying to persuade Congress to redirect enough money from other accounts to keep the commission from collapsing.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it is vital that the salmon commission remains in place. The State Department has tried to take money from other commissions to fund the salmon panel but has been rejected by the Senate.