WASHINGTON - The State Department has agreed to spend $600,000 from other accounts to help keep the Pacific Salmon Commission afloat until money becomes available in the new fiscal year, a spokesman said Friday.
The decision, which must be approved by Congress, came after a meeting Thursday between Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
The Vancouver, British Columbia-based commission, which manages fishing of endangered salmon in the United States and Canada, is in danger of closing because Congress has refused to fund the U.S. share of its budget, more than $1 million.
The commission is supposed to be funded equally by the two countries under a 1985 treaty. The commission has been operating solely on its Canadian share, but its accounts are nearly depleted.
"The salmon commission's efforts to protect and enhance salmon stocks along the West Coast are critical to both individual fishermen and to good bilateral relations with Canada," Murkowski said. "It's critical that we keep it going."
The commission 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 that agreement.
Under the deal reached with the State Department, the agency would transfer money from an account for diplomatic and consular programs to the salmon commission, Murkowski said. Such transfers require congressional approval, but Murkowski and other lawmakers were confident that could occur quickly.
Don Kowal, executive secretary of the salmon commission, called the announcement good news. "I think this for me is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
The commission has scaled back many of its programs and has been preparing to dismiss some or all of its 22-member staff, Kowal said.
The $600,000 would cover the agency's expenses through the end of the month.
Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he will take steps to ensure that money for the salmon commission will be included in the budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.