WASHINGTON - The Bush administration Wednesday released $100 million in disaster relief to non-Alaska West Coast salmon fishermen - $70 million less than the amount Congress approved to help those hurt by the sudden collapse of the Pacific Coast salmon industry.
The collapse left thousands of fishermen and dependent businesses struggling to make ends meet, said Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, adding: "This disaster aid package of $100 million will help them get back on their feet."
Of the initial $100 million, about $63 million will go to California, $25 million to Oregon and $12 million to Washington state, officials said. The breakdown is based on the projected economic impacts of the fishing shutdown in each state.
But salmon advocates and congressional Democrats complained that the Bush administration was shortchanging fishermen in the three states by $70 million. Congress approved $170 million in disaster relief as part of the recent farm bill.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., accused the Bush administration of "trying to steal money from salmon fishermen to give it to an incompetent defense contractor" that is overseeing the 2010 census.
The Bush administration announced in June that it wants to divert $70 million from the salmon relief fund to help pay for higher-than-expected costs of the conducting the census. The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau and NOAA Fisheries, the federal agency responsible for salmon recovery and planning.
Bob Lohn, northwest administrator of NOAA Fisheries, said the salmon money was not being diverted, but merely delayed until the new budget year begins in October.
"The full $100 million is available now," Lohn said, adding that based on current applications for federal assistance filed in the three states, the money being released "is certainly enough to cover the immediate need and then some."
Over the next few months, the remaining money will be made available to fishermen as they apply for assistance, Lohn said. He denied that the administration was engaged in any accounting tricks or attempts to shortchange fishermen.
"Will the money be there when the people apply for it? The answer is yes," he told reporters on a conference call Wednesday.
The fishery failure stemmed from the sudden collapse of the chinook salmon run in California's Sacramento River, where the salmon return to spawn. Scientists are studying the causes of the collapse, with possible factors ranging from ocean conditions and habitat destruction to dam operations and agricultural pollution.
A total of 4,229 applications for assistance have been sent out to ocean fishermen, processors, wholesalers and charter boat owners in the three states, said Randy Fisher, executive director of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is administering the salmon payments.
About half the requests for assistance are in California, a third from Oregon and the rest from Washington, Fisher said.
Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., called Lohn's explanation about the payment schedule a "song and dance" that showed the Bush administration doesn't care about fishermen or the communities where they live.
"It's just a terrible thing, and it's going to hurt a lot of people," Thompson said.
Fishermen in his Northern California district and up and down the West Coast "have been economically harmed," Thompson said. "They were caught in a disaster, Congress responded, and the Bush administration has once again failed the American public."
Thompson and other Democrats hinted that partisan politics were behind the decision, noting that the lion's share of the $70 million being withheld was targeted for California.
Under the plan announced Wednesday, California will receive roughly half of the $121 million it was scheduled to receive under the farm bill. Oregon will lose about $1 million and Washington state about $10 million.
Asked why there was such a large a discrepancy in the amounts being withheld, Thompson cited "a hot Senate race" in Oregon, where two-term Republican Gordon Smith is defending his seat in a close contest with Democrat Jeff Merkley.
Brian Gorman, a spokesman for the fisheries service, scoffed at Thompson's remark.
"There isn't any conspiracy to hold back the money and pretend it doesn't exist," Gorman said. "All of that money will go out the door to qualified applicants."
Thompson was unimpressed.
"Maybe," he said, "we should go to OMB (the White House budget office) and withhold over 30 percent of their salaries and tell them, 'Don't worry. In time you'll get it back.'"