By Teresa Carson
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - The U.S. government on Thursday closed almost all of the ocean off the West Coast to salmon fishing, clearing the way for governors of states hard hit by years of declining catches to seek federal relief aid for losses estimated at $290 million.
West Coast salmon populations have declined sharply in the last few years, with experts citing a variety of reasons including climate change and hungry sea lions.
"Today NOAA's Fisheries Service will close most of the West Coast salmon fisheries based on the recommendations of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council," James Balsiger, acting assistant administrator of fisheries, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, citing "low returns of fall Chinook salmon to the Sacramento River system."
Balsiger said NOAA has not pinpointed the cause of the "sudden" collapse of the Sacramento River run, but "NOAA scientists are suggesting changes in the ocean conditions."
NOAA estimates fewer than 60,000 salmon will make it back to the Sacramento River this year -- about one-third the number needed to sustain a healthy fish population.
Consumers should brace for higher salmon prices. Balsiger said wild salmon "will cost a lot" at the supermarket, even though salmon supplies from Alaska are expected to be "in pretty good shape."
Governors and congressional delegations of the affected states have been working to get relief for fishermen, charter businesses, suppliers, motel operators and others that will be hit by closure of commercial and recreational fishing.
"Given skyrocketing gas and food prices, getting aid to these fishing communities quickly is critical," Oregon Senator Gordon Smith said in a statement. "It's a matter of survival. This declaration allows us to begin pushing for funds immediately."
(Editing by Lisa Baertlein and David Gregorio)