Disaster declaration issued for NE groundfish industry

Fishing boats in Menemsha Harbor — File photo by Nelson Sigelman

Acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank issued a disaster declaration on Thursday, September 13, for Northeast fisheries, which are facing the prospect of severely reduced groundfish catch limits in the 2013 season.

“Despite fishermen’s adherence to catch limits over the past few years, recent data shows that several key fish stocks are not rebuilding,” Blank wrote in a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick on Thursday. She said, “Low levels of these stocks are causing a significant loss of access to fishery resources with anticipated revenue declines that will greatly affect the commercial fishery.”

The disaster declaration is not tied to any funding but is expected to help elected officials from the region make the case to Congress to approve emergency funding for the industry.

In a statement, Patrick called the declaration “more critical than ever as coastal communities brace for possible additional cuts to the region’s groundfishery next year.”

The “commercial fishery failure” was issued for Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire, and Maine.

“This economic disaster is New England’s underwater equivalent of a drought, where the drops in stocks of fish are causing serious economic harm to fishing businesses, their families, and their communities. These people need help,” U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “Now it is up to Congress to show the leadership necessary to provide economic relief in the short term as we continue working with the industry, scientists, and resource managers to rebuild our fish stocks.”

National Marine Fisheries Service data released over the summer indicated that the U.S. Department of Commerce might cut catch limits for groundfish by between 43 percent and 73 percent. That information prompted much of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation — including Sen. John Kerry and Sen. Scott Brown — and Gov. Patrick to renew calls for disaster relief.

In November 2010, Patrick had sought $21 million in disaster relief for the fishing industry because of the transition to catch shares. Patrick and the governors of New Hampshire, Maine, and Rhode Island last week called on the federal government to deliver $100 million in disaster assistance to New England fishermen and fishing communities. A Kerry aide said the senator will seek a $100 million allocation.

Groundfish live near the ocean floor and include flounder, cod, and haddock, among other species.

Kerry will include the funding request in an emergency farm bill, his aide said. The U.S. House passed an emergency farm bill this summer and the Senate is expected to pass its own version.

“This is a big deal for our fishermen and the entire industry because it paves the way for the financial assistance that will determine whether they can stay open for business,” Kerry said in a statement. “This is exactly what we needed to strengthen our hand as we continue to go after the funding. I’ve been in close touch with Leader [Harry] Reid and I’m working with the New England Delegation to obtain $100 million in economic disaster assistance. Our fishermen are the farmers of the sea and today our fishermen are facing exactly what farmers in the Midwest are facing — a drought. Instead of a lack of rain, our fishermen are facing a lack of fish. Our fishermen and fishing communities did not cause this drought, but they need our help to get through it.”

Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester) said that while the aid is needed there is no guarantee how much Congress will include for Northeast fisheries. “When you have a declaration it’s not a given that you’ll get money,” he said.

“It’s long overdue,” Tarr told the News Service. “It’s actually frustrating that it took this long.”

Tarr said fishermen can’t survive further tightening of catch limits without transitional assistance, and he said he’d prefer that aid be targeted at helping fishermen stay in business rather than at buying them out. Keeping fishermen in business, he said, is critical to “shoreline infrastructure” like ice companies and wharf commerce.

“They’re struggling to survive and the rules are already very difficult and the number of active permits is declining and so it would be difficult for them to sustain any reduction in allowable catch, but the kinds that are being contemplated would pretty much, if nothing changes, guarantee the extinction of the industry as we know it,” Tarr said during a break in Thursday’s Senate session. “If you don’t have some assistance they can’t withstand further reductions.”

Tarr called for more reliable scientific research to be used, noting “wild fluctuations” in stock estimates have been used to make critical fisheries management decisions. He added, “People shouldn’t mistakenly believe that this money will solve the problem. This money will allow people to survive long enough to hopefully solve the problem.”

Markey, who joined in the call for disaster relief, raised the prospect of global warming being to blame for drops in the fish stock. “We need a comprehensive approach that looks not just at fishing pressure, but also steps up our scientific efforts to understand the significant changes taking place in New England’s ocean due to global warming,” Markey said.

Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk said the fishing industry is essential to the city, and she said she hoped a disaster declaration would bring several types of aid to the area’s fishing community, including “direct aid to fishermen.” Other funding could be used to improve the fisheries monitoring program, collaborative research between the fishing industry and scientists, protection of the port infrastructure and investment to “diversify the port economy,” including into the field of marine technology, Kirk told the News Service.

Kirk decried regulations she said have harmed the industry, which she said fishes in a sustainable manner.

“They see it every day in their pocketbook. Their business plans are subject to total disruption every time a new regulation is handed down,” Kirk said. She said, “Every fish that’s caught and landed in Gloucester is caught in a sustainable manner.”

Johanna Thomas, director of New England and Pacific Regions for the Environmental Defense Fund’s Oceans Program, said “serious declines” in Gulf of Maine cod and other groundfish and the expected reduction in catch limits for New England fishermen have “created a critical need to provide fishing families and communities with a federal economic recovery package.”

“It is crucial to target funds in areas that will result in increased fish stocks and a healthier, long-term outlook for the fishing industry,” Thomas said in a statement. “This includes more comprehensive and cost-effective monitoring on fishing vessels, sufficient funds for science research and stock assessments, and support for gear changes that will protect key species and reduce habitat impacts. Some of the funds can help fishing families market plentiful but underappreciated fish stocks like redfish, haddock, and pollock.

“Additionally, deciding reasonable limits on the ownership of fishing quota can help protect the diversity of New England’s fishing fleet in the years ahead. The problems facing the fishery — particularly those associated with climate change, habitat pressures and rising ocean temperatures — are long-term and the solutions should be also.”