Mass. lawmakers join Maine in urging fisheries disaster declaration

Posted Aug. 16, 2012, at 6:01 a.m.

Bipartisan frustration with Obama administration fisheries policy in Massachusetts — gone from simmer to boil — finally reached the White House on Wednesday.

It arrived in the form a “Dear Mr. President” letter, signed by Sens. Scott Brown and John Kerry and three Democratic representatives asking Obama to direct the Department of Commerce to do what it has refused to do for nearly two years: issue a disaster declaration that would mean emergency financial relief for fishermen, who are facing increasingly hard times not of their own making, the authors say.

In Maine, the LePage administration and members of the state’s congressional delegation asked for similar relief late last year, noting a 33 percent decline in the number of Maine-based boats that made money from fishing for haddock, cod, flounder and other groundfish.

New Hampshire has also filed requests for disaster declarations for their fishing communities. New York is said to be ready to take similar action.

“We are concerned that recent efforts by your administration to provide disaster relief for agricultural producers, including catfish farmers, affected by drought … did not include assistance for the hardworking fishermen and fishing communities in New England,” the letter began.

Signing along with Brown and Kerry were Reps. John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann; Barney Frank, who represents New Bedford; and William Keating who represents the ports along Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod.

Brown is a Republican; Kerry the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee who has been among Obama’s closest Senate allies and is considered a possible secretary of state in a second Obama administration.

Kerry and Brown have formed the linchpin of a bipartisan, fishing port coalition in Massachusetts with allied bipartisan delegations all along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

“The fact that this issue has risen to the level of the president of the United States is appalling for the lack of response it represents and at the same time a testament to the importance of the fishing industry in America,” said Mayor Carolyn Kirk.

“The proposed catch allocations represent a dagger pointed at the heart of the New England groundfish fleet,” said New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell. “I applaud the efforts of our federal delegation to elevate what can fairly be called a crisis to the president’s desk.”

The federal lawmakers’ letter was sent a day after Gov. Deval Patrick, co-chairsman of the Obama reelection campaign committee, released the text of a letter of his own to the acting commerce secretary. Patrick’s letter asked for a response to his official request for a disaster declaration. That request, submitted last November, included new scientific studies measuring the decline of the industry by different metrics.

The commercial fishing industry has consolidated at an accelerating pace, with higher landings and gross revenues for fewer boats and a lesser number of crew members.

The forces at work at weakening the industry include more stringent conservation regulation, the disappointing pace of recovery of over-harvested stocks and, according to the governor, an Obama administration policy of commodifying the groundfishery; this encourages trading in catch shares.

“Catch shares have had a devastating impact on the commonwealth’s groundfish fishery,” Patrick wrote in his November filing to then Commerce Secretary John Bryson.

Jane Lubchenco, Obama’s choice to administer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said soon after taking office that the catch share approach was engineered to force “a sizable fraction of the fleet off the water.” At this, she has succeeded. NOAA figures show the number of boats has dropped by more than 20 percent in two years with the number of crewmembers down by more than 13 percent.

Brown, Tierney and Frank have all called for Lubchenco’s dismissal. Kerry has said he may well come to agree with them — if the administration does not come to the aid of the fishing industry.

“While the focus continues to be on the situation facing our farmers and ranchers,” the lawmakers wrote, “the lack of recognition and corresponding help for New England fails to recognize our fishermen who endure harsh conditions and put their personal safety at risk to put food on our tables.”

The congressional delegation has become increasingly frustrated by the lack of any response to calls and letters since the governor filed his most recent formal request for a fisheries failure declaration last November. About that time, Lubchenco, appearing at a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing in Boston organized by Kerry, promised to put the application on a fast track and get the state a rapid response, the delegation letter noted.

“Earlier this month, we again urged the Department of Commerce and NOAA to declare a disaster and put together a plan to provide meaningful relief. The Massachusetts fishing industry has been devastated in recent years and the situation for our fishing communities is becoming increasingly desperate,” the lawmakers wrote.

“According to recent estimates, annual catch limits for several important groundfish species next year could be reduced by between 45 percent and 73 percent,” they said. “This unwelcome news comes at a time when the fleet size has already been decimated by NOAA regulations that have smaller independent operators and fishing communities struggling to survive. More than a third of the New England fleet stands idle and a centuries-old industry is at risk of collapse.”

“While the focus continues to be on the situation facing our farmers and ranchers, the lack of recognition and corresponding help for New England fails to recognize our fishermen who endure harsh conditions and put their personal safety at risk to put food on our tables.”

©2012 the Gloucester Daily Times (Gloucester, Mass.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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