GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 10, 2013

GOP bills aid NOAA, not fishing

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — Replacing virtually all fisheries disaster relief for Massachusetts and seven other states in the Senate’s Hurricane Sandy supplemental spending bill, Republican House Rules Committee amendments feature $261 million for two highly controversial programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration unaffected by the superstorm.

One line item in the two amendment package calls for spending $150 million for “Regional Ocean Partnership grants,” which fund non-government organization involvement in the National Ocean Policy’s “marine spacial planning” initiative.

The other item authorizes spending $111 million on a “weather satellite data mitigation gap reserve fund.”

The National Ocean Policy and marine spatial planning efforts — described by critics as “ocean zoning” — were created in 2010 by an executive order signed by President Obama; the policy has been bitterly criticized as executive overreach by Rep. Doc Hastings, the Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which has held a series of hearings on the policy.

The hearings emphasized that Congress repeatedly rejected legislation to apply marine spatial planning before it was initiated unilaterally by the White House.

The weather satellite program is troubled by the likelihood that existing satellites will reach the end of their productive lives before NOAA is able to replace them, and has been the subject of auditing criticism by the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Commerce.

A Sept. 27, 2012, inspector general’s audit “concluded that while progress has been made, the program’s capabilities, schedule, and cost baselines remain uncertain.” The audit also found that NOAA has not articulated an acquisition strategy for either of the satellites for which contractual and technical decisions must be made in the coming year.”

Both line items are found in the $33.677 billion amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican, filed together with a $17 billion amendment by Rep. Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Rogers’ smaller spending package contains more initiatives directly related to Sandy, but it also authorizes the Department of Homeland Security’s Domestic Nuclear Detection Office to spend $3,869,000 on “systems acquisition.”

The Domestic Nuclear Detection Office was created in 2005 to detect and interdict the smuggling of radioactive materials. By June 2010, the office had spend and largely wasted $200 million, according to the Government Accountability Office, attempting to invent a new radiation detection technology.

Frelinghuysen and Rogers did not respond to repeated inquiries into their reasoning for dropping fisheries relief for spending unrelated to Sandy.

The two bills, along with an earlier $9.7 billion bill that has been approved by both Houses and sent to President Obama covering insurance claims on property damaged by Hurricane Sandy last October, effectively match a $60.4 billion Sandy supplemental appropriation from the Senate that included $150 million in fisheries disaster relief funding — primarily for the Northeast groundfishery states of Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York, with some of the economic disaster aid likely bound for Gloucester.

Yet, all but $5 million of the fisheries disaster relief was eliminated from Frelinghuysen’s amendment; Rogers’ contained no fisheries disaster relief.

The House Rules Committee is accepting draft amendments to Rogers’ and Frelinghuysen’s amendments through Friday and then will decide which will be debated and voted on the floor next week, a spokesman for the Rules Committee said in a telephone interview.

Congressman John Tierney Wednesday announced his intention to file an amendment to raise the fisheries funds from $5 million to the $150 million backed by the Senate. Along with lawmakers across Massachusetts and other impacted states, Tierney has been outspoken in his frustration with the House Republican proposals that trim the aid to provide support for a federally recognized “economic disaster.”

“The hardships confronting our fishermen are real and urgent,” Tierney said in a statement to the Times. “Recent natural disasters in addition to stocks that are not rebuilding have caused too many of our fishermen and their families to face the threat of bankruptcy and the loss of their livelihood.

“We don’t know why House Republicans have chosen to cut this funding, but we support the Senate provision,” said Democratic Congressman Ed Markey of Malden. “The House needs to approve a bill that responds to the disasters that have affected our region’s vital fishing communities.”

Democratic Congressman William Keating of Quincy said he was also preparing an amendment to restore aid for Northeast fishermen. Given the need to find an offset for any increase in funding within the bill, Rep. Keating’s amendment redirects the $111 million included for the weather satellite data mitigation gap reserve fund and applies that exact amount toward providing assistance for fisheries that received a disaster declaration in 2012.

The holdup in any aid allocation continues to frustrate local fishermen.

”We are the debris,” Gloucester commercial fisherman Paul Cohan said Wednesday of he and his colleagues.

Cohan said he has put his permit up for sale and decided to exit the industry due to the fisheries disaster that has unfolded over the four years that Jane Lubcheno has headed NOAA for President Obama. The decline has been driven by constricted catch limits mandated by Congress in the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, and the transformation of the groundfishery into a commodity market trading in catch shares, a policy pushed by Lubchenco that has led to consolidation within the fleets of Gloucester and other fishing communities.

A small boat day fisherman, Cohan, who worked alone or with a crew of one gillnetting cod primarily close to shore, typifies the subset of commercial fishermen who have been most aggrieved by the combination of management policies. The New England Fishery Management Council meets at the end of January to decide how much farther to go in constricting commercial fishing, which supports the hub ports of Gloucester and New Bedford and many smaller ports from Maine to New York’s Long Island.

Responding to petitions backed by papers showing the industry in a downward spiral across all six states filed by the region’s governor’s beginning in November 2011, the acting commerce secretary declared the disaster in September, noting that fishermen did not bring about their own demise.

”Disaster relief funding for the fishery is not ‘pork’ — it is based on a natural disaster,” said the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group. “Every penny of the disaster funding is critically needed to help sustain a fishery that is part of American history.”

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.