The Northeast groundfishing industry proved deeply divided Thursday about a draft legislative proposal under discussion within the New England Congressional delegation for a massive federal bailout and buyback package for fishermen and related businesses.
The size of the package is $200 million, including a government loan to industry for purchasing permits and boats to be repaid by those who continue fishing.
The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, earlier this week approved a resolution at its board meeting supporting in principle the disaster relief package. And according to a spokesman for Rep. Barney Frank, “all the action items” in a draft letter circulating in the delegation “were directly requested by the fishing industry.”
The Thursday Times reported on a draft letter outlining a bailout and buyback package. Since then, the Times has received a second version of the letter, but while the language and rationale for the aid was different, the action items remained the same and the dollar figures vary only slightly.
The second draft describes the aid as: $67.5 million in disaster assistance for fishermen and their communities; $15 million to subsidize at-sea monitoring of fishermen mandated by the government; $10 million to cover defaults on the buyback program and $7.5 million for cooperative research, for a subtotal of $100 million in aid.
Both drafts, however, also discuss a $100 million loan program for the voluntary buyback that would allow fishermen struggling to stay afloat in the industry to bow out.
With more than 250 member businesses, the Gloucester-based coalition has been identified by a congressional source as a moving force for the aid package. But the coalition has not taken a formal position on the buyback, its spokesman Nick Brancaleone, said in an email Thursday.
Meanwhile, a number of fishermen, including seafood coalition members, former fishermen and a marine scientist who has been a lead industry advocate, Thursday scorned the package — which remains in a fluid state, as ideas flow across Washington while the delegation awaits a decision on whether the Department of Commerce intends to acknowledge that the Northeast groundfishery has legally failed.
“The buyback will be the end of the harbor and the fishing industry,” said retired fisherman and longtime former City Councilor John “Gus” Foote. “It’s a disgrace when government says we buy you out. Send the word out to Obama who says he wants to save jobs: Fishermen are just important as coal miners.”
“An industry funded buyout?” said Paul “Sasquatch” Cohan, who operates a small day-boat business from Gloucester. “We’ve had that for some time.”
“It is unacceptable to ask for buyout money when people have been able to sell out for all these years,” said Tina Jackson, a commercial fisherman in Pt. Judith, R.I., and president of the American Association of Fishermen and their Families.
“A hastily developed and poorly planned catch share system has evidently created a $200 million buyback program that is surreal, oddly circular, and counterproductive,” said Brian Rothschild, a professor of marine science at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, in an email.
“This proposed buy-back program ignores the issues that generated the disaster claims,” Rothschild added. “It would totally change the structure of the fleet, flying in the face of the NOAA claim that the catch share system would help “… to rebuild fisheries and sustain fishermen, communities, and vibrant waterfronts; increase the conservation of species, specifically end overfishing; and reduce the costs of management and business operations”.
“Making the fleet economically optimal cannot trump specific protections for fishermen in the Magnuson-Stevens Act nor can it eliminate traditional fishing communities,” Rothschild added. “The intent of Congress to improve fisheries management and develop fair and equitable allocations of fish stocks is completely sidestepped by this proposal.”
New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell declined to comment on the letters or discussions in Congress about the aid package, but said that, while aid to farmers facing environmental disaster can be likened in some ways to the fisheries, “there is a big difference.”
“After a farming disaster, the farmers still own their own land, but once the boats are gone, they cannot come back,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview.
Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk declined to comment on the aid package until she received guidance from the Gloucester Fisheries Commission.
Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine filed for a disaster declaration more than eight months ago. There has been no response although Sen. John Kerry has hinted that he expects a disaster declaration perhaps by next week.
Describing a “you broke it, you fix it” approach to fishery failures, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act that defines disasters requires that Secretary of Commerce to “make sums available” to repair the damage caused by fishery failures.
Industry consolidation has been ongoing for many years, a function of ever stricter conservation law and policy. But controversial government-based stock assessments have especially issued negative signals about the health of the fishery over the past year. And Jane Lubchenco, the president’s choice to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 2009, has pushed successfully for the immediate introduction of a catch share management system that has accelerated consolidation of the industry as bigger and better-capitalized businesses accumulated catch shares while marginal businesses either sold out, went inactive, or leased their allocations.
Governing the most complex fishery in the U.S., the groundfish catch share program was put into effect without limits on the accumulation of quota or protections for ports, and despite the requirement of the Magnuson Act, NOAA declined to give the industry a referendum.
That failure is the subject of a hearing next Wednesday before the First U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.
More Inside Don't buy the federal fishing 'buyout and bailout' package? You're not alone. -- See Times editorial, Page 5.