Along with Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine have also been waiting for more than half a year for a response from the Commerce Department to separate filings for fishery disaster declarations.
A week after Gov. Deval Patrick, on Nov. 15, filed scientific studies showing how catch shares, the currency of the newly created commodity market, have had “a devastating impact on the commonwealth’s groundfishery,” Maine Gov. Paul LePage filed a parallel request for his state, and on Jan. 13, 2012, Gov. John H. Lynch filed a disaster relief request for New Hampshire.
Rhode Island and New York are also reportedly preparing similar pleas for federal relief for their fishing communities.
In March, the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, urged all New England coastal states and New York and New Jersey to appeal for disaster relief.
Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, on Thursday called on “the federal government” to declare a regional fisheries disaster.
In doing so, she put herself in a rare accord with her Republican opponent, Sen. Scott Brown.
On Wednesday, Brown together with Sen. John Kerry and Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank and William Keating wrote to President Obama in frustration over the refusal of the Commerce Department to respond to multiple entreaties for relief from a combination of more rigid conservation measures, disappointing — and disputed — stock assessments that point toward a catastrophic future for Massachusetts fishing industry, and the catch share system which has contributed to ongoing industry consolidation.
Threading itself through all three filings is the sense that these factors have drawn the nation’s oldest continuous industry into a death spiral.
“Over the past two years,” the delegation wrote, “federal fishery regulators have stalled similar disaster declaration requests from New England states.” The delegation noted that NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco promised last October to put Gov. Deval Patrick’s request on the “fast track.”
The Commerce Department oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which in turn oversees the nation’s fisheries.
“We are committed to this industry, to the fishing communities, and to the people in the communities,” said White House spokesman Keith Maley in an email. “Preserving this industry and assisting the communities is critically important to this administration.”
Getting a “sizable fraction of the fleet” off the water was the expressed goal of Lubchenco, President Obama’s nominee to head the NOAA.
She arrived at NOAA’s helm in 2010 with impeccable green credentials, but neglected to mention at her confirmation hearing her intention to convert the nation’s fisheries, a commonly held resource by tradition, into limited access catch share commodity markets in whose DNA is hyper-consolidation, and job loss.
Twice, in 2011 and 2012, the Republican-controlled House with Tierney, Frank and numerous Democrats joining the majority, voted to halt funding for new catch share programs in the Atlantic and Gulf fisheries, but the administration — allied with some green groups, notably the Environmental Defense Fund where Lubchenco had been an officer — killed the anti-catch share initiative in the Senate.
An Aug. 9 letter by New Hampshire’s bi-partisan congressional delegation urged Acting Commerce Secretary Robert Blank “to quickly approve” Gov. Lynch’s 7-month old filing for disaster relief. A controversial 2011 Gulf of Maine cod assessment, which reversed the findings from just three years earlier, and a statutory deadline to rebuild cod by 2014 were cited as putting the state’s commercial fleet on a track to annihilation.
“New Hampshire’s fishermen depend on Gulf of Maine cod for nearly 90 percent of their revenues,” much more than any other state, wrote Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte and Congressman Frank Guinta. They added that the New Hampshire fleet absorbed a 39 percent cut in the value of landings in 2010. Lynch and Shaheen are Democrats, Ayotte and Guinta, Republicans.
The Maine congressional delegation, Republican Sens. Olimpia Snowe and Susan Collins, and Democratic Congressman Michael H. Michaud and Chellie Pingree, focused in its letter in support of Gov. LePage’s disaster declaration request on the harsh economics of the new business model, which allows fishermen to pool allocations and trade catch shares to improve their portfolio of opportunities.
Held to be promising, this system also came with higher costs. “While revenues appear to have increased,” the Maine delegation wrote last Nov. 28, “the costs of operating ... have also risen dramatically, far exceeding any increased revenues at the dock and resulting in a net loss for many fishermen.”
“I am deeply troubled by the new report suggesting massive reductions in catch limits for 2013,” said Warren in a release on the day following the delegation letter to President Obama. “The projected reductions would seriously damage our fishermen and our fishing communities, who have already been hit hard.
“It appears certain now,” wrote Jackie Odell, executive director of the coalition, “that the catch level for fishing year 2012 beginning on May 1, 2012, will result in the collapse of many small business fishing operations. This holds true for all vessel sizes and fishing gears throughout the region. This is truly a regional crisis.”
Richard Gaines may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464 or email@example.com.