By Sean Horgan
---- — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren says she remains steadfast in her efforts to secure disaster assistance for Massachusetts fishermen, if frustrated by the very process that would deliver it.
“You know what it’s like down here right now,” Warren, D-Mass., said in a Wednesday night phone interview with the Times.
That is as succinct a description of the current state of Capitol Hill gridlock and partisan angst as you’re likely to find. The blogosphere and punditocracy can go on forever, running the same ribbon of verbal asphalt over the same scarred foothills. Nine words seems to work so much better.
But there was real frustration in Warren’s voice — a resignation that as Washington grinds on, running on devalued currency of payback and posturing, the commercial fishing industry in Gloucester and throughout New England slips a little further over the horizon.
Warren said she was heartened earlier in the week when Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick certified the scope of the economic hardship that has ripped through Bay State fishing communities after NOAA’s drastic cuts in seminal groundfish quotas, thus opening the door to the possibility of low-interest loans to fishermen from the Small Business Administration.
Warren also understands why the same fishermen and shore-side businesses might be underwhelmed by the offer, given the advanced state of the industry’s demise against the backdrop of the immutable equation: no fish, no money to pay back loans.
Still, she said, any offer of help is better than no offer at all.
“The SBA loans are something the fishing industry had asked for and I think it’s a good step,” Warren said. “It may not be able to help most of them. But if it can help anyone, I’m glad to see it. But we’ve got to do more than that.”
She recognizes that the economic disaster declared by the Department of Commerce, the overseer of NOAA, extends beyond the commercial fishing fleet.
“Groundfish cuts impact our coastal communities far beyond the fishing boats,” Warren said. “Low catch allocations directly impact shore-side businesses whose livelihoods depend on a vibrant fishing industry.’
The more compelling form of federal assistance, she said, is the $150 million in direct disaster assistance — grants, not loans — contained in the Senate Appropriations bill that sits languishing while Republicans and Democrats fight over the federal debt ceiling.
That is the same $150 million, primarily targeting Massachusetts fishermen and related shore-side businesses, that was included in the disaster relief bill a year ago for Hurricane Sandy that Republicans blocked in the House.
“The way I see it, a disaster is a disaster and the federal government should be stepping up to help our hard-working fishermen,” Warren said. “Especially because this is a disaster that was, in part, caused by federal government policies.”
That was her first shot across the bow of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the conversation. It was not her last.
“The fishermen distrust NOAA for good reason,” she said. “They learned the hard way. NOAA has not consulted fishermen in the way it promised. It has not worked with fishermen.”
The Bay State’s now-senior senator said she continues to push NOAA to be more forthcoming and flexible in meeting the needs of those who make their living from the sea. But even the senatorial version of the gangster lean only can go so far.
The same appropriations bill that contains the $150 million in direct disaster aid also has a provision that, using the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act, calls on NOAA to use the import tariffs on imported fish to fund research, annual stock assessments and improve data collection, including agency-funded observers.
“If we can get this appropriations bill popped loose, we’ll not only be able to get the $150 million in disaster aid, but we’ll also make sure there is ongoing money to support better science in the area and to work with the fishermen.”
Sean Horgan may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT