GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 26, 2012

Senate panel takes $119M in NOAA budget for fish research

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

A U.S. Senate appropriations subcommittee has directed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to use its revenue stream from seafood import duties — an estimated $119 million next year — on fisheries research, as the 1954 Saltonstall-Kennedy Act required and Sen. John Kerry requested.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science.

Her subcommittee wrote language into President Obama's $5.1 billion 2013 NOAA budget request that requires the agency to use all Saltonstall-Kennedy funding for "fishery activities related to cooperative research, annual stock assessments, survey and monitoring projects, interjurisdictional fisheries grants, and fish information networks."

"I'm deeply grateful to Sen. Mikulski for making this happen, because I wasn't willing to wait for passage of my Saltonstall-Kennedy bill to achieve its intended results," said Kerry in a prepared statement. "Using the Saltonstall-Kennedy funds for their intended purpose is a down payment on trust."

It could not be determined if and how the directed spending would alter NOAA budgetary priorities.

Although Congress over the decades has come to allow NOAA to spend Saltonstall-Kennedy monies for general operations, the agency has continued to budget for the specific purposes described in the subcommittee language.

Kerry and Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, co-filed legislation in March that restructures the original Saltonstall-Kennedy Act to work through the eight regional fishery management councils established in the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Act. Co-sponsors include Sens. Scott Brown and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

Companion legislation was filed in the House by Reps. John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, and Barney Frank, who represents New Bedford.

The Kerry-Snowe bill introduced mechanisms for distributing NOAA's share of import tariffs on seafood — 30 percent of the total — to the regional councils that would appoint investment committees to decide how to use the region's share of the revenue stream.

The legislation is favored by the Pew Environment Group, but segments of the fishing industry, notably the Recreational Fishing Alliance, have wrinkled their noses at a provision that gives industry only three seats on the 13-seat investment committees.

Bob Jones, executive director of the Southeastern Fisheries Association, wrote to Kerry's staff Wednesday with praise for the concept and the need for funding stock assessments, but with concern that as written, without a competitive system for choosing projects to fund, "I'm afraid the money will only be awarded to friends of NOAA."

The NOAA appropriations bill also discontinues funding for NOAA's Northeast Regional office, based in Gloucester. The bill, however, must pass the full Senate before going to the House, where changes are expected, so neither action by the Mikulski subcommittee is certain to stand.

Specific requests made by Kerry in a letter to Mikulski — that $2 million be set aside to underwrite an emergency survey of Gulf of Maine cod, and that $1 million be used to reimburse legal costs of fishing industry victims of "enforcement abuses" — were not included in the markup language.

"I believe these funds should also be available to assist those who were hurt by the difficult transition to catch shares in New England," Kerry wrote to Mikulski. He also asked that part of the set-aside money be used to compensate commercial fishermen who were cheated out of their rightful allocation of catch shares by "mistaken" records or computer glitches.

The Saltonstall-Kennedy Act was sponsored by Massachusetts' senators in 1954 — the veteran Republican Leverett Saltonstall and young Democrat John F. Kennedy, the future President — to benefit the U.S. fishing industry. It directed that 30 percent of seafood import tariffs be used in fisheries marketing and development.

But over time, the obligation was itself set aside, and Congress began appropriating Saltonstall-Kennedy funds to NOAA for use in its operations. In 2010, the total duties collected on the imports of fishery products was $376.6 million, and, under the terms of the law, $113 million would have been secured for fisheries research and marketing.

Instead, $104.6 million went to NOAA's operations budget, and only $8.4 million was used by NOAA for grants for fisheries research and development projects.

Kerry last Thursday said he also opposed Mikulski's amendment to the NOAA appropriations bill that would defund the Northeast Division offices in Gloucester, and would ask her to remove it.

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