The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee has included $150 million for fisheries disasters in its fiscal 2014 budget proposal for the Department of Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies.
And the budget measure includes a number of other directives aimed at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including a proposed requirement that NOAA charter private and commercial fishing boats to carry out cooperative research with an eye toward addressing a long standing gulf between NOAA and the industry regarding credible fisheries science.
The budget measure was cleared by the Appropriations panel headed by Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, and the Commerce/Justice/Science Subcommittee, according to the fishing industry online news site SavingSeafood.com and is aimed at providing disaster aid for Massachusetts fishermen as well as those in other New England states, New York and New Jersey, and Alaska and Mississippi.
All of those areas’ fisheries were recognized last September as being in states of “economic disaster” as designated by then-Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank.
In addition to the disaster aid — which still must survive several steps in the federal budgeting process to become reality — the subcommittee’s bill essentially orders NOAA to steer a portion of its revenue from seafood import duties toward the expanded fisheries research, as required by the 1954 Saltonstall-Kennedy Act.
Under that measure, 10 percent of the revenues generated by the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act will be used for competitive grants towards community-based plans to help coastal fishing communities and industry retool and modernize their fleets, shore services, and port facilities to improve innovation and sustainability. The Saltonstall-Kennedy Act funds also cannot be used for internal NOAA management, as has been the case now for several years in the past.
First-year Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been pushing for both types of action, hailed the Appropriations actions.
“I’m deeply grateful to Chairwoman Mikulski and the Appropriations Committee for approving critical disaster aid and assistance programs to help hard-working fishing families in Massachusetts,” Warren said. “The fishing industry has long been an essential part of the commonwealth’s economy and our proud traditions, and it is vitally important we support our fishermen in these difficult times.”
The funds from the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act — money also sought for fisheries under a separate bill filed by Congressman John Tierney in the U.S. House — are directed to be used for cooperative research, annual stock assessments, and efforts to improve data collection including catch monitoring. The bill will also require NOAA to engage the industry to improve coordination in states in conducting surveys and research; despite pushes from Tierney and former U.S. Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown, NOAA has consistently resisted any efforts at bringing in fishermen to participate in cooperative research in the past.
Under the bill, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service would also be required to provide adequate funding for at-sea and dockside monitoring for sector management plans that impose observer coverage as a condition for new and expanded fishing opportunities in the Northeast groundfishery, which includes most of the fleet out of Gloucester.
The initiative requiring NOAA to charter fishing boats and carry out research, and the directing of the disaster aid to go toward modernizing fleets and “retooling” communities fleets and waterfronts for the future, closely parallels some of the ideas that emerged from two harbor planning workshops in Gloucester over the last year, hosted by Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Harbor Development Director Sarah Garcia, with the provisions pulled together in large part by former city councilor Valerie Nelson and waterfront activist Damon Cummings.
The so-called “bridge plan” for Gloucester’s waterfront future, was derided by many in the fishing industry because aspects of it were seen as if Gloucester was giving up on challenging NOAA’s regulations and the industry’s own future. But the funding of cooperative research and other fishery projects, if it holds up through the federal budgeting process, will give new fuel to those proposals.
Gloucester’s fleet is especially dominated by small independent day boats that carry out inshore ground fishing and have been hit especially hard by limit cuts of up to 78 percent clamped by NOAA for Gulf of Maine cod and other species, but fishermen have raised a number of credibility questions regarding NOAA’s science, stock assessment models and methods, and trawling studies and that fishermen say have not accounted for shifting populations in the seas.
NOAA’s science and regulatory practices have also drawn a lawsuit from state Attorney General Martha Coakley challenging that the agency has not adhered to economic development provisions of its own Magnuson-Stevens Act and has not resisted utilizing scientific advancements that would deliver more realistic stock assessments.
The lawsuit is still pending in federal court.