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October 29, 2011

NOAA chief offers fishermen signs of relief

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco has made a series of policy commitments to relieve hardships and improve opportunity for the embattled groundfishing industry.

She also outlined steps her agency expects to take quickly to reach the conclusion that an "affected group" of fishermen warrants disaster assistance.

The commitments nearly complete a punch list of needs outlined in a letter to Lubchenco last week by U.S. Sen. John Kerry.

In a prepared statement, he described Lubchenco's actions as "a down payment" of "welcome steps" on the path to the disaster declaration that the state has been seeking since last fall.

Lubchenco's letter explained in detail how she — on behalf John Bryson, the new Commerce secretary — intended to process the documentation and decide whether at least a portion of the industry has been so harmed by economic conditions and government policies that emergency help is warranted.

The talk of a disaster declaration echoes a lengthy debate in which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief has defended the catch share approach to fisheries operations and management against claims that it creates a few satisfied winners, larger and better capitalized operations, while eliminating a growing number of smaller boats.

Lubchenco's letter is conditioned on the findings in two as yet unreleased economic research studies of the performance of the fleet during the first year of catch shares in New England — studies showing decreased quota or fishing opportunities due to tight statutory rebuilding deadlines for less than healthy stocks.

Her letter, however, indicated the focus is on a limited declaration that qualifies only a subsection of the fleet for emergency economic aid.

The first request — from Gov. Deval Patrick and Congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney last winter — sought $21 million for the entire groundfishing industry, which is undergoing consolidation and job loss as catch share trading favors the best capitalized businesses and biggest boats.

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