By Richard Gaines
---- — The Northeast groundfishing industry, battered by conservation measures to protect weakened stocks and struggling to maintain its historic diversity while operating since 2010 as a commodities market geared toward encourages consolidation, was declared an economic disaster by the federal government Thursday.
But the finding, announced by Sen. John Kerry and Acting Commerce Secretary Robert Blank offered no certain assistance.
Although the Magnuson-Stevens Act directs the Commerce Department to “make sums available” to relieve the damage and protect the industry, Blank made no mention of forthcoming financial assistance from the Obama administration.
Instead, Kerry emphasized that the declaration removed a political impediment to a belated effort he said he would mount confidently to generate a major appropriation through the lame-duck, tail end of the 112th Congress after the Nov. 6 presidential and congressional elections.
Kerry said he had obtained a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to attach a $100 million funding package for the six states with groundfishing interests — Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York — to a farm drought relief bill. Though it has been neither introduced nor drafted, Kerry said he was optimistic the combination bill would be approved and sent to President Obama before the expiration of the Congress.
Thursday’s disaster declaration, first reported yesterday morning online at gloucestertimes.com, came nearly 10 months after Gov. Deval Patrick filed a brace of socio-economic studies showing the decimation of the industry, caused by regulatory and statutory catch limits. The declaration also came 7 1/2 months after NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchebnco promised “to have an answer soon” on an expanded request for disaster assistance.
Lubchenco was responding to a follow up letter from Patrick, this time pointing out an additional major weight on the back of fishermen — a disappointing and surprising stock assessment of Gulf of Maine cod, auguring years of catch cutbacks.
Blank’s announcement was via a press release. In the agency’s brief announcement, Blank is quoted blaming the disaster on a single cause: “the unexpectedly slow rebuilding of fish stocks.”
Lubchenco has championed re-engineering the fisheries into virtual commodity markets, which makes fishing more efficient, but also invites and feeds consolidation. In April 2009, she announced her plan to see a “sizeable fraction of the fleet” eliminated.
The engineered consolidation policy shows in an analysis by NOAA of changes in the profile of the industry since the start of catch share fishing and trading. While gross revenues from landing of groundfish were climbing by 15.6 percent to $45.8 million during catch shares’ first two years — 2010 and 2011 — the number of boats sharing the revenues was dropping 11 percent and the number of crew working was also off by nearly 10 percent.
The situation was more serious among day boat owners — the small businessmen who make up the majority of the fleet, as Patrick noted in his November 2011 filing and reiterated Thursday.
A case study of one fishing cooperative made up of more than 30 boat owners on the South Shore showed a generalized collapse of the businesses, with a group of 27 showing a 52 percent loss of revenue in the first year of “catch shares,” while nearly one third of them, as a group, had lost 80 percent of their revenues.
Reaction to Thursday’s disaster declaration was nearly universally positive. But there was also widespread concern that the action is dollars short and many days late, that it failed to acknowledge any government culpability in the unraveling of the industry, and did not articulate a recovery plan.
“It is of utmost importance that we demand they make it clear that the disaster is due to unwarranted cutbacks based on bogus ‘science,’ and catch shares commodification and consolidation — and not dwindling stocks,” said fisherman Richard Grachek, who fishes New England’s waters out of Point Judith, R.I.
“Declaration of a fisheries failure is a step in the right direction, even if it has been delayed for many months,” said Brian Rothschild, the marine scientist at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and a widely respected advocate for the fishing industry.
“There has been little discussion of what needs to be done,” Rothschild added. “Hopefully a careful analysis will be made so that funds could be directed to the families and businesses that have been harmed and to reforming the way NOAA executes its fisheries mission.”
U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who is running against him, issued statements showing — again —that their views on the fishing problem are similar.
“After two years of delay, I am relieved that the Commerce Department has finally responded to our many calls for a disaster declaration,” said Brown. “Our fishing communities are suffering and they need a relief package. “However,” he added, “I want to be clear that the long-term solution to this crisis is reforming NOAA and its policies that created this situation in the first place.”
“Massachusetts fishermen have faced unfair enforcement and poorly-designed regulations, said Warren. “The federal government must work more closely with scientists and fishermen to reach everyone’s shared goals.
“That means having sustainable fishing stocks,” she said, “but doing so in a way that doesn’t drive fishermen out of business.”
Congressman John Tierney, whose district includes all of Cape Ann, echoed similar cautions.
“While I am pleased the Department of Commerce has finally issued a formal disaster declaration for our fishing community,” Tierney said, “it should have happened much sooner and not have required so many requests from me, my colleagues in Congress, and other interested stakeholders.
“I am committed to working with my Senate and House colleagues as quickly and aggressively as I can to get Congress to appropriate the necessary disaster funding for our fishermen,” Tierney said, “but by issuing this declaration with only a few legislative days remaining before the November elections, Commerce did not give us much time to act.”
The region’s largest fishing industry organization, the Gloucester based Northeast Seafood Coalition, called the disaster declaration “a significant leap forward.”
“For many years, fishermen have complied with stringent scientific and management requirements and they have not exceeded the allowable catches,” the coalition declared in a prepared statement. “... It is unfair to hold fishermen accountable for natural cycles of complex ecosystems. NSC believes it’s time to review and understand the larger picture of this ecosystem and develop strategies that are more reflective of this reality.”
Mayor Carolyn Kirk said that any following aid should have targeted destinations.
“At a minimum,” she said, “the (aid) package should include direct aid to fishermen, financial assistance on the monitoring program, significant investment in collaborative research between fishermen and scientists, protections for the port infrastructure, and programs and investment for diversifying the port economy.”
State Sen. Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester said that, without the aid, the industry would implode.
He noted the need for reliable scientific research, noting “wild fluctuations” in stock estimates have been used to make critical fisheries management decisions.
“People shouldn’t mistakenly believe that this money will solve the problem,” Tarr said. “This money will allow people to survive long enough to hopefully solve the problem.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.