GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 4, 2008

No consensus on fishing aid; Meeting on $13.4-million aid plan draws packed room of questions

By Richard Gaines

The state's director of marine fisheries said last night that he and his allies in Congress intend to reject the advice of federal fishing regulators and distribute nearly all of a $13.4 million emergency appropriation to groundfishermen harmed by federal restrictions.

"I don't think we'll be looking for middle ground," said the director, Paul Diodati.

Diodati was in Gloucester for the third of three nights of meetings with groundfishermen called to work out — if possible — a consensus on how the money should be distributed.

After 90 minutes of argument, reason, and analysis from about as many perspectives as there were speakers in the crowd, Diodati confessed he and his state government advising group had their hands full devising a distribution plan that could satisfy even most of the industry. The hearing drew about 80 fishermen to the Division of Marine Fisheries station on Emerson Avenue.

Diodati said afterward that the stew of ideas he'd just absorbed in Gloucester was fundamentally different from the mixes that emerged Tuesday in New Bedford and Wednesday in Plymouth.

"New Bedford has bigger boats and more crew, so there was sentiment for more (money) for the crews," Diodati said. "In Plymouth, we drew the Cape (Cod) folks who have smaller boats, and they didn't want any poundage filters.

"There's a much larger crowd here in the stronghold of groundfishermen," he continued, "and there was no consensus."

He declined to speculate on how the eligibility or allocation criteria for the money might read, but said he hoped to have a final draft ready for the agency's Web site by the end of work Wednesday for comments before it goes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The draft he took on the road this week is posted on the division Web site, www.mass.gov/dfwele/dmf/spotlight/groundfish_assistance.htm#spot

NOAA asked for the state's ideas for the use of the money by April 15, and made clear in a letter to Diodati that quick release of the money could be achieved by agreeing to give no more than 50 percent of it to fishermen.

John Oliver, NOAA's acting assistant administrator for fisheries, said in a February letter that most of the $13.4 million, earmarked by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, should be used to reduce fishing capacity by buying out fishermen.

The text of a placard in a protest outside the division station before the meeting characterized NOAA's approach as "occupational cleansing."

Diodati said he was confident of winning control of the money from NOAA, but said he was primarily concerned with crafting a fair and efficient means of distribution.

"Senators Kennedy and Kerry and the congressional delegation have my back," he said.

He deflected numerous complaints from Gloucester fishermen that NOAA had put in a claim for $481,751 for grant administration, and conceded he could not explain what NOAA intended to do with the money since NOAA "wasn't willing to provide" a written explanation to Diodati.

He said NOAA informed him by phone last Friday it intended to take the processing fee. Kennedy and Kerry wrote to NOAA on Monday challenging the need for the processing fee.

It was also last Friday that Diodati posted the draft distribution plan that he reviewed in New Bedford, Plymouth and Gloucester.

Gloucester's fishermen found anomalies everywhere. Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, which represents fishermen and shore-based businesses between Maine and New York, argued for the money to fund permit holders, though she conceded no concept is ideal.

With the imposition of Framework 42 in the middle of the 2006 fishing season — a federal measure that reduced days at sea and imposed rolling closures of some of the fish-rich locales to protect some species — fishermen began marketing permits and patching together a variety of business plans to keep themselves financially afloat.

Some fishermen acquired and used multiple permits, others leased multiple permits, and others — deemed "armchair fishermen" by at least one speaker last night — acquired multiple permits and began a leasing business.

That diversity of circumstances sparked several questions regarding the eligibility of individual fishermen under Diodati's draft distribution plan. Under the current state proposal — prior to this week's hearings — fishermen's eligibility for the earmarked aid depends on their level of permit, their "days at sea" allocation, whether they have a landing permit and Massachusetts homeport, and — in the case of federal permit holders — whether they have landed at least 10,000 pounds of groundfish in any fishing year from May 1, 2005 through March 15 of this year. Several of the fishermen at yesterday's meeting said that one or more of those guidelines would leave them out in the cold.

Diodati vowed that the final structure of the state's allocation proposal going to NOAA would be formed more by the opinions of the fishermen than the federal agency's own ideas, geared in large part to further reducing the size of the fleet.

NOAA's proposal includes what gillnetter Paul Cohan said was an unprecedented targeting of state gillnet fishermen.

"We're not going down that road," Diodati promised. He added that, if he were a fisherman, "NOAA's plans for downsizing the fleet" might leave him "outraged."

Richard Gaines can be reached at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com