By Richard Gaines
---- — After eliminating a brace of fisheries disaster assistance options written by Congressman John Tierney and two Massachusetts colleagues, the U.S. House went to work on a massive Hurricane Sandy relief package Tuesday.
Two bills before the House would together appropriate $51 billion for “Sandy relief” programs, and much of the money is unrelated to the October 2012 super storm or is of a non-emergency nature. But none of that will go to address the recognized Northeast “economic disaster” declared by the Department of Commerce in the commercial fishing industry.
The decision to exclude more than $100 million in fisheries relief from the Sandy supplemental aid bill, made Monday night by a party-line vote of the Republican controlled House Rules Committee, was expected by many. But it leaves Gloucester, New Bedford and smaller groundfishing ports without the hope or expectation of short-term financial aid even as the commercial fleets continue to consolidate in the face of reduced catch limits and potentially catastrophic constrictions in opportunity looming in the 2013 fishing year.
The exclusion of the fisheries relief was condemned Tuesday by the Marine Fish Conservation Network, an organization of fishing and conservation groups, including Conservation Law Foundation, Oceania, the National Resource Defense Council, Ocean Conservancy and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
In floor debate Tuesday, Tierney urged the House to reject the House Rules Committee decision to exclude fisheries relief from the Sandy package. He chastised the leadership for turning a bipartisan problem into a straight party-line matter.
The final House version of the Sandy disaster supplemental spending bill goes back to the Senate, which approved a $60.4 billion Sandy supplemental last December, but because the 112th Congress expired Jan. 3, the 113th Senate must decide anew what to do. The previous Senate’s bill included $150 million in fisheries disaster relief for Massachusetts, the other coastal New England states and New York.
A spokesman for Sen. John Kerry, who led the effort to affix the fisheries relief appropriation to the Sandy bill, described Kerry as “hopeful” the Senate will do it again.
”Senator Kerry was deeply disappointed that the desperately-needed aid for the Northeast fisheries disaster was rejected by House Republicans,” the spokesman wrote in an email to the Times. “Last month, 62 senators voted to provide emergency disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy and our fishermen. There’s no reason why Sandy relief and fisheries assistance can’t both be included in this package, and Sen. Kerry is hopeful that the Senate will restore that support for Northeast fishing communities when it considers the appropriation.”
If the Senate sticks to its guns, the question of fisheries relief would likely be decided in conference committee.
Tierney and his colleagues — William Keating of Quincy and Ed Markey of Malden — also issued a statement condemning the House Rules Committee decision Monday night to cut the fisheries relief amendments from the Sandy supplemental funding.
“Republicans in Congress have cut this lifeline to fishing communities in Massachusetts and around the country,” the lawmakers said. “We gave House Republicans three different options to help our fishermen, and they said no, no, no.
“House Republican leaders should be ashamed of themselves,” the Massachusetts congressmen said in their joint statement. “We will continue to fight for these small business owners and their families.”
“Republican state Sen. Bruce Tarr, the Senate minority leader, also condemned the U.S. House Republican leadership’s decision to remove fisheries relief from the House Sandy supplemental.
In the letter to Speaker (John) Boehner, Tarr cited the fishing industry as being in “a dire situation that may well culminate in the extinction of one our country’s most historic and iconic industries at the hands of a government that cannot seem to find the will or the initiative to come to its defense.”
“Now because of recent stock assessments and the perceived inflexibility of the laws which you and your colleagues and predecessors have passed,” Tarr wrote, “the New England fishing fleet could be subjected to as much as a 70 percent reduction in allowable catches of species such as cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder.”
The leader of state Senate Republicans described himself as “deeply discouraged” by the failure of the 112th Congress to approve fisheries disaster aid, and “even more concerned that House Republicans would seek to reduce assistance (for fishermen) while providing $471 million in increased spending to NOAA, the governmental bureaucracy that is overseeing their extinction.”
Among the items in the appropriation measure not related to Sandy or of an emergency nature are:
$150 million for regional ocean partnerships, grants to non-government organizations involved in the White House’s long-term plan to establish a National Ocean Policy;
$111 million for a “weather satellite data mitigation gap reserve fund” to help finance replacement satellites in 2017;
$50 million for NOAA spend $50 million on “mapping, charting geodesy services and marine debris surveys for coastal states affected by Hurricane Sandy.
The Department of Commerce in September granted Massachusetts, the other coastal New England states and New York a regional economic “disaster” declaration based on present and prospective fishing conditions. The catch limits for the groundfishery beginning in May are projected to be dramatically lower than in the past three years.
“Despite the ... declarations, and notwithstanding the fact that the Senate passed a relief package on a bipartisan basis that included $150 million for fisheries in Massachusetts and other affected states,” Tierney said in a separate statement. “House Republicans made a callous and outrageous decision last night to block a vote on my amendment to provide critical aid to our fishing communities.
“Helping our fishermen and providing them sufficient disaster relief should not be a partisan issue, but, unfortunately, the Republicans on the House Rule Committee have made it one,” Tireney added. “I am extremely disappointed and look to Speaker (John) Boehner to make our fisheries a priority immediately. We need to provide additional disaster relief and we need to focus on reforming the laws that are negatively impacting our fishing communities.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.