By Richard Gaines
---- — Congressman John Tierney Monday announced his intention to file legislation to tap seafood import tariffs as a revenue source — and estimated to be in the range of $100 million — for disaster assistance to the Northeast groundfishery and other fisheries recognized by the Department of Commerce as economic disasters.
Tierney’s spokeswoman, Kathryn Prael, said that the congressman was seeking co-sponsors, and was confident of finding broad, bipartisan support.
Before it expired Jan. 3, the lame-duck 112th Congress failed to approve $150 million in fisheries disaster relief proposed by then-Sen. John Kerry and co-sponsored by Democrats and Republicans across the New England delegations of both chambers. Tierney was also a co-sponsor of the House version.
The acting Commerce Secretary, Rebecca Blank, last September declared the Northeast groundfishery a disaster based on existing socio-economic data and dimming prospects for 2013.
Last week, the New England Fishery Management Council recommended cutting inshore cod landings by 77 percent and landings from Georges Bank by 66 percent — reductions that, if approved as expected by the Commerce Department, would produce a historic decline in landings by commercial and recreational sectors, causing what most believe would be a crushing economic ripple through the ports of the region from Maine to New York. Gloucester, which is represented by Tierney, is the center of New England’s inshore cod fishery; New Bedford, the main port for boats working offshore Georges Bank.
Tierney’s bill would redirect import tariffs for fiscal 2014 on seafood and fish products — which now account for more than 90 percent of domestic consumption — to fisheries disaster relief. The amount would be calculated in October, at the start of the federal 2014 fiscal year, and redirected into fisheries aid.
The bill is a permutation of earlier legislation aimed at redirecting the revenue stream from import tariffs to fisheries as originally intended by the 1954 Saltonstall-Kennedy Act. That act mandated that 30 percent of fish tariff revenues be given by the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Commerce — and that Commerce use at last 60 percent for “fishery industry projects.” Over time, however, Congress has shifted the Saltonstall-Kennedy revenues into NOAA’s operating budget.
The Congressional Research Service in 2004 published a study documenting the evolved flouting of the intent of the law, written by Massachusetts’ senators at the time — Republican Leverett Saltonstall and Democrat John F. Kennedy. The law was written to ensure a revenue stream from tariffs that would be steered into fisheries research and marketing.
The CRS report to Congress, brought to the intention of the Times in 2011 and updated for the newspaper by NOAA, revealed that “beginning in 1979, increasing amounts of Saltonstall-Kennedy dollars have been transferred (by Congress) to NOAA’s operations, research and facilities account (the agency’s general operating budget).”
“Since 1982,” the research service noted, “the Saltonstall-Kennedy program has never allocated the minimum amount specified by law for industry projects.”
In floor debate on the bill on July 3, 1954, Kennedy, the future President, said the purpose of the bill was to “aid research and market development in the fishing industry.”
Tierney’s office said Monday that, while the size of the set aside for fisheries disaster relief from import quotas from 2014 would not be determined until after the Sept. 30 end of fiscal 2013, the set aside in the current fiscal year — calculated as 30 percent of import tariffs — was $124 million, with all of it used for NOAA operations.
Beginning in fiscal 2015, the Tierney bill would direct those same funds to research, and put fisheries research, monitoring, and data collection in the hands of the regional management councils by requiring multi-stakeholder regional committees to develop plans to identify priorities for investment in each region. The committees would use those priorities to evaluate and recommend grants for funding.
Tierney’s bill would also cover fisheries in blue crab and oyster fisheries in Mississippi and the Chinook Alaska salmon fishery, which like the $90 million groundfishery were declared disasters last September.
“From Gloucester, Massachusetts to Mississippi to Alaska, fishermen in several states are facing near catastrophic economic situations,” Tierney wrote in an email to the Times. “Despite the Department of Commerce’s recognition of these disasters with emergency declarations in 2012, sufficient relief still has not been provided. This is unacceptable.”
“The bill I plan to offer is just the beginning of the comprehensive reform that is needed, but it is a creative and responsible solution to help provide immediate disaster relief to fishermen and ensure that funding is directed to research in the longer,” Tierney said.
“Congress must take bold and immediate action to protect this historic industry,” he added. “I will be aggressively pressing my colleagues to move this common sense legislation quickly, while also continuing my efforts to pass comprehensive reforms to the Magnuson-Stevens Act and hold NOAA and the Department of Commerce accountable to our fishing community.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.