While our federal lawmakers join the push for offering federal Small Business Administrations loans to Gloucester’s and other fishermen (see news story, Page 1), it’s encouraging to hear U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren also concede that any such package would be merely be a positive first step toward the type of relief fishermen need.
And it was nice to hear Warren renew her push for the $150 million in out-and-out emergency disaster funding through the Senate Appropriations bill that could not only provide fishermen and waterfront businesses the help they need, but show that the Department of Commerce and Congress might indeed be responsible enough to apply some money to help address the “economic disaster” that Commerce declared a year ago this month.
The idea of steering up to $150 million toward Northeast groundfishermen, including the bulk of Gloucester’s embattled fleet, is, of course, hardly new at this point. Congressman John Tierney, or instance, got behind a similar proposal in the House last winter, only to have that potential funding understandably take a priority back seat to emergency aid for communities ravaged by Superstorm Sandy.
In the meantime, of course, NOAA and other Commerce officials have floated a few ideas toward making nice — like offers of providing money toward more cooperative research for fishermen, and with all of $10 million made available from seafood import tariff money under the 1954 Saltonstall-Kennedy Act, with grants for fleets and communities interested in improving fishing operations and perhaps “transitioning” toward more futuristic approaches to harbor management.
Yet, NOAA and other officials don’t bother to mention that, according to last year’s budget figures, tariff revenue that should be available to the industry — yet remains tied up in NOAA’s operations budget, in apparent violation of the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act — totals well over $100 million. And a year after Commerce’s “economic disaster” declaration, no federal agency has offered a dime to address it. That’s a slap in the face to fishermen and fishing communities on all of America’s coasts. And to her credit, Warren, like Tierney, clearly recognizes that.
“The way I see it, a disaster is a disaster and the federal government should be stepping up to help our hard-working fishermen,” Warren told the Times’ Sean Horgan — “especially because this is a disaster that was, in part, caused by federal government policies.”
That’s the part that demands Commerce and NOAA accountability, and the aspect that demands that the federal government extend a lot more than “low-interest loans” for which fishermen — on the verge of selling and/or losing their boats and even homes — may not even be able to qualify.
Let’s hope other congressional leaders come around and force NOAA’s hand — and very, very soon.