The approval by the U.S. Senate last Friday of a $60.4 billion Superstorm Sandy relief package that includes some $150 million in aid to the commercial fishing industry in the New England states and New York marked at least one step forward in addressing the Commerce Department’s recognition of the groundfishery as a true economic “disaster” for communities such as Gloucester, New Bedford and many others.
But, with questions still looming Monday over whether any such package would be taken up or clear the U.S. House, it’s also interesting to note that the fisheries aid part of the deal survived the Senate bill only after a floor vote shot down a bid to scuttle it pushed by Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, and none other than Arizona Republican John McCain. And as we noted previously, despite the efforts and U.S. Sen. John Kerry, there are very legitimate questions as to whether the fisheries aid funding deserves to be lumped in with any relief aimed at helping the primarily Middle Atlantic state victims of Sandy’s devastation.
Yes, fishermen are entitled to disaster aid stemming from the economic calamity documented more than a year ago by Gov. Deval Patrick through the marine science program at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. And the Sandy relief bill — which would grant aid to Middle Atlantic fishermen directly affected by that storm — gives Kerry and other fishing state lawmakers an avenue to seek the aid that was never even referenced in the September economic disaster declaration announced by acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank.
But, as we noted previously, tacking any fishery “disaster” aid onto the relief for Superstorm Sandy suggests that the fisheries disaster is also one of nature’s making — and it’s not. While Blank’s declaration suggests that the fishery disaster’s cause is largely a decline in the fish stocks, the fact is that it is a man-made — and, in effect, a manufactured – product of our own federal government.
The simple truth is that the fishery disaster has come about through the catch share management policies of outgoing NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, whose efforts have consolidated Gloucester’s and other fishing fleets by driving up costs for independent fishermen to buy or lease quota from larger boats and companies that had much more quota and capital to start with. And in many cases, those changes have driven traditional, small independent boats right out of the business, killing countless waterfront jobs in the process.
There is a context to ramming through the fishing disaster aid as part of the Sandy funding bill, and that context is largely a matter of time. Fishermen and fishing communities who need disaster assistance need it now, yet Blank’s declaration recognizing the “disaster” shamefully failed to provide a single dime for addressing it.
But it’s also imperative that the fishery aid package not snag the desperately needed Superstorm Sandy relief bill, assuming the House puts the measure through at all.
The fishery disaster was largely created by Lubchenco’s and NOAA’s hands, and the aid needed to address it should come through NOAA’s and Commerce’s pockets, as well.