By Richard Gaines
---- — Asserting that the federal government has the responsibility to provide relief in fisheries that have been declared disasters, 13 U.S. senators — including Massachusetts’ Elizabeth Warren and William Cowan — have urged President Obama to introduce special budget funding for the Northeast groundfishery and three others in Mississippi and Alaska..
The bipartisan letter was heavily weighted with Democrats, including Warren and Cowan, Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand of New York, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Begich of Alaska. Begich is chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Republicans on the letter were Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Independent Angus King of Maine also signed the letter.
In September, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank declared the Northeast groundfishery a disaster — 11 months after Gov. Deval Patrick submitted a second, expanded appeal that included two socio-economic studies. Blank also issued disaster declarations for the blue crab and oyster fishery of Mississippi and the Chinnock salmon fishery of Alaska.
But by September, the national elections loomed and at the end of October Hurricane Sandy created a different kind of disaster which proved hurdles too high for advocates who got no help from the White House or the Commerce Department. Once Blank issued her declarations, the administration remained mute on the subject of the need for assistance.
”We believe that it is the responsibility of the administration, after declaring these disasters, to request the funding to respond to them,” the senators wrote. “Until funding is made available for these declarations, the affected fishermen will continue to struggle during a critical time of need. For those that are suffering and the fishing communities they live in, time is of the essence. They simply cannot wait for another funding cycle for help to arrive.”
”The projected reductions in the total allowable catch for certain critical groundfish stocks will have a significant impact on many of the same coastal communities that were hit by Sandy,” they wrote. “Despite strict adherence to new and rigorous management practices by fishermen, key fish stocks have not returned. Slow recovery and declining fish stocks will continue to have a negative impact on commercial fishing, harming local communities and economies.”
The Senate approved $150 million for fisheries disaster relief, but the House demurred, and the 112th Congress adjourned on Jan. 3 having failed to provide any fisheries disaster relief except as part of the super storm Sandy appropriation totaling more than $60 billion. In that large sum was $5 million for New York and New Jersey fisheries affected by the storm.
In the House, Congressman John Tierney, whose district includes all of Cape Ann, announced Friday an agreement with a bipartisan group of lawmakers on a different solution the same problem.
The Tierney bill would fund the disaster relief with one year of import tariff on seafood, a secure revenue stream since the 1954 enactment of the Saltonstall-Kennedy bill, which was written to ensure fisheries research and promotion. The Commerce Department gets 30 percent of seafood import tariffs, but Congress has been sending the money into NOAA’s general budget for decades.
The amount available for disaster relief will not be known until October, but Tierney’s office notes that $129 million was sent to NOAA from import tariffs last year.
”With bipartisan support, I introduced legislation today to provide disaster relief aid to our fishermen and to invest critical funds in science and research,” Tierney said in a prepared statement. “This aid is essential to Gloucester fishermen and others across the country who are facing an unsustainable economic situation that will leave many forced out of business. I urge my colleagues to join me in pressing for this disaster relief now, and I will continue to demand action from Congress and the administration.”
Joining him in the initiative were Congressmen Ed Markey, William Keating, and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts, Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, and David Cicilline and Jim Langevin, Rhode Island Democrats.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.