By Richard Gaines
---- — Congressman John Tierney and two colleagues today asked the House Appropriations Committee not to forget the Northeast groundfishing industry in the drafting of any disaster relief legislation for the Atlantic states ravaged in late October by superstorm Sandy.
Although no bill has been filed, Tierney spokeswoman Kathryn Prael said that, with the committee attempting to determine the needs of the states in recovering from Sandy in anticipation of possibly drafting legislation, the congressmen —Tierney, Barney Frank and William Keating — wanted to file a “marker” with the committee for a fishing industry that has descended into a government-recognized socioeconomic “disaster” over a number of years.
Tierney’s district includes Cape Ann, Frank represents New Bedford, and Keating’s district includes Cape Cod and the port along the curve of Massachusetts Bay.
On Sept. 13, nearly 10 months after Gov. Deval Patrick filed his second and more detailed request for a fisheries disaster declaration for Massachusetts, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank prospectively issued a regional fisheries disaster declaration covering the groundfishery beginning in May 2013. Patrick’s requests had also been followed by requests by the governors of New Hampshire and Maine and later Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York,
Funding any disaster recovery, however, was left to Congress. And immediately after the declaration, the region’s congressional delegation, led by Sen. John Kerry, asked Congress for $100 million, noting in a letter to Senate and House leaders that their “fishing communities have been struggling to survive amid federal regulations that have limited fishing opportunities.”
The Northeast groundfishery was re-engineered beginning in 2010 into what amounts to a commodity market trading in catch shares that has concentrated a greater share of the quota in the hands of bigger and better-capitalized businesses, while many smaller, independent boats that have long been at the heart of the industry have been driven to the sidelines, with an accompanying loss of jobs.
Patrick blamed the catch share system for the disaster, but Blank described it resulting from “undetermined causes” and diminishing stocks rather than government policies designed to remove a “sizable fraction” of the fleet, as NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco had said in a written statement issued to the Times soon after her 2009 nomination was confirmed by the Senate. The First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last Wednesday upheld the legality of the catch share system for the groundfishery while presuming the government would establish accumulation caps on catch shares and policies to protect fleet diversity.
Superstorm Sandy poured into the Middle Atlantic states and brushed New England six weeks after Blank’s regional disaster declaration.
In mid-November, she also declared New Jersey and New York’s fisheries to have suffered a “catastrophic” regional fishery disaster from the storm, putting New York by itself on two disaster lists, the first for its groundfishery, the second for its entire industry owing to Sandy.
“With disaster declarations now having been issued in several states, it is imperative for Congress to promptly move forward with appropriating sufficient funding for our fishermen,” Tierney, Frank and Keating wrote to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, and the Ranking Democrat, Normal Dicks of Washington State. “We write to respectfully request your support for and assistance with appropriating fishery disaster funding as quickly as possible to help the fishermen we represent.”
Because no Sandy disaster relief legislation has been filed, Prael said the letter did not specify an amount for the fishing industry for the evolved disaster that was acknowledged by Commerce in September.
“Specifically, should the Appropriations Committee craft and advance supplemental disaster assistance legislation to help affected states recover from Hurricane Sandy as well as this year’s record drought,” the congressmen wrote, “we strongly believe such a bill should also include sufficient funding for our fishermen.
“If a supplemental disaster assistance bill is not considered, we then ask that sufficient fishery disaster assistance be included as part of any final fiscal year 2013 appropriations bill that provides funding for the Department of Commerce.”
A Commerce Department appropriation is considered a near impossibility before the end of the 112th Congress this month.
The White House and Congress are in a state of impending crisis, agitation, negotiation, and uncertainty due to the approach of the end of the 112th Congress at the end of the year, which is also the deadline for a deal with spending cuts and tax reform that would obviate a tumble off the “fiscal cliff” — jargon for a suite of across-the-board cuts and tax increases projected to drive the nation back into recession.
Tierney, Frank and Keating also urged Congress to rewrite the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and rein in NOAA, which they accused of “overzealous regulatory practices.”
In her Sept. 13 letter to Gov. Patrick, Blank said that, “while the precise cause of these stock declines is unclear ... low levels of these stocks are causing a significant loss of access to fishery resources with anticipated revenue declines that will greatly affect the commercial fishery.”
“The need is obvious and well documented,” Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk said Monday. “It is time for make the mitigating investments in the industry and our coastal communities.”
“Groundfish fishermen have abidingly complied with scientific and management measures, yet multiple key fish stocks are not rebuilding as expected and are likely to see drastic reductions for Fishing Year 2013,” the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, said in an email. “Without assistance, small fishing entities, shore-side businesses, and local economies that dependent on the fishery will undoubtedly face increased economic and social hardships in the upcoming fishing year and beyond.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.