BOSTON -- The U.S. Commerce Department on Thursday declared a national fishery disaster in New England, opening the door for tens of millions of dollars in relief funds for struggling fishermen and their ports.
Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank said the declaration comes amid "unexpectedly slow rebuilding of stocks," which is forcing huge fishing cuts for 2013 that are jeopardizing the New England industry. Blank said her agency also determined the troubles with fish stocks have come even though fishermen are following rules designed to prevent overfishing.
"The future challenges facing the men and women in this industry and the shore-based businesses that support them are daunting, and we want to do everything we can to help them through these difficult times," Blank said.
The declaration doesn't guarantee any money will actually be funneled toward fishermen, but U.S. Sen. John Kerry said it's a big step forward.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has committed to include $100 million for fishermen and fishing communities in emergency assistance legislation that will be debated during the lame-duck session after the election, Kerry said Thursday. Lawmakers must now fight for the money in a potentially reluctant Congress, he said.
Kerry compared fishermen to farmers – both are dependent on the vagaries of the ecosystem and both are deserving of assistance when unavoidable problems arise, like when farmers face a drought, he said.
"We put billions into the heartland of our country for farmers," said Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat. "That's what legislating is about, that's what the federal government is here for, is to treat the nation as a nation and to share these kind of crises, when they occur."
Chatham fisherman John Our said aid is justified to make up for damage done by federal mismanagement. The fisheries are in such rough shape that Our laid off two crewmen this year and gets by in a thinned-out fishery by going out solo to catch dogfish, a onetime trash fish, he said.
"The government has made gross mistakes, and they have not listened to industry through the years," said Our, 50. "It's not our fault they screwed up."
Federal and state lawmakers have pursued the disaster declaration since 2010, when new regulations were enacted in New England that placed tough limits on how much fishermen can catch of a given species.
In the two years since, the fishery's future has faded as key stocks of bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod and flounder, haven't rebuilt quickly enough, triggering cuts as high as 70 percent on some species for 2013 and throwing the industry's future in doubt.
Overfishing doesn't explain the most recent troubles, which have come even though fishermen are catching certain species at the rate mandated by regulators. They've then learned retrospectively that fish stocks are in worse shape than scientists thought, they actually fished too hard, and deep cuts are needed.
Improving the fishery science is a priority in the $100 million proposal, Kerry said. So is direct aid to fishermen, which will help some exit the industry. Money is also allocated to cover required costs for those who stay in, including millions to pay for independent observers who monitor the catch.
Johanna Thomas of the Environmental Defense Fund said any money must be used with the fisheries' long-term future in mind and with an eye toward accounting for chronic ecological challenges, such as climate change, pressure on local coasts and rising ocean temperatures.
"The problems facing the fishery ... are long-term and the solutions should be also," she said.