NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

June 17, 2013

Fed Farm Bill includes provisions for fishermen

Staff report
Newburyport Daily News

---- — The federal government’s 2013 Farm Bill approved last week by the U.S. Senate also includes a pair of provisions aimed at providing help for the embattled Gloucester and New England groundfishing industry.

But there remain no signs of direct aid aimed at addressing the “economic disaster” declared last September by the U.S. Department of Commerce, and no relief from the tight limit cuts and regulations now strangling New England’s groundfishermen remain in place.

The federal Farm Bill, approved on a bipartisan vote of 66-27, still must face passage in the U.S. House, and then a reconciliation between the two. But the Senate Farm Bill include provisions — authored by acting Massachusetts Sen. William “Mo” Cowan — calling for a fisheries insurance study and a move to make fishermen eligible to become recipients of emergency disaster loans, according to the online fishing industry reporting service, savingseafood.com.

“While this is not a perfect bill, I was pleased that I could help to include critical provisions for Massachusetts that will support our local and regional food producers as well as recognize and provide some relief for our fishing industry,” Cowan said in a prepared statement. “Additionally, this legislation will go a long way in boosting our economy by creating a number of jobs across the commonwealth and the nation.

“Unfortunately, while we were able to get much-needed support in some key areas, the final bill falls short of protecting all crucial funding for nutrition assistance that folks back home and around the country rely on every day,” Cowan said. “When the bill goes to conference we must work hard to hold the line and steer clear of the draconian cuts to the nutrition program proposed by the Republicans in the House of Representatives.”

The emergency disaster loan program eligibility follows a 2012 push by then-U.S. John Kerry, who is now U.S. secretary of state and whose seat Cowan is filling until after the June 25 special U.S. Senate election is decided between Democratic Congressman Ed Markey and Republican businessman Gabriel Gomez.

The Senate Farm Bill provision would expand the Emergency Disaster Loan program to include fishermen, so that when a county has been declared a disaster area by either the president or the secretary of Agriculture, they — along with agricultural producers in the targeted county — may become eligible for low-interest emergency disaster loans available through USDA’s Farm Service Agency, Cowan said.

At present, EM loan funds may be used to help eligible farmers, ranchers and aquaculture producers recover from production losses (when the producer suffers a significant loss of an annual crop) or from physical losses (such as repairing or replacing damaged or destroyed structures or equipment, or for the replanting of permanent crops such as orchards).

The loans, however, represent a far cry from the Commerce groundfishing disaster aid being sought for the industry by Congressman John Tierney and other federal lawmakers.

Tierney is pushing for righting the course of up to $100 million that, according to the 1954 Saltonstall-Kennedy Bill, should be targeted from seafood tariff revenues toward aiding or promoting the fishing industry but has, over the years, been allowed to funnel into the operating budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Another emergency disaster aid package was withdrawn from a congressional bill in January that provided aid to communities ravaged by Superstorm Sandy last fall.

The Farm Bill provision submitted by Cowan and approved regarding a fisheries insurance study directs USDA’s Risk Management Agency to study and propose a mechanism for insuring seafood harvesters through a USDA crop insurance product.

“Our fishermen are facing extremely difficult times,” Cowan said. “We need to do everything we can to help them through these difficult times, and insurance is one way to reduce risk. Our farmers have access to crop insurance; our fishermen should as well.”