, Newburyport, MA

July 23, 2013

Fed panel's provisions beyond cash are keyto fisheries

Newburyport Daily News

---- — It’s too early to tell whether all or any of the long-overdue economic disaster aid for the Northeast and other groundfisheries, forced by NOAA’s own actions into a state of recognized “economic disaster,” holds up through the fiscal 2014 federal budget process.

And while the $150 million in disaster aid approved through a key U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee and the full committee itself is justified, it’s also easy to see other senators and leaders in the Republican-controlled House picking apart that dollar figure, especially in these times of spending “sequestration.”

But regardless of whatever financial aid package emerges from these appropriation talks — geared toward the next federal fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1 and runs through the following September — it is other provisions within the same bill that set the stage for several positive steps forward.

And while a provision aimed at shutting down NOAA’s 200-job Northeast Regional headquarters in Gloucester should throw up a number of very different economic red flags here, requirements for NOAA to charter fishing boats to carry out fish stock assessments, mandates for the agency to cover the cost of all on-board monitors under its own poorly managed and wasteful program, and an order to steer a percentage of seafood import tariff revenues toward community-based efforts to modernize fishing fleets are precisely the steps that should be forthcoming from Congress — and, in fact, should have been tied to NOAA’s budget contingencies long ago. So we can only hope they get the broad-based support on both the House and Senate floors that they deserve.

None of these ideas, of course, are new.

State and federal lawmakers have individually tried to force NOAA’s hand regarding the seafood tariff money, with U.S. Rep. John Tierney filing bills in both 2012 and this year to steer a percentage of that money into fisheries. And the 1954 Saltonstall-Kennedy Act has mandated for nearly 60 years that 30 percent of the cash reeled in from seafood imports — now an embarrassing 90 percent of the U.S. seafood market thanks again to our own government’s catch regulations — be given by the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Commerce — and that Commerce use at last 60 percent of that stash for “fishery industry projects.”

Over time, however, Congress shifted the Saltonstall-Kennedy revenues into NOAA’s operating budget, and that’s how it is shamefully still used today. The Appropriations panel measure would, as of now, steer 10 percent of the seaport import money toward projects to modernize both fishing fleets and waterfront businesses — and that would at least be a start.

Those same state and federal lawmakers — and industry lobbying groups like the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition — have also pushed for years to get NOAA to submit to cooperative research that would allow input from fishermen who don’t just look at NOAA computer models, but know what they’re seeing in the oceans and, most importantly, know where the fish are, recognize their moving patterns, and now which gear to use to catch them.

That, of course, is something NOAA and its science experts — some tied, of course, to the likes of Pew Environment Group and Conservation Law Foundation, who don’t want to find abundant species of anything — have never come close to mastering, whether using the wrong nets during the almost laughable “Trawlgate” surveys of 1999-2000, to conflicting assessments in just the last three years. Yet NOAA officials have refused any scientific help from working fishermen in carrying out assessments that have brought limit cuts of up to 78 percent this year, and pushing many fishermen out of Gloucester and other ports to the brink of an industry’s extinction.

NOAA could, of course, just ignore these mandates, just as this rogue agency has for years regarding economic impact mandates within its own Magnuson-Stevens Act, and with calls from congressional leaders.

But tying these dictates to NOAA’s core budget should indeed step up the pressure for change.

Let’s hope these provisions, especially, become part of the Senate’s and House’s finished products.