, Newburyport, MA

January 16, 2014

Congress sends hopeful message on fisheries

Newburyport Daily News

---- — The news that a congressional spending bill bears $75 million in fisheries disaster aid provides welcome tidings for the fishing industry.

And the fact that the House bill now in play on Capitol Hill rightfully keeps NOAA’s Northeast regional administration in Gloucester — albeit under the new, more fitting name of the Greater Atlantic Fisheries Office — represents an important relief for Cape Ann’s economy as well.

Now, however, the important thing is for lawmakers to ensure that this aid, desperately needed by so many fishermen and families to stabilize the boats, businesses and their way of life, gets into their hands as soon as possible heading into a new fishing year starting May 1.

That means that the Department of Commerce — governmental parent of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the agency entrusted with this planned allocation — should immediately move toward distributing the money through the states, to be parceled out perhaps based on the number of commercial permits and fishermen working the seas.

Yes, the aid is facing approval late in the game — an absurd 16 months after the Department of Commerce declared the Northeast groundfishery a full-fledged “economic disaster,” and nine months after NOAA’s cuts of up to 78 percent in landing limits made things even worse than that.

And yes, the dollar amount is just half the level sought by industry advocates and lawmakers like Congressman John Tierney, who has pressed consistently for a disaster aid package since the declaration, while Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey had pushed for a $150 million Senate aid package as well.

But as state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante of Gloucester noted recently, “$75 million is a lot more than $0. And for so long we’ve been at $0.”

And as Tierney added, the removal of a provision that would have either split up the Gloucester NOAA office into smaller components, or shifted the entire headquarters to Maryland is “a win on the fishing aid (and win for) keeping jobs in Massachusetts,” Tierney said.

All of that is good, and Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk is right to note the effort by our federal lawmakers to bring these needed disaster relief dollars home. But if there is a cloud, it is this: The bill does not address a specific mechanism for disbursing the $75 million — other than that the funds will go to the Department of Commerce.

The expectation, rightfully raised by Tierney and others, is that Commerce and therefore NOAA work with fishing communities, the states and local residents on the appropriate manner for allotting the funds. And he assures all that he’s committed to doing that.

But the important thing to remember is this: This is not aid for cities and towns to steer into fishery and harbor “transition” projects. It is not money for NOAA to prop up some of its programs, cooperative research or otherwise.

It’s money that must be steered, as directly as possible, to fishermen — fishermen who’ve been denied the opportunity to make a living by the excessive regulations of their own government, fishermen who’ve been forced into selling their boats or even their homes as they’ve been pushed to the brink of financial ruin. And the best means of doing that is through states’ divisions of marine fisheries, which work with individual permit holders on a regular basis.

It is not Commerce or any other bureaucracy that needs this money to revive New England’s faltering waterfront economies. It is the fishermen themselves, who — with even fractions of this aid — can hopefully start on the road to recovery, returning to the water, rehiring unemployed crew workers, and stimulating waterfront service businesses. And it is they who deserve the chance to once again rebuild their own independent businesses and their lives while still daring to look to the future.

Let’s hope this bill gains the approvals it needs today — and that these checks are headed this way soon.