Congressional Help For New England Fishing Interests May Stall Until Next Year

By Corey Kane and Rhiannon Pabich
BU News Service 

WASHINGTON — Stalled by Congress’ focus on the contentious “fiscal cliff” debate over budget and taxes, the odds appear to have diminished for New England fishing businesses and communities getting a hoped-for $100 million in federal disaster aid by the end of this year.

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Members of the region’s congressional delegation said they are now aiming to attach the funds to a larger disaster bill that would also contain relief for victims of Hurricane Sandy, as well as Midwestern farms stricken by drought. “Our coastal communities depend on a healthy catch to keep local families and businesses churning, just like Midwestern communities rely on the yield of their crops,” Alec Gerlach, a spokesman for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said.

However, lawmakers expressed skepticism this week that a disaster relief bill could be enacted until sometime after the new 113th Congress convenes in January.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., whose district includes a large part of the coastal area south of Boston, said the debate over expiring tax cuts and $500 billion in spending cuts would have to be resolved first  — during the current “lame duck” session of Congress, which runs through the end of December.

“For us to put a bill ahead of the fiscal cliff issue—I don’t think that would be wise,” Lynch said in a telephone interview

The U.S. Commerce Department issued a disaster declaration for the New England fishery in September, after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that it was going to severely reduce catch limits for fish such as cod and flounder in the region. The decision follows recent studies indicating that fish populations remain lower than expected.

The Commerce Department declaration did not automatically release any funding, but on Sept. 17 — five days after the disaster was declared by acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank — 23 members of Congress signed a letter requesting $100 million in New England fishery aid. That funding is intended to allow fishing businesses and their communities to weather the years of low fish catches.

Originally, the plan was to attach the fishery aid to legislation reauthorizing the nation’s farm programs. But that legislation, which passed this summer in the Democratic-controlled Senate, has stalled in the Republican-controlled House.

“That’s not going anywhere,” Lynch said of the farm bill. His comments were echoed by

Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., who represents the Cape Cod area.

“The congressman has been working to find a way to secure funding to supplement the federal disaster declaration for New England’s groundfish industry, but it is still an uphill battle,” said Lauren Amendolara, a Keating spokeswoman.

A Hurricane Sandy relief bill was introduced in early November by Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., and is currently pending in two House committees.  At present, it does not contain language relating to New England fisheries or Midwestern farmers.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick’s office has pushed for the fishery aid since 2010; he was joined by New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch and Maine Gov. Paul LePage in a letter to the Commerce Department just days before the disaster declaration.

“We are in regular communication with the Department of Commerce and our congressional delegation, and continue to urge Congress to appropriate disaster assistance funding to provide our fishermen and industry with the financial assistance they deserve,” Rick Sullivan, Massachusetts’ secretary for environmental and energy affairs, said in a statement.

While supporting the disaster declaration, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a statement that she will “continue to urge federal officials to work toward a more sensible regulatory climate that will allow New Hampshire’s fishing industry to survive in the long-term.”

But Jim Ford of East Kingston, N.H., who has been fishing the waters between Gloucester and Newburyport since 1985, contended that regulations are not the problem.

“When the fishing’s good it’s good for everybody, no matter what the regulations are,” he said, adding: “The problem is…the fish aren’t there this year. We went from a really, really good last year, and then, all of a sudden, things just went bed. I think a lot of it has to do with climate. A lot of people had a really, really bad year, which definitely warrants some sort of disaster relief.”

Johanna Thomas, the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior advisor to New England and Mid-Atlantic regions, echoed Ford’s comments. “It is complicated, but a lot of it comes down to what’s happening with ocean temperatures—they were the highest ever recorded this last summer, which has an effect on the ecosystem [and] where the fish go,” she said.

Thomas said her organization sees the disaster declaration as a two-fold opportunity to provide short-term relief to affected fishermen and to improve the scientific and research components of fisheries. She said an improved monitoring system will provide “better accounting for what’s going on in the ocean as fishermen are harvesting fish,” and will help “fishermen have a better sense that they know what’s going on [and] can trust better the decisions” that affect their industry.

Pointing to conflicting studies on fish stocks in recent years, Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, made a similar point, declaring: “[A] few years ago the report was that stocks were in good shape and growing, and then suddenly we find out that the cod population has been seriously depleted — which shakes everyone’s confidence in the data and the process. More money needs to go into better science and better monitoring so things like this don’t keep happening.”

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