Responding to Gov. Deval Patrick’s plea this week for federal disaster relief for Massachusetts commercial fishermen, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Commerce said that it remains committed to the fishery and is reviewing the governor’s request.
“Preserving the groundfish industry is of great importance to us. We are committed to this fishery, to this industry, and to the people in this community. We have received the disaster declaration request from Governor Patrick and it is currently under review,” commerce department spokesman Sarah Horowitz said in an e-mail to the Gazette.
Governor Patrick’s request followed a call by Massachusetts legislators to formally declare the New England fishery a disaster.
“The need for a disaster declaration is more critical than ever,” Governor Patrick wrote in a letter Monday to acting U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank.
A preliminary report from the National Marine Fisheries Service is forecasting the need for dire cuts in catch limits for groundfish in 2013, from as low as 40 per cent to as high as 73 per cent. Fisheries managers overseeing cod and yellowtail flounder are calling for region-wide cuts. The fisheries service is calling for a 73 per cent cut in Gulf of Maine haddock, which is considered in the worst shape.
On Wednesday, Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown and Cong. Barney Frank, John Tierney and William Keating wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking for similar relief. “We are concerned that recent efforts by your administration to provide disaster relief for agricultural producers, including catfish farmers, affected by drought throughout the United States did not include assistance for the hardworking fishermen and fishing communities in New England,” they wrote. “We urge you to intervene with the Department of Commerce and NOAA to provide disaster relief for the New England fishery. After two years, now is not the time for more delay.”
In his letter to Secretary Blank, Governor Patrick wrote: “Without this advance and proactive action, I fear for the viability of our fleet and the communities and shore-side businesses that depend on the industry.” He asked the Commerce secretary to use the powers she holds under the Magnuson-Stevenson Act to invoke a disaster declaration for the New England fishery.
“It is now clear that this resource disaster is not the fault of our fishermen who have been following the federal fisheries management plans,” the governor wrote. “Much as the federal government rightly comes to the aid of America’s farmers during times of crisis, so too must the federal government support fishermen, who are working hard to put nutritious food on the table of Americans during this crisis.”
In November 2010, Mr. Patrick asked the federal government for $21 million in relief for the state groundfish fleet. Though the request was denied, federal officials asked for more research.
Yesterday, Richard K. Sullivan Jr., state secretary of the executive office of energy and environmental affairs, said the time to help the fishermen is now. “Everyone knows what is coming, what impacts will be to the fishermen. I think it has been clear, the time to act is now.” He said the state has met with the U.S. Department of Commerce on the matter.
The health of cod, which is the state fish, is historically important to Massachusetts. “Our governor is appreciative of that history”, Mr. Sullivan said.
Gregory Mayhew, a Menemsha commercial fishermen, says he hasn’t fished for cod in two years. He is one of the last groundfishermen on the Vineyard and views the new restrictions as further bad news. “It is over the edge. We are pretty much doomed. The boat is old and now with further cutbacks with cod and yellowtail flounder, I am on the way out,” Mr. Mayhew said.
Mr. Mayhew said he can recall three years ago going fishing in the Gulf of Maine in pursuit of cod and filling his net to overflowing. But the fish became more scarce. He blames the consolidation of the industry to larger 90-foot fishing boats. There are fewer boats that are far more efficient.
Several Vineyard fishermen are represented in a small portion of the northeast coastal communities sector, which includes six active fishermen. Last year they landed 50,000 pounds of Gulf of Maine cod, along with several thousand pounds of pollock and haddock.
Aaron Dority of the Penobscot East Resource Center and manager of the sector, said the fishermen saw cod become increasingly scarce late last year and it continues to be scarce now.
“The fishery is most definitely in trouble,” he said. “We need to figure out how to protect our local stocks so we can insure the health of the fishery and the prosperity of New England fishermen.”
Mr. Dority said federal aid “is really important to help the fishermen through this difficult time. But the thing we must make sure is that we don’t repeat the past mistakes. That means we need more adequate protection for those fishing grounds, where the cod and others are spawning. We have to make sure they have the available food they need [baitfish].”