The commercial Northeast groundfish fishery Thursday was formally declared a disaster for the coming year by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, paving the way for financial assistance for fishermen who are facing depleted stocks and drastic cuts to catch shares.

The disaster declaration comes less than a month after Gov. Deval Patrick and other elected officials wrote a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce asking for federal disaster relief, citing a preliminary report predicting extreme cuts in catch limits for the 2013 fishing season, which begins in May 2013.

Area fishermen and a number of elected officials heralded the news, but also said bluntly that it only underscores widespread and growing concerns about the effectiveness of fishing regulations.

Albatross Boat Deck
Days at sea are a far cry from what they used to be, and groundfishermen say regulations have done little to help. — Mark Lovewell

“I guess you could say it’s a recognition . . . that whatever regulations they’ve had in the past haven’t worked,” Gregory Mayhew, a longtime commercial dragger out of Menemsha told the Gazette yesterday.

A press release about the disaster declaration went out Thursday from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank said declaring a commercial fishery failure makes it possible for Congress to appropriate money to alleviate financial hardship for fishermen. Ms. Blank said in the announcement that fish stocks have failed to rebound, despite fishermen’s adherence to catch limits. In a Sept. 13 letter to Governor Patrick, she said the Department of Commerce and NOAA will work with the New England Fishery Management Council and the fishing industry to explore ways to alleviate economic impacts on fishermen during the coming year.

“Fishermen in the Northeast are facing financial hardships because of the unexpectedly slow rebuilding of fish stocks that have limited their ability to catch enough to make ends meet,” Ms. Blank said in the announcement. “I am making a fishery failure declaration so that Congress is able to appropriate funding that will mitigate some of the economic consequences of the reduced stocks and help build a sustainable fishery.”

In anticipation of the federal disaster designation, Mr. Patrick and other New England governors have requested $100 million in disaster funding for New England fishermen. Mr. Patrick first requested economic relief for fisheries in November 2010, and renewed the request in November 2011 after the first request was denied.

A National Marine Fisheries Service preliminary report predicted the need for deep cuts in catch limits for groundfish in the 2013 season, between 43 per cent and 73 per cent for a variety of stocks, including cod and yellowtail flounder.

Now, based on the disaster declaration, Congress can vote to appropriate money to alleviate the financial hardship to fishermen.

The announcement was applauded by Governor Patrick and members of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation in a flurry of press statements Thursday.

“This declaration is more critical than ever as coastal communities brace for possible additional cuts to the region’s groundfishery next year,” Governor Patrick said in a statement. He said catch limit cuts are “putting the very viability of the historic and economically vital New England fishing fleet at risk.”

The governor said the state will begin a public process, including talking to fishermen, to develop spending plans to create stability for the groundfishing fleet.

“This is a big deal for our fishermen and the entire industry because it paves the way for the financial assistance that will determine whether they can stay open for business,” Sen. John Kerry said in a statement.

Sen. Scott Brown and others emphasized the need for reform. “I want to be clear that the long-term solution to this crisis is reforming NOAA and its policies that created this situation in the first place,” he said in a statement.

Rep. Barney Frank said: “The fundamental issue remains the flawed structure of fishing regulation, and the statute under which it is carried out, and correcting this situation remains a very important task for Congress in the immediate future.”

Cong. William Keating said: “While this declaration is a positive step, it is also only a short-term solution.”

Closer to home, Aaron Dority, Downeast Groundfish Initiative director with Penobscot East Resource Center and Northeast Coastal Communities Sector Manager, put things in simpler terms.“I think the bottom line is that we need more fish for us to catch,” he said. “Any disaster funding needs to be focused on why if there’s no fish to catch, no amount of modified regulation or disaster funding is going to help fishermen.”

He said it wasn’t clear yet how the funding would be allocated, but that it could go toward three areas: targeted economic assistance, sector operating costs and cooperative research.

When it comes to short-term economic assistance, “the best use of this money is to insure the long-term viability of the fish, to rebuild fish stocks with better science that reflects complex understanding of these stocks,”Mr. Dority said. “We’re not going to have the fisheries that support our local community unless we rebuild the local population of fish.” With 90 per cent of cod caught in two small areas in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank, he said, “we need to do a much better job of identifying those areas, protecting those areas.”

Mr. Mayhew on the Vineyard said the latest news is both an offer of help and an admission of failure. “Of course, any assistance would obviously be helpful as far as mitigating the damage that’s looming for the 2013 season,” he said. “[The declaration is] also an understanding that their management plan that they’d had over the years here is not working.”

He continued: “It’s not stocks that are in bad shape, fishermen are in bad shape.” Mr. Mayhew said he has gone from catching 100,000 pounds of yellowtail in a year to about 4,000 pounds.

“I can catch that in one tow if I happen to land on top of them,” he said. Considering that he spends about $2,000 in fuel to get to Georges Bank, “that’s telling you that you can’t go and make any money, so you might as well tie it up.

“It’s not like it used to be. What made it exciting was man versus nature, so to speak, battling the elements. Now sometimes you have a big tow and . . . you have to throw back all the sea bass.”

Mr. Mayhew agreed with the predictions for the 2013 fishing season. “I see it is being pretty catastrophic as far as groundfish are concerned,” he said.

“A lot of the problems with fishing stocks are bad management decisions. It’s almost like if there had been no regulations we would have been better off than we are now in a lot of respects.”