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What Disaster Aid Won't Do for Massachusetts' Fisheries

An aptly named fishing boat in New Bedford Harbor.

According to a deal announced last week, Massachusetts will receive nearly half of the federal disaster relief funds coming to the Northeast groundfish industry. Nobody thinks it will solve the fishery's problems.

State fishery directors from six northeastern states reached an agreement last week on how to distribute $32.8 million in federal disaster relief funds aimed at the struggling groundfish industry. Some of that money will go directly to fishermen impacted by recent cuts in cod catch limits, but other funds may be used to permanently streamline a fleet plagued by depleted fish stocks and facing the challenges of climate change.

While the decline in cod stocks has a history spanning decades, if not centuries, the origin of this particular disaster relief package dates back to September of 2012. With fishermen facing down drastic reductions – close to 80% cuts in some cases - in the amount of cod they’d be allowed to catch in the coming year, Acting Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank declared a fishery disaster for the Northeast’s iconic groundfish fishery that includes cod, haddock and flounder, among others.

That declaration opened the door for federal financial assistance, but it took more than a year and multiple attempts for legislators to actually appropriate any relief funds.

“This wasn’t Plan A, it wasn’t Plan B,” says John Bullard, Northeast Regional Administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service. “I don’t know whether it was Plan F, G, or H. But the New England delegation never gave up.”

"The long-term answer to healthy fishing communities is healthy fish stocks, not disaster aid. This is a band-aid."

The federal allocation, in turn, presented a new challenge – how to divide the money among a variety of stakeholders in six states. The agreement reached last week divides the package into three equal pots. One third will go to direct payments to fishermen, one third to states to spend as they see fit, and the final third will be used to buy boats and permits from fishermen willing to exit the fishery permanently. Because Massachusetts is home to more groundfishermen than any other state in New England, as well as the highest grossing groundfish port, the Commonwealth will receive $14.5 million.

“I think it was the best that could be done,” says Bob Vanasse, Executive Director of Saving Seafood. “The different agencies did their best to slice it up equitably between the states. And a number of the members were adamant that there should be payments to the fishermen.”

But not all fishermen are covered by the federal package. Permit holders who caught less than 5,000 pounds of groundfish in the four years leading up to the disaster declaration aren’t eligible for payments. Neither are the hundreds of crew members who work on nearly every groundfish boat.

“The federal plan just leaves too many fishermen behind,” says Tom Dempsey, Policy Director for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance. “Crew were completely ignored, and I don’t think that’s right.”

Credit Heather Goldstone / WCAI
Fishing boats at dock in New Bedford Harbor.

Massachusetts could use some of its allotted funds to help permit holders, crew members, and recreational fishermen impacted by the disaster. Regional administrator John Bullard says members of the Massachusetts delegation expressed a desire to do so during the negotiations that led to the current deal. Rhode Island delegates talked about investing in research projects that involve, rather than alienate, fishermen, while New Hampshire expressed a need to support the last remaining fish processing plant in that state.

Some of those state-level investments could help move the fishery toward a more sustainable future, but the final portion of the federal relief package may determine the shape of the groundfish fleet itself. Nearly $11 million has been set aside for buy-back or buy-out programs that would help some fishermen exit the fishery permanently. Talks about the nature of those programs begin in a few weeks, and the uncertainty has some fishermen – even those who might be interested in getting out of the business – concerned.

When it comes to the long-term health of the fishery, though, this relief package is overshadowed by pending changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the federal law that mandates and guides fishery management nationwide. Federal legislators are in the process of amending and reauthorizing the law, as they do every several years.

“The long-term answer to healthy fishing communities is healthy fish stocks, not disaster aid. This is a band-aid,” Bullard says. “The buy-out or buy-back which might help us right-size the fleet could be a long-term solution. But the real answer is building the stocks back.”

There’s disagreement about whether a draft bill released by House Committee on Natural Resources last week would do that. That bill emphasizes flexibility in management, and calls for scientists and managers to do more in the way of taking into account factors other than fishing that may be affecting fish stocks, including climate change, pollution, and predator-prey interactions. It also asks fishery biologists to incorporate new technologies into the process of assessing wild fish populations.

On the surface, these are things that both fishermen and scientists have been asking for in some form or other for years. By simultaneously relaxing deadlines and requirements on managers while expecting more from scientists, it could narrow the gap between supply and demand for fishery data. But additional federal resources may be necessary to support scientists already stretched thin and facing requests for more frequent and complicated stock assessments.

"If the rules could be written fairly and if the flexibility was actually allowed to take place, then I would agree."

In addition, environmentalists, and even some fishermen, worry that the bill creates loopholes that could be used to excuse overfishing.

“If the fish are in trouble because of global climate change, that doesn’t mean you get out of jail free card to go catch as many fish as you want,” argues Jud Crawford, science and policy lead for Pew's Northeast Fisheries Program. “You have to adjust your fishing in a way that is appropriate for the current condition of the stocks.”

Critics of the bill say the existing law already provides enough flexibility for managers, and that more could be a dangerous thing.

“The flexibility that we’ve had for years here in New England is what got us into the mess we’re trying to climb out of now,” says Dempsey. “What our fisheries need much more than flexibility is stability.”

But others in the industry say rulemakers and environmental groups have distorted the intentions of those who crafted the last version of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, making it all but impossible to take advantage of the allowances it includes.

“If the rules could be written fairly and if the flexibility was actually allowed to take place, then I would agree,” says Vanasse. “But the problem here is the rules and the massive amount of litigation that results in the Act essentially being interpreted from the bench.”

The House bill is due to come up for debate later this summer.

"While I encourage both chambers to move quickly on a strong reauthorization of this important tool of fisheries management," says Representative Bill Keating of Massachusetts Ninth District, "I look forward to the opportunity to further amend this bill.”

The Senate is still working on its own version, which may differ significantly from the current House draft. Few expect the reauthorization process to be concluded quickly.