Battered by new federal limits on the amount of fish they can catch, Northeastern cod fishermen need help both to maintain their boats and equipment in tough times, and to transition into other marine-related jobs. Luckily, they can count on strong political support from Massachusetts senators Scott Brown and John Kerry and from governors and members of Congress throughout much of New England. Those backers have now persuaded the Obama administration to declare the collapsing groundfish industry an economic disaster in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. The move won’t necessarily alter the catch limits — nor should it — but it opens the door to financial disaster relief.
Hard-hit fishing communities should spend the money wisely. That means, among other things, helping to establish new marine industries. New England senators and representatives are seeking $100 million in disaster aid. If Congress goes along, it will be a one-time injection of economic-development funds that fishing communities must not squander.
Fishing communities should not expect the industry to return to normal any time soon. The number of fishermen in Gloucester, for instance, has dwindled from well over 3,000 in the mid-1800s to the low-hundreds today. The challenge will be to keep an appropriate number of boats and fishermen economically afloat, without merely subsidizing a dying industry. Determining the proper size of the fishing fleet will require better assessments of the fishing stock by federal regulators and more cooperation between fishermen and researchers. As a gesture of goodwill, the federal government should continue a program that pairs fishermen with regulators and pays them an average of $630 per day at sea.
But the harder task will be shifting fishing families into marine jobs that don’t involve fishing. In Gloucester, Mayor Carolyn Kirk is already working with colleges and entrepreneurs to create more marine research and industrial jobs. Meanwhile, Representative Ed Markey has suggested that some of the marine skills involved in fishing might be useful for offshore jobs implanting wind turbines for energy. The Northeast Seafood Coalition, a lobbying group, should advise local officials on how best to spend the federal aid.
“With this funding, we can move forward,” said Nicolas Brancaleone, communications manager for the coalition. The best way to move forward is to realize that this disaster declaration is a unique opportunity for economic transition. If it is handled properly, the iconic culture of fishing can be maintained, while a new marine culture takes root on the New England coast.