A year after strict federal rules took effect to limit the catch of local fishermen, Governor Deval Patrick asked the federal government yesterday to provide $21 million in disaster assistance to the state’s fishing communities, arguing that “significant financial losses and dramatic consolidation’’ have harmed the state’s groundfish industry.
The request for aid, made after the US Commerce Department denied a previous appeal in January, cites new data for why the assistance is needed now.
“Massachusetts fishermen have suffered severe economic hardship due to the implementation of the catch shares program,’’ Patrick said in a statement. “Under the federal program, we have seen a loss of jobs, vessels, and businesses. I am requesting federal disaster assistance to mitigate these losses and protect the economic viability of our historic fishing industry.’’
The Patrick administration said a new economic analysis by the state Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Marine Fisheries found a 61 percent decline in the groundfish catch of mainly small fishing boats on the South Coast between 2009 and 2010. The administration said the 30 percent of fisherman in the area with groundfish permits lost at least 80 percent of their revenue, while 52 percent lost at least half their revenue.
The administration cited a separate study by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology that found the state’s groundfish fleet has experienced a 24 percent decline between 2009 and 2010.
They also cited a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that found 10 percent of vessels accounted for almost 58 percent of gross groundfish revenue in 2010, up from the prior three years.
Justin Kenney, a spokesman for the Commerce Department, said the department has received the governor’s request and “looks forward to responding as quickly as possible.’’
The request was made a month after a contentious congressional hearing on Beacon Hill, in which NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, the nation’s top fisheries regulator, testified that fish stocks are rebounding after years of decline and that the economically depressed fishing industry that supports some 77,000 jobs in Massachusetts had shown signs of a comeback.
In her testimony, Lubchenco said fishermen fished within the requirements of 18 of the 20 stocks with catch limits. She said because of years of effort to replenish the region’s fish, catch levels increased this year for 12 of 20 groundfish such as cod and flounder.
“Glimmers of hope are now finally emerging in the fishery after decades of problem,’’ she said at the hearing. “I believe we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a very long tunnel.’’
Lubchenco - who noted at the hearing that a disaster proclamation would not automatically trigger financial assistance - added that local fishermen are catching higher-value fish and throwing less of their catch overboard, citing as an example Georges Bank yellowtail flounder, 9 percent of which were discarded in 2010, compared with 31 percent in 2009.
Under the new system, most fishermen are divided into groups called sectors, which are given a share of the annual quota of bottom-dwelling fish. That quota is then divided among the fishermen.
The rules were approved by the New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service to help fishermen cope with years of cuts in fish catches, intended to blunt the damage of overfishing.
Previous policies had attempted to control overfishing by limiting the number of days fishermen could cast their nets. The sector approach was meant to give fishing communities more flexibility, allowing, for example, fishermen to lease their allotments to others while stocks recovered enough for them to afford to go to sea.
In an effort to show that some fishermen support the new rules, fishermen representing about 150 boats from Gloucester to New Bedford yesterday sent NOAA a letter explaining why they prefer the new system.
They said they preferred the stability of the current system over the past chaos.
“A few voices calling for the overturn of the entire sector system have been amplified in the media, and we understand that our elected officials are trying to respond to their constituents’ concerns,’’ the fishermen wrote. “Unfortunately, this has led to a series of increasingly dangerous proposals that truly put the future of our businesses and fisheries at risk.’’
Local elected officials have spent the last year appealing for the federal government to aid local fishermen.
US Senator John F. Kerry said he hoped the administration’s new request for aid means the “finish line is in sight’’ and pointed out that Lubchenco agreed to expedited review.
“I’m hopeful that today’s new report gets us down to the short strokes of this process,’’ he said. “It’s absolutely vital for Massachusetts we get our folks relief.’’
US Senator Scott Brown said: “NOAA’s own data clearly shows what Massachusetts fishermen have been saying all along: They’re struggling to survive under the catch share program. I call on [Commerce Secretary John E.] Bryson to swiftly approve Governor Patrick’s request for a disaster declaration to provide some much needed relief to our fishermen.’’
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.