The US Commerce Department declared a disaster Thursday in the Northeast groundfishing industry for the 2013 fishing year as stocks fail to rebuild, a move that opens the door for Congress to appropriate relief funding for the industry in the region.
In a letter to Governor Deval Patrick, Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank said that there will be a “commercial fishery failure due to a fishery resource disaster” and that she is concerned about the potential effect on Northeast fishermen and fishing communities.
“Despite fishermen’s adherence to catch limits over the past few years, recent data shows that several key fish stocks are not rebuilding,” Blank wrote. “Low levels of these stocks are causing a significant loss of access to fishery resources with anticipated revenue declines that will greatly affect the commercial fishery.”
She said that if Congress appropriates disaster funds, her agency will work with Massachusetts “for an economically robust and sustainable fishery.” She sent similar letters to the governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maine, New York, and New Hampshire.
US Senator Scott Brown said in a statement that the declaration came as a relief, adding that area fishing communities are in dire need of aid. He said the long-term solution to the crisis would be reforming federal policies that “created this situation in the first place.”
In the same statement, US Senator John F. Kerry said he is working with fellow members of the New England delegation to obtain $100 million in disaster aid for the area’s beleaguered fishing industry. It was unclear Thursday how those funds would be allocated.
A spokesman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Commerce Department, said in an e-mail that if Congress approves funding, federal officials would like to work with states to develop spending plans to maintain the viability of the industry, advance research initiatives, and support at-sea monitoring, though he did not offer specifics.
Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, welcomed news of the declaration.
“In the long run, it’s going to be helpful," she said. “We’re grateful that they [made] the declaration . . . to try to bring some money into the state, so we can try to stay alive as an industry during this hard time.”
Commercial fishermen in New England are facing steep cuts in next year’s catch limits because of poor groundfish populations. Officials have indicated the situation may get worse, with the maximum allowable catch shrinking by 70 percent or more for certain cod and haddock stocks and 51 percent for Georges Bank yellowtail flounder.
The New England Fishery Management Council will vote on the catch limits in November. The 2013 fishing year begins next May.
Asked if she had concerns about more stringent catch limits following the disaster declaration, Sanfilippo said, “To be honest about it, yes,” while reiterating that she believes the declaration is a positive development because of the financial aid it could bring.
“Now, like I said, they’re seeing that it’s a natural disaster, and that basically they acknowledged that we as a fishing people will work with Mother Nature,” she said.
Peter Shelley, senior counsel at the Conservation Law Foundation, a New England environmental group, said federal aid should be “allocated surgically to benefit the fishing families that are hurting most under the current conditions.”
He added: “We must also be sure that this declaration doesn’t open a door to undoing the critical, science-based measures we are taking to rebuild fish stocks and protect important habitat.”