WASHINGTON – The U.S. Department of Commerce declared a disaster Thursday for New England’s groundfishing fleet for the 2013 season, clearing the way for Congress to appropriate as much as $100 million to help fishermen.

Recent studies have shown that stocks of cod and other species are not recovering as quickly as expected despite the industry’s compliance with strict catch limits. Gov. Paul LePage requested the disaster declaration in November.

“I’ve been in the business over 30 years and this is the worst I have ever seen it,” said Tom Casamassa of Saco, one of the few Mainers who still are fishing for cod, haddock, flounder and other groundfish. Maine has just 45 boats in the groundfish fleet, as others have switched to lobster and other species.

“Talking to other fishermen, they are shaking their heads and don’t know what to do,” Casamassa said Thursday. “We’re really glad they moved ahead with the disaster declaration. From the sound of it, New England is really going to need it.”

Cod fishing was once the economic backbone of much of New England. But overfishing and other factors have depleted cod stocks, and austere catch limits have been imposed on the relatively few groundfish boats that remain.

Now, fishermen face additional reductions of as much as 70 percent in the amount of cod and other species they can land.

Like many other fishermen, Casamassa has had to branch out into other fisheries such as shrimp, lobster and even dogfish — a kind of “trash fish,” to some.

In a written statement, Rebecca Blank, acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, said, “The future challenges facing the men and women in this industry and the shore-based businesses that support them are daunting, and we want to do everything we can to help them through these difficult times.”

A statement by Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree said they’re encouraged by the disaster declaration, which acknowledges that Maine’s fishermen are facing unprecedented challenges. The statement says the declaration is a first step in a long effort to rebuild one of the nation’s first industries.

This is not the first Maine fishery to be granted disaster status, nor is it uncommon nationwide.

In 2010, shellfish harvesters in Maine were made eligible for federal disaster assistance after the Department of Commerce declared that an outbreak of red tide in 2009 had created a commercial fishing failure.

On Thursday, two other fisheries — salmon in Alaska and oysters and crabs in Mississippi — were declared disasters.

Numerous fishermen’s organizations, including the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, applauded the declaration.

The Northeast Seafood Coalition, whose members hold more than 500 groundfish permits, said it “views federal disaster relief as an important component of a plan for 2013 and beyond. … It provides fishermen with an essential bridge to the future when fundamental, longer-term solutions can be implemented.”

Meredith Mendelson, deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources, said the declaration is federal acknowledgement that something other than “fishing pressure” is slowing the recovery of fish stocks.

“Fishermen have been staying within their catch limits for several years now,” Mendelson said. “So it is not the fault of the industry. There is something else going on in the environment.”

A report in May suggested the Gulf of Maine cod population was at 58 percent of what managers believe are healthy levels, while Georges Bank cod were at 12 percent.

As a result, federal regulators reduced the quota for 2012 and are expected to slash the catch limits further in 2013 — by as much as 70 percent from 2012 levels.

A letter from LePage and other governors said the disaster relief money would be “used to provide both immediate economic relief to our region’s struggling groundfish industry and to make targeted investments that will allow the fleet to survive and become more sustainable in the years ahead.”

Although funding is not guaranteed, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said Thursday that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has committed to include $100 million for fishermen and fishing communities in emergency assistance legislation. That bill will be debated during the lame-duck session after the election Nov. 6, Kerry said Thursday.

Mendelson said discussions continue about how to use any emergency funding appropriated by Congress.

Options include funding additional research on why groundfish are disappearing, developing new gear to better target specific species, or offsetting other costs, such as the amount the industry pays for at-sea catch monitors.

Another option is direct payments to fishermen or “buy-outs” of permit holders.

Mendelson said disaster relief for fishermen isn’t the same as disaster relief for farmers.

“There have been direct payments (to fishermen) in the past, but there is no insurance like crop insurance,” Mendelson said.

Casamassa said he and other fishermen hope that money will be used to improve the research and science that guides catch limits.

“Nobody wants a handout. Everyone wants to fish,” he said in a conference call with reporters organized by the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association and the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. “There is a problem in the Gulf of Maine ecosystem and we need to figure it out and to fix it.”

Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com