WASHINGTON — New England fishermen will have to wait several more weeks, at least, to learn whether Congress will provide federal aid to the region’s struggling groundfishing industry.
On Friday, Congress approved $9.7 billion for flood insurance claims by homeowners and business owners who suffered losses from Sandy in late October.
The House approved the bill, 354-67, with all the no votes coming from Republicans, The Associated Press reported. The bill passed in the Senate on a voice vote. President Obama is expected to sign the measure.
Now, fishermen and members of Congress from Northeastern states may have to fight to include the fisheries assistance in a second, larger Sandy relief bill that’s set for consideration in the House during the week of Jan. 14.
The situation in Congress is adding uncertainty as Maine’s groundfishing fleet braces for further catch reductions from federal regulators.
“We are really disappointed that (the aid) was taken out,” said Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, who is also manager of the Port Clyde Community Groundfish Sector.
Martens said fishermen are facing “potentially disastrous” cuts in their fishing allowances. The federal disaster aid could help the fleet — already down to fewer than 50 boats in Maine — offset the costs of additional at-sea monitoring or sector management, Martens said.
“There is definitely a lot of concern in Maine and throughout New England,” he said.
In September, the U.S. Department of Commerce declared that New England and several other Northeastern states were facing a “commercial fishing failure” because stocks of cod and other groundfish were not recovering, despite fishermen’s compliance with strict catch limits.
The New England Fisheries Management Council is expected to tighten the limits even more this month, potentially reducing some allowances by as much as 70 percent to 80 percent.
The federal disaster declaration opens the door to additional federal assistance to the states, which typically have broad discretion for using that money. Potential applications include funding research, defraying management costs and direct assistance to fishermen.
This is the fourth time since 2005 that a fishery in Maine has been declared a commercial disaster. The three previous declarations applied to shellfish, devastated by red tide.
The Senate passed $60.4 billion for storm relief last month, including $150 million for federally designated fisheries disasters. But the bill died Thursday with the closing of the 112th Congress.
Some Republicans in the Senate opposed including the fisheries money or any other non-Sandy-related disaster in a bill that was supposed to help victims of the storm. Those sentiments likely run even stronger in the Republican-controlled House, raising serious doubts about whether fisheries disasters unrelated to Sandy will be funded.
Republican House Speaker John Boehner opted to delay a vote on the Senate’s $60.4 billion Sandy relief bill because of concerns about the size and scope of the package. That outraged New York and New Jersey Republicans, and led to Friday’s $9.7 billion bill followed by a larger aid package in two weeks.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., defended the inclusion of non-Sandy related disasters, saying Congress has a tradition of providing assistance for multiple events in a single bill.
“The bottom line is, none of this is extraneous to disasters,” Schumer said in a news conference after the Senate voted on the $9.7 billion House bill.
Republican representatives from states covered by the fisheries disaster declarations have spoken in support of including funding in the Sandy relief bill, as have all four members of Maine’s delegation.
“We are very disappointed the money hasn’t been included,” said Willy Ritch, spokesman for Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree. “Chellie has been arguing that the money for New England fisheries should be included as part of the package, and will continue to do that.”
Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at: