WASHINGTON – Lawmakers from Maine and two other states are urging federal regulators to “exercise all authority under the law” to help the New England groundfishing fleet weather severe catch limits that many fear could decimate the industry.
In a letter sent Thursday, 13 members of Congress from Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire asked acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank to help owners cover the costs of having catch monitors on vessels as mandated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. All four members of Maine’s delegation — Republican Sen. Susan Collins and independent Sen. Angus King and Democratic Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud — signed the letter.
“NOAA Fisheries must seriously consider the impact of further burdening our fishermen with at-sea monitoring costs and dedicate the resources necessary to continue to cover these costs,” the members wrote. “Even without the drastic reductions in catch limits, our fishermen cannot feasibly afford their expected share of at-sea monitors.”
The New England lawmakers also requested that NOAA promptly decide whether fishermen will be able to carry over any unused quotas from this year to next. They also urged the agency to dedicate funding toward finding out what is suppressing populations of many groundfish species.
“With incredible challenges ahead for fishermen and in rebuilding the resource, now is the time to prioritize federal programs that have the potential to improve fisheries science and management and support long-term sustainability of the resource and fishing communities,” the letter reads.
Last week, regional fisheries regulators voted to slash the quota for Gulf of Maine cod by 77 percent later this year and Georges Bank cod by 55 percent. The reductions are necessary, regulators and scientists said, because groundfish stocks have been found to be much smaller than previously estimated.
In 1990, an estimated 350 vessels hauled in more than 15 million pounds of Atlantic cod in Maine alone. Today, fewer than 50 vessels remain in the industry. The cod catch for 2011 was just 750,000 pounds and the total value of all groundfish that year was just $5.7 million, compared to $334.6 million for lobster.
Many groundfishermen have struggled to catch even their reduced quotas because stocks have all but disappeared in many areas. Fishermen have asked NOAA to let them transfer their unused quota to this year, but no decision has been made.
Last year, the Commerce Department declared that the New England groundfishery faced an “economic disaster” because stocks were not recovering as quickly as expected despite strict catch limits. The designation opens the door for federal disaster relief. But Congress has yet to authorize any funding.
Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., plans to submit legislation seeking disaster funding for the New England fishery as well as other U.S. fisheries. Tierney said his bill would tap money collected on imported fish to pay for the disaster relief and additional scientific research.
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