WASHINGTON – The plight of New England’s groundfishing fleet was once again a topic on Capitol Hill on Tuesday as a Massachusetts senator questioned a federal official about how his agency is spending money that’s intended to help fishermen.

New England’s groundfishing industry is bracing for deep cuts in the allowable catch this year to protect what regulators say are dwindling populations of Gulf of Maine cod and other groundfish. The cuts have intensified the debate over the science behind catch limits and focused more attention on the always-tenuous relationship between fishermen and regulators.

Much of Tuesday’s Senate subcommittee hearing on fisheries management in the U.S. focused on concerns in New York over management of the recreational summer flounder or fluke fishery.

But Sen. William “Mo” Cowan, D-Mass., pressed a top Department of Commerce official on the use of federal dollars by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Cowan said that, according to his calculations, just $8 million of the $113 million available in 2010 through the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act program went to fisheries. That decades-old program uses fees on imported fish to provide grants or development projects to benefit the U.S. fishing industry.

The remaining $105 million – 93 percent of the total – paid for NOAA’s operations, said Cowan. “In Massachusetts, $8 million is nothing to sneeze at but $113 million is real money – money that we need for a 300-year-old industry that is dying, in large part because of its relationship (with) and the actions of NOAA, including the failure to distribute this kind of money to our fishing industry,” Cowan said.

Eric Schwaab, assistant secretary for conservation in the Department of Commerce, replied that much of the money is being used to help the fishing industry in a myriad of other ways. For instance, in New England, it pays for cooperative research, to support monitoring and expand studies to gauge the health and size of commercial fish stocks.

Earlier this year, the New England Fishery Management Council cut catch limits for Gulf of Maine cod by 77 percent and Georges Bank cod by 55 percent. The reductions are expected to put additional strain on a fishery that is struggling to survive.

Tuesday’s discussion over NOAA funding is just one small part of a debate that will happen this year as Congress considers re-authorizing the nation’s predominant fisheries management law, the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

New England lawmakers are also hoping to secure federal disaster relief funds for the region’s groundfishing fleet. But Congress has yet to appropriate any money.

At one point Tuesday, Cowan asked Schwaab whether the money could be better spent by going directly to the groundfish industry.

“I think that, fundamentally, fishermen need fish first, and then we need to try to make sure that we find ways to maximize their market opportunities for the fish that they do catch,” Schwaab said. “We need to support fisheries through the most accurate assessment information possible.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:

kmiller@mainetoday.com

On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC