The recent announcement of federal disaster relief funds for Maine’s struggling groundfish fleet has generated a lot of talk about options and how best to provide maximum relief for our fishermen.

The Maine Department of Marine Resources has been holding public meetings this summer to hear ideas from fishermen and others about how best to spend about $636,000 in relief funding. Suggestions for these funds include a variety of rebates or subsidies, the leasing of additional fish quota and the pursuit of seafood certification programs.

While not discounting the need for or importance of these options, one of the more promising long-term solutions has so far managed to stay off the radar – funding for gear and equipment that reduces fuel expenses.

For Maine fishermen, the cost of fuel can be their second largest operating expense after crew salaries and can amount to more than $30,000 a year. Unlike some of the other relief options being discussed, saving fuel provides both instantaneous and ongoing financial relief. It also not only benefits boat owners and captains, but the crew of the vessels as well.

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute partners with groundfish fishermen from along the Maine coast to evaluate the economic and environmental implications of new fishing gear technology, understand any impact on their effectiveness and help ease the adoption of gear that proves beneficial.

Working with fishermen in Port Clyde and Portland, we found that replacing traditional net twine with fine, high-strength material greatly reduced drag on the net and resulted in a 20 percent savings in fuel. This research was pioneering, and while some fishermen had to make further twine adjustments to suit their operation, all are still enjoying fuel-saving benefits.

As part of this work, we also found that using modern, efficient trawl doors can provide a further 10 percent reduction in fuel usage by keeping the net spread open while minimizing contact with seafloor. We also learned that the installation of a simple fuel flow meter, which allows fishermen to easily monitor their fuel consumption, can cut annual fuel costs by around 5 percent.

Combined, these three options produce significant fuel savings and immediate relief from one of fishermen’s greatest expenses – and one that is certain to grow in the future. A complete retrofit of a Maine trawler with these options can be done for about $20,000.

While a small number of Maine fishermen have already implemented this fuel-efficient gear with great success, most others are challenged to further invest in their businesses during a time of great uncertainty and financial difficulty.

Many of the other relief options currently being considered provide support to boat owners and captains. However, there has also been much discussion on the docks and elsewhere about how to support the crew, many of whom are at risk of losing their jobs and source of income.

Experienced crew members are hard to come by, and they contribute significantly to the efficiency of the fishing operation and the quality of the landed catch. It is important that these individuals are considered in any discussion about the distribution of these funds.

An important feature of fuel-saving options is that crew can benefit, as reduced fuel expenses can mean greater pay at the end of a fishing trip.

In addition to offering equitable, instantaneous and ongoing relief, one of the most important benefits of fuel-saving options is that they guide the fishery toward long-term and sustainable profitability. These options would help modernize the fleet and put fishermen in a better place to tackle future challenges, such as changes in fish quota, escalating fuel prices or the migration of groundfish because of climate change.

Maine’s groundfish fishery is at an important point in its history, and the provision of disaster relief funds to Maine fishermen will have far-reaching implications for the fishery’s future. While the adoption of fuel-saving options to provide these fishermen with relief has not been widely discussed, its benefits are profound and should be carefully considered in regard to the use of these funds.

— Special to the Press Herald