September 13, 2012

Feds declare New England groundfish industry a 'disaster'

By Kevin Miller
Staff Writer

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.

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Fishing boats are moored at the Commercial Fishing Pier in Portsmouth, N.H., last winter. The government has declared New England's groundfish industry a 'disaster' clearing the way for financial assistance.


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.

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