January 30, 2013

Our View: Groundfishing limits are a disaster for this region

Fish stocks are not rebounding fast enough and fishermen need government help.

When the ocean surge from superstorm Sandy inundated New York and New Jersey, the nation responded.

click image to enlarge

A groundfishing vessel glides out into Casco Bay before dawn on Jan. 23 as arctic sea smoke rises from the water.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

When there is a tornado, wildfire or earthquake, the federal government offers a hand to the people who have lost their homes and businesses.

It's the right thing to do and it's the smart thing to do. Preventing people from getting wiped out financially by a natural disaster maintains local economies and protects job markets from collapsing. Help in the early stages costs less than bailing out someone after they hit bottom.

What is happening to the Northeast's groundfishing industry is a natural disaster, just as devastating as a drought or a wildfire. But the federal government is just making it worse.

Fishermen have been regulated under several regimes designed to rebuild the threatened stocks of cod and other species, while still allowing enough fishing for some fishermen to survive financially.

But as the catch is limited more each year and fishing boats are forced to leave the fleet, these small businesses and the businesses that supply them with fuel and provide maintenance are forced to pay the price.

This week the U.S. Senate delivered some more bad news, by passing a superstorm Sandy disaster relief bill that did not include any money for New England's fishermen.

That news is going to be compounded this week with even worse news -- based on scientific modeling, cod stocks are not coming back fast enough, and catch limits likely will be revised downward by another 70 percent to 80 percent.

That will be disastrous for the fishing boats still in business and for the onshore businesses that support them.

Science should be the determining factor in deciding how many fish the industry can land sustainably, but it is not fair to treat the victims of this natural disaster differently than the people who were hurt by storms like Sandy or Katrina.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce designated the Northeastern groundfishery an economic disaster, making it eligible for federal funds. But getting a declaration and getting the funds are not the same thing.

Members of Maine's congressional delegation should use their influence with their colleagues, especially those in the Republican-controlled House, to treat the fishermen of the Northeast with the same compassion shown the victims of other disasters.


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