Fisheries Disaster Money Shows, but Where Should it Flow?
Last week the most unproductive Congress in our Nation’s history managed to squeeze out an omnibus appropriations bill that includes $75 million dollars for fisheries disaster assistance. New England’s Congressional delegation has been working hard since the time that John Kerry and Barney Frank were still in office to secure this funding. There was no slack in the line when Kerry and Frank left office as Rep. Bill Keating, Sen. Warren, and Sen. Markey, as well as Congressional leaders from Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Maine, worked together to secure these funds in the face of both the stupidly political and the very real budget hurdles.
As the saying goes: if it was easy, it would have been done years ago. This is a good success in an exceptionally difficult time for securing any kind of new funding. (Because you might be wondering and for what it’s worth, CLF supported disaster assistance funding for New England because of the radical downturn in the cod assessments but there wasn’t much of a role for us but to root on our Congressional delegation.)
Now what? Some of the first responses were “It should have been $150 million” and “It should have been here years ago.” Well, it isn’t and it wasn’t. Could the bill have been written better? Absolutely. Let me just suggest that the first response should been “Thanks.” Disaster relief funding could still help a good number of people. A thoughtful and creative process for using this rare and scarce opportunity is warranted.
So, what to do with all that money? The fisheries disasters didn’t just happen in New England. Gulf of Mexico oysters, Alaska salmon, and ports and marinas destroyed by Superstorm Sandy are due their fair cuts. The hard reality is that the pot for New England is much smaller than the region could have used to start with and then needs to be disbursed between states, the varied ports within states and the different parts of the groundfish fleet. This is the hard part and I don’t envy the folks who have to work out the breakdown of funds.
Here are some possible opportunities to get the best use out of New England’s disaster assistance:
- Provide assistance to owners/captains & crew with documented declines in landings in 2013 in cod, Gulf of Maine haddock, Georges Bank yellowtail, and plaice as compared to their average landings in the 2010-2012 fishing years. Assistance should be based on need but shouldn’t punish boats or crews that shifted into other species when groundfish populations were clearly suffering from overfishing.
- Fund programs in data collection and analysis through partnerships with regional university centers focused on using fisheries dependent data to increase the frequency and efficacy of surveys and build confidence in the results. A shared goal should be to reduce the risks of similar quota shocks in the future by increasing the reliability and predictability of assessments.
- Continue investments in electronic monitoring. Money saved and increased accuracy of catch data from electronic monitoring add up in the long run and cuts future vessel costs.
- Examine the opportunities for targeted support for waterfront infrastructure. Some New England port towns have developed plans to maintain and expand the economic opportunities for their fleet and communities. Some have not. Those that have planned for the future deserve support to meet their established working waterfront needs.
- Restore funding to job retraining and fisheries assistance offices to help fishermen and their family members who want to transition out of fishing. Both large and smaller ports should have access to retraining programs.
- Cooperative research focused on understanding cod, yellowtail and haddock movements is always a good area to fund, as is fleet-based gear research designed to improve gear selectivity and reduce ecological impacts.
- Check in with the valuable party charter fleet to determine whether disaster assistance is necessary for them as well and develop responsive programs as needed and possible.
What not to do? Don’t capitalize a shift of fishing effort from groundfish into other fisheries with federally subsidized funding of poorly designed buyouts or other aid packages. Funding a groundfish permit/vessel buyout is a tricky business that seems to go wrong as many times or more than they go right: tread carefully here.