Disburse disaster aid to all active fishermen
By Jan Margeson
A typical small-boat fisherman from Cape Cod — or anywhere in the state for that matter — has more than navigating around the tides and the wind to contend with in today’s complicated regulatory world and in the face of a changing ocean. There’s crew to pay to sustain viable communities, gear and fuel to buy to support a coastal economy, and safety equipment to update to make sure they are prepared in any emergency.
Starting in October, these family fishermen will have to undertake a new added expense: paying for at-sea monitors who count the fish they harvest and those they have to throw back.
Until now, the federal government has paid for the services as part of a new management program it initiated to help bring back declining species of fish, such as our peninsula’s namesake cod. Now, it is turning it into an unfunded mandate, and Massachusetts’ fishermen could go out of business over it.
Profit margins in fishing are not high, and the federal government’s own report found that 59 percent of the state’s groundfishermen would go into the red if they had to pay for onboard monitors.
But there are solutions, and the first one lies directly with the state. Gov. Charlie Baker received $6.7 million as the last phase of federal disaster aid to distribute to the state’s fishing industry. When allocating the money, the National Marine Fisheries Service provided guidance that the funds be used to stabilize the commercial fishery and encouraged the states to give active permit holders “top priority.”
Some fishing groups immediately called for the funds to be slated to cover the cost of the upcoming monitoring bills. But Gov. Baker made it clear in a letter to the Secretary of Commerce that responsibility for the cost of at-sea monitors rested squarely in the federal government’s court. And we support that — as do all of the fishermen we have spoken with on this issue over the past few months. However, there are no federal funds in sight and nothing in the works that leads us to believe that it is even remotely a possibility for this year or next.
The current proposal that Baker’s Division of Marine Fisheries has been developing with an industry working group divvies up the pie to a select few fishermen at the expense of the entire rest of the groundfish fleet. Not only does this leave our Cape Cod fishermen and other small-boat fishermen from around the state out of the deal, but it also expressly goes against the direction the federal agency provided for distributing the funds.
In order to make good on Congress’ intention, Gov. Baker should make sure that the $6.7 million is distributed directly to all active fishermen to pay whatever bills they need, whether it be crew or fuel or at-sea monitors. This would allow fishermen to cover the additional expenses while they work with the fisheries service to develop longer-term, more efficient, less expensive solutions, such as electronic monitoring, or putting video cameras instead of humans on boats
In May, when the National Marine Fisheries Service reprogrammed how the last round of disaster monies would be distributed, it clearly specified that the states should use the funds “to provide further assistance to their fishing communities and prevent a similar fishery failure in the future.”
If Gov. Baker doesn’t distribute this money into the hands of as many active commercial fishermen as possible, not only will he be going against federal intentions, but he will also spell the end of the commonwealth’s small-boat fleet as we know it. And that would mean the end of a tradition and a way of life, not just a fishery failure.
— Jan Margeson of Brewster is captain of Fishing Vessel Great Pumpkin.
You can join the movement and make a difference.
Call Gov. Baker at 617-725-4000 to let him know you want him to distribute "bin 3 groundfish disaster money" to all active commercial fishermen so that the Cape's small-boat fleet can keep fishing.
Call the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton at 617-626-1000 with the same urgent message.