State floats new plan for fishing disaster money
By Doug Fraser
The state Division of Marine Fisheries listened to those who wanted a wider distribution of $6.7 million in federal fisheries disaster money. At a meeting of the groundfish disaster aid working group in New Bedford on Friday, the agency laid out a plan where more than $6 million of the money would be used in direct aid to fishermen.
While an earlier proposal set a fairly high bar of 20,000 pounds of groundfish landings in any year from 2012 to 2014 to qualify for aid, the new plan would require 10,000 pounds of groundfish or have at least one trip in 2014 on which a vessel carried an observer.
Groundfish once were the bread and butter of New England fishermen, and include bottom-feeding species such as cod, haddock and flounders.
According to DMF analysis, 138 vessels would have qualified under the 20,000-pound criteria and 164 can receive aid under the reduced landings or observed trip scenarios. Only 10 of the 24 vessels in the Chatham-based Georges Bank Fixed Gear Sector would have qualified under the higher amount and 18 now qualify under the new plan. Claire Fitz-Gerald, manager of the sector, believes this number is closer to 22 or 23 based on her own calculations.
"I would like to thank the Division of Marine Fisheries and the Baker administration for working on this proposal and finding a way to distribute this money more equitably, " Fitz-Gerald said.
The money came from a 2012 disaster declaration by the U.S. Department of Commerce following severe cuts to quotas because of poor rebuilding of cod and other species.
Massachusetts received $14.6 million and spent $6.3 million on direct aid to vessel owners and $8.3 million on aid to crews and shoreside personnel.
The final $6.7 million was supposed to be used on a vessel buyout program for those who wanted to sell permits and leave the industry, but no consensus was reached on how to do that and the federal government turned the money over to the states to distribute.
Cape fishermen and the Cape delegation of state legislators recently advocated for the money to be distributed to as many individuals as possible. They said the original criteria cut many out of the process who had to switch to species such as skates, dogfish and monkfish because groundfish weren't available.
An overriding concern with many fishermen was how to pay for monitors who ride along on fishing vessels to count what is caught and what is thrown back. These vessels were required to carry observers even if they didn’t catch groundfish because their gear could catch cod and other species.
Although the National Marine Fisheries Service had always paid the cost for these fisheries observers, they informed fishermen recently that their funding ran out Nov. 1. The agency has repeatedly told the industry it should be paying these expenses and has been working with fishermen to sign contracts for services for the upcoming fishing year.
But local fishermen said the $710 daily cost for observers would break them financially because they aren’t catching high-value fish.
“When you’re not making a lot of money every week and you have this looking at you down the road, it’s very discouraging,” said Chatham fisherman John Our. He says it costs him $400 in gear and fuel each trip and $710 for the observer.
“I’m already $1,100 in the red just leaving the dock,” he said.
As one of the most active fleets, Cape boats carry observers on nearly 30 percent of their trips and local fishermen want to use the disaster money toward what they estimate will be $10,000 per boat in observer fees.
— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.