EDITORIAL – Disaster aid secured: Now, how to spend it

A rare political thaw in January led to an encouraging turn of events as Congress managed to put aside seemingly intractable differences to agree on a fiscal year 2014 federal budget bill.  The bill, which was awaiting the President’s signature as CFN went to press midmonth, included long-anticipated funding for fisheries disasters.

While that was welcome news here in the Northeast where the multispecies groundfish fishery was declared a disaster in September 2012, there are two notable caveats.

editorial-SHFirst, the final appropriation amount was $75 million, a far cry from the $150 million that congressional representatives had been fighting for.  Second, the funds are intended to cover a total of six fisheries disasters NMFS declared around the country in 2012 and 2013, including tsunami-related damage to commercial fisheries in American Samoa, Superstorm Sandy damage to New York and New Jersey fisheries, shellfish and blue crab failures in Mississippi and Florida, and a Chinook salmon failure in Alaska.

So, just how much of that $75 million will make its way to the Northeast is yet to be seen.  Regardless, there is hard work to be done in the coming months.  Past experiences have taught us that bringing the fishing industry to consensus about how to use federal aid is not easy.  People’s needs, philosophies, and opinions are bound to be all over the map.

Many of the groundfish fishermen still in business these days are barely hanging on, and some feel strongly that the money should be distributed to them in the form of direct cash payments.  Others disagree, pointing to the difficulties of sorting out fairness issues when it comes to compensation among boat owners, as well as between boat owners and crew.  Some believe the money should be used to make low-interest loans available to help fishermen purchase vital safety equipment and pay for long deferred vessel repair and maintenance work.

Others have raised the idea of a buyout, even though the success of previous groundfish buyouts was mixed.  A two-phase, $25-million program conducted from 1996 to 1998 led to the scrapping of 79 vessels, along with their groundfish permits.  That process triggered the reactivation of latent permits, but a $10-million program launched in 2003 specifically to target latent effort removed roughly 21,500 days-at-sea from the groundfish fishery.  Things are very different now.  A lot of struggling fishermen are getting close to retirement age, and a buyout could provide them with a way to exit the fishery with some measure of financial security.

Another thought is to use the fisheries disaster funding to help offset mandatory observer costs that NMFS doesn’t have the money to pay for and fishermen surely cannot afford.  And there likely are many more ideas.

Ultimately, a core question is whether the money should be used to address immediate needs or put to use in ways that offer longer-term benefits to the industry.  NMFS, which will administer the funding, will be talking with fishermen to come up with a game plan.  In preparation, industry groups are beginning strategy talks with their members.  Being affiliated with one of these groups is probably the best way to be heard in the coming debate.

We join the many associations in the region in thanking our congressional representatives and members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees for making this disaster funding happen.  Now, however, there’s a lot for all of us to think about, talk through, and decide.  /cfn/



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