BOSTON — The federal government should declare a disaster in the New England commercial fishing industry after regulators warned of severe reductions in future catch limits, members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation said Friday.
The potential impact of the cuts, triggered by dwindling groundfish stocks, would be “absolutely devastating” on fishermen and the 80,000 or so jobs that rely on the fishing industry in the Bay State alone, Democratic Sen. John Kerry said at a Boston news conference.
Kerry, Republican Sen. Scott Brown and several U.S. House members whose districts include coastal areas issued a joint statement asking President Barack Obama’s administration to issue a disaster declaration, which they said would help speed economic assistance to the fishing industry.
While New England governors and congressional representatives have made similar appeals for disaster relief in the past, “the evidence is now overwhelming in favor of such a declaration,” Friday’s statement read.
The U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees the fishing industry, has not acted on the previous requests.
Fishermen were told at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council’s groundfish committee on Thursday that some species are in such poor condition that catch limits – the amount fishermen can legally take – would have to be sharply reduced next year.
For example, officials said catch limits for cod could fall by 72 percent from this year’s levels in the Gulf of Maine and by 70 percent on the Georges Bank fishing grounds off Cape Cod, according to preliminary estimates.
The congressional delegation members said the decline in groundfish stocks could not be blamed on overfishing but instead is tied to environmental and climate factors. Kerry compared the plight of fishermen to that of drought-stricken farmers in the nation’s midsection.
“In the Midwest right now, the heat and the drought are destroying crops,” Kerry said. “Off our coastline, Mother Nature is taking away our fish.”
Kerry sponsored an amendment to the Senate version of a farm disaster relief bill that also would offer help to New England fishermen.
He said thousands of Massachusetts fishing families likely would benefit from a disaster declaration. He also said federal fishing regulators were being urged to conduct an “end-to-end” review of the scientific methodology used to evaluate fishing stocks, citing wide fluctuations in recent groundfish assessments.
“You have a variation of something like 16 percent reduction to a 61 percent reduction in available stock,” he said. “That kind of range does not lend confidence to fishermen that people really know what they are talking about.”
The delegation requested a meeting in Massachusetts with Sam Rauch, acting assistant administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, to discuss the fishing allocation process and what options were available for fishermen.
The Northeast Seafood Coalition, an organization of commercial fishing businesses, said in a statement issued after Thursday’s council meeting that federal regulators can no longer hold fishermen responsible for factors beyond their control.
“At this point in time, everything has to be on the table – science, management and the law,” the coalition said.