By Edward Donga
BU News Service
WASHINGTON – Less than three months after a proposal to provide a pool of aid to distressed fisheries across the nation died at the end of the last Congress, efforts to secure disaster relief funding for New England fishermen are heating up on Capitol Hill.
Just before Congress left last weekend for a two-week Easter/Passover recess, the Senate passed a bipartisan amendment—sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska—calling for funds in the fiscal year 2014 budget to be set aside for aid for fisheries and fishing communities in New England as well as Alaska and the Gulf Coast.
The Warren-Murkowski amendment does not specify a dollar amount, and is, in effect, a non-binding provision attached to the Senate’s version of the congressional budget plan for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. But, according to congressional sources, it foreshadows an intensified effort by Warren to work with senators from both parties to secure $150 million in funding for distressed fisheries across the country as the annual congressional appropriations process gets underway.
These efforts follow the New England Fishery Management Council vote in late January to reduce catch limits for cod by 77 percent in the Gulf of Maine and by 61 percent on Georges Bank, an area just off of Cape Cod, compared to last year’s catch limits. The new limits take effect in May. Anticipating this sharp reduction in catch limits, the Commerce Department last fall issued a disaster declaration for the New England fishery, opening the way for congressional disaster aid.
The $150 million being sought by Warren for fishery aid was included in the Senate’s Hurricane Sandy relief bill last December. But it died when the House failed to act on the Senate legislation prior to the adjournment of the last Congress in January.
“The fishing industry is an important part of our region’s economy, and I’m proud to introduce my first Senate amendment to help make sure these hardworking fishing families have access to the critical disaster assistance they deserve,” said Warren in a statement upon passage of the Warren-Murkowski amendment in the Democratic-controlled Senate. Joining in support of the amendment was Sen. William (Mo) Cowan, D-Mass., as well as Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Angus King, I-Maine.
“Slow recovery and declining fish stocks continue to have a negative impact on commercial fishing, which harms local communities and economies. This federal disaster assistance is vital to the long term success and short term survival of fishing communities throughout the region,” Collins declared.
In the Republican-controlled House, the push for aid to New England fisheries is being led by two Massachusetts Democrats: Rep. William Keating and John Tierney, both of whom represent large stretches of the Bay State’s coast.
Keating is following a path similar to the one Warren is taking in the Senate by seeking to secure the money through the annual appropriations process for the coming 2014 fiscal year. In conjunction with that effort, Keating testified before the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee late last week on the importance of obtaining relief funding for the region’s fishermen and their communities.
“The true impact of fisheries disasters on coastal communities is incalculable,” said Keating in his testimony. “Fishermen from coast to coast will face an immediate and irreparable loss of livelihood if we are unable to provide them with financial assistance to survive the next fishing year.”
During debate on the House’s version of Hurricane Sandy relief late last year, Keating proposed an amendment that would have provided $111 million in fishery aid. But the House Rules Committee, which controls floor debate in that chamber, blocked Keating’s amendment and several related proposals from coming up for a vote.
Meanwhile, Tierney last month introduced the Fisheries Disaster Relief and Research Investment Act, which would redirect funds normally allocated to Commerce Department under the 1954 Saltonstall-Kennedy Act as aid to distressed fisheries..
The Saltonstall-Kennedy Act originally dictated that a percentage of tariffs collected on imported fish products would go to benefitting and improving the domestic fishing industry. But, recently the funds have been redirected to fund operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose jurisdiction includes the National Weather Service as well as the nation’s fisheries. For this reason, NOAA officials in the past have been cool to proposals like Tierney’s to reallocate this funding.
Asked for comment, NOAA spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton said, “”Should Congress appropriate funds for disaster assistance, the National Marine Fisheries Service will work with the state to develop an effective program for an economically robust and sustainable fishery.”
If the Saltonstall-Kennedy funding was redirected to fishery aid, it would have yielded $124 million in the current fiscal year for that purpose.
“With drastic cuts to catch limits looming, and with fishermen and their families already struggling to make ends meet, economic assistance is desperately needed,” Tierney, whose district includes the Gloucester fishing community, said in a letter earlier this month to Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.
In the letter, Tierney urged that his legislation – now pending before a subcommittee of the House Natural Resources panel – be moved either as a free-standing measure or as part of reforms to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs operation of the nation’s fisheries.
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