On “Bailing Out” the Fishing Industry

Are Disaster Relief Funds really the disaster some people think they are?

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Just last week, it was announced that as part of the federal budget, Congress would dole out $75 million in “fisheries disaster relief funds.” The New England groundfish fishery will receive the lion’s share – $33 million – for a situation that was arguably of their own doing, while commercial and recreational fisheries in New Jersey and New York who got whacked by Hurricane Sandy will receive $3 million. The rest will go to Alaska to address issues with its salmon fisheries, Florida to deal with its failing oyster fishery in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi for its oyster and blue crab fisheries. Because this is a “regional” blog, and, ahem, because I know little about those southern-region fisheries, I’ll address the New England and New York/New Jersey relief funds here.

Regarding New England, such “disaster relief” certainly didn’t come out of left field. For a long time Massachusetts politicians have been angling for such funds for those ground fishermen who, well, pretty much fished themselves out of business over the course of the last three decades.

Some will, of course, argue this is not the case. A few people still say there are plenty of groundfish around, even though fishermen are not able to meet quotas set at greatly reduced levels. And there are even those who blame the current situation on the rebuilding requirements and the catch limits themselves. I’m not sure how that works as, like I said, quotas can’t even seem to be met under those new limits.

Then there are those who want to say that the lack of fish and the ensuing economic disaster is entirely the result of “climate change.” It is indeed likely that warming is affecting groundfish stocks, but the fact that groundfish are far less resilient to such environmental changes because of decades of overfishing is certainly relevant. Today, environmental conditions and global climate change are making it harder for those fish to rebound even as catch is drastically scaled back.

IMHO, and certainly that of others, the current situation in New England is at the very least “partly” (if not mostly) the result of an industry that, for 30 years, knocked the crap out of a publicly owned resource that fed most of the Western Hemisphere for half a millennium, all the while disregarding warnings from scientists, resisting needed catch reductions and lambasting anyone who advised precaution. This is an industry that was, and still is, very critical of government regulation, and now it looks to some like it is asking for a handout from the same entity for which its shown such distain. So yeah, it’s understandable that some people are frustrated about what appears on the surface to be a flat-out bailout for an industry that consistently resisted efforts that would have prevented such a disaster.

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Moving forward, however, I think we have to look at this a little differently.  It’s important to point out that the funds from such disaster relief can be used for activities that “restore the fishery or prevent a similar failure in the future, and to assist a fishing community affected by such failure.” The “restore the fishery or prevent a similar failure in the future” is the critical part here. Sure, some of the funds will likely provide immediate economic relief in the form of direct payments to fishermen. Yes, in some circumstances that could prolong the pain if it allows fishermen to regroup and get at it again.  But listen, man … I’m not a heartless person. Whether it’s deserved or not, some desperately need help in New England. If they are going to use that help to get back on their feet and get back into fishing/overexploitation then, yeah, there’s a problem. But if I’m understanding things, this isn’t the way such relief is going to work – although I suppose the verdict is still out on that.

The point is  some of the funds, maybe even most, can and will be used to do things like improve fisheries science, help with the cost of badly needed observer programs, offset costs from shifting to the new sector management system and, possibly, implement a fishing vessel and permit buyout. All of this would be unquestionably good. The bottom line is that we desperately need good/better science to determine the number of fish we can safely remove and the measures that must be imposed to rebuild depleted stocks. This would provide real, long-term benefits for both the fish and industry.

Will we see the bulk of such disaster relief funds go to better science, and for vessel/permit buyouts? I don’t know the answer to that question. But given recent comments by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s regional administrator, I’m somewhat confident it will. Once state politicians get involved, though, who knows what’ll happen?

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Photo by Capt. John McMurray

On a side note, a big question in my mind is the discrepancy in funds allocated. Seriously, New York and New Jersey are getting less that 10 percent of New England’s allocation. This pisses me off a little bit because the impacts from Sandy weren’t our fault, whereas we can certainly place blame in New England on the blatant overfishing of groundfish.

The Department of Commerce estimated Hurricane Sandy caused up to $121 million in losses to the marine industry in New Jersey and $77 million in New York. A Feb. 14 editorial in the Gloucester Times estimated the direct and indirect losses to Massachusetts’ fishing industry, due to depleted stocks, at $103 million. The recreational and commercial fishing industries in New York and New Jersey previously received $4 million in Sandy relief funds, or $2 million per state.  Seven million is still a fraction of what New England will receive. And, of course, Sandy did not really impact that region. So honestly, I don’t understand the rationale here.

I suspect it’s simply because New England’s fishing industry has more political influence than its counterparts in New York or New Jersey. As mentioned, New England representatives have been asking for “disaster relief” funds for years. Now they’re getting it, although it isn’t as much as they had expected. The reality, however, is that, from a management perspective, New England seems to have the biggest problems. So I’m just hoping some, hopefully most, of this money is used to “restore the fishery or prevent a similar failure in the future.”

Getting back to the point of this post, the bottom line is this: While it’s certainly easy to bash, maybe we shouldn’t be so critical of such “disaster relief.” The money is there. Congress has already allocated it. And if spent right, it actually could do some good. I’m hoping that it will.

 

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

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One comment on “On “Bailing Out” the Fishing Industry
  1. avatar Bob Schrader says:

    You seem to have a lot of faith in the “Observer” program. No fisherman can afford to pay up to $600 per day to have someone watch every move they make in the coarse of a days work. The observers obviously don’t make all of the money but the “Firm” that has the contract to supply the observers does and you can bet they are politically connected!

    I would like to supply the observers to all the big wigs at NOAA and follow them around for a few years. Maybe then we would have had different results with the Dale Jones debacle. Yea the same Dale Jones who headed the law enforcement div. within NOAA, who shredded evidence and then was transferred by “Jelly Fish Jane” without any punishment and at the same salary!!!
    Over 90% of the seafood consumed in the USA is now imported and I would love to eat seafood at a restaurant where I am sure it came from my local dock or at least nearby and not some contaminated stuff from China. I need local fishermen to do that.

    For every job lost in the commercial fishing industry at least one should be eliminated at The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There is no need to have thousands of people watch a few hundred.

    I know you don’t have the time that I would need to discuss all that is wrong with NOAA and and why everyone seems to hate American fishermen but my “Tongue in cheek,” web site might provide you with some very valid opposing viewpoints

    Have a good day,
    Bob Schrader
    Point Pleasant, NJ

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