Cape legislators urge Baker to spread relief funds across the fleet
CHATHAM – Legislators from the Cape and Islands urged Gov. Charlie Baker to reconsider his current proposal to allocate $6.6 million in federal fisheries disaster money to fishermen who had caught at least 20,000 pounds of groundfish — bottom-feeding fish like cod, haddock and flounder — in 2013 and 2014. Cape fishermen said it would benefit only a relative few boats; they had proposed that the state Division of Marine Fisheries use $4 million to pay for monitors who ride along on groundfish vessels and report on what fishermen catch and what they discard.
“It became apparent to us that that was not going to work,” said Claire Fitz-Gerald, manager of the Georges Bank Fixed Gear Sector, representing 24 boats, and headquartered in Chatham.
There was strong sentiment within the Massachusetts fleet for direct aid to fishermen, and Gov. Baker and the state’s congressional delegation sent a letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and House and Senate appropriations committee chairmen claiming that federal requirements for fishermen to carry observers was an unfunded mandate and the federal government should pay for them, not fishermen. The letter also said paying for observer coverage was not the intent of Congress when it appropriated the federal fisheries disaster money.
“That was an 'aha' moment,” said State Rep. Sarah Peake, who helped draft a letter urging that $4 million go toward monitoring costs. This week’s letter to Baker from the Cape delegation asked simply that he consider a more equitable distribution of the money that would allow fishermen to make their own decision on how to use the money, including paying for monitors.
“It’s important that it get spread across the 200-odd groundfish boats vs. being concentrated in 50 boats,” Peake said. “If we can work with the Baker administration and the Division of Marine Fisheries to spread it across the fleet, these are savvy men and women can determine what to do with it.”
The expense of paying for monitors falls especially hard on small boats like those employed by Cape and Islands fishermen. These observers are required under the regulations governing sectors, the fishing associations of most New England groundfishermen. Sectors pool their quotas and manage their harvest themselves as long as the annual quota is not exceeded. While Cape fishermen don’t catch much groundfish anymore and rely on dogfish, skates and monkfish to a large degree, they still are required to carry monitors because their nets are capable of catching cod, haddock and flounder.
But dogfish, skates and monkfish don’t bring in the kind of money that groundfish stocks do, and the $710 per day cost of a monitor would be prohibitive for a boat that might bring in only $1,000 of skates on a trip, according to Cape fishermen and Cape legislators.
Plus, the Fixed Gear Sector is an active fleet with more than 1,500 trips that qualified as groundfish trips last year, more than any other sector in New England. That meant that they carried and paid for monitors more frequently than other fishing fleets and their annual expense per vessel averaged $10,000.
“My understanding is that DMF is developing a plan that will more equitably distribute the money to ports that need it,” Fitz-Gerald said. “We look forward to seeing that plan.”
Katie Gronendyke, state Department of Energy and the Environment spokesperson, said DMF is working on a new plan.
The new proposal is supposed to be revealed this week before Friday’s meeting in New Bedford of a working group that has been called to discuss allocation of the fisheries disaster money.
— Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.
You can join the movement and make a difference.
Call Gov. Baker at 617-725-4000 to let him know you want him to distribute "bin 3 groundfish disaster money" to all active commercial fishermen so that the Cape's small-boat fleet can keep fishing.
Call the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton at 617-626-1000 with the same urgent message.