Dempsey Commentary on Federal Disaster Aid
By Tom Dempsey | Policy Director, Cape Cod Commerical Fishermen's Alliance
CHATHAM — Homeowners would be up in arms if a hurricane were to level this town and insurers, dealing with a finite amount of money, stipulated after the fact that only owners of homes built before 1800 would be reimbursed.
Working for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and serving on the New England Fishery Management Council, I talk with commercial fishermen throughout Massachusetts and New England every day. As someone committed to working with fishermen to build solutions that improve fisheries management and support stronger fishing businesses, I listen closely when life-long fishermen tell me it’s getting harder to find the fish that were once the mainstay of New England’s coastal economy.
No one in the New England groundfish fishery needed an official declaration to know that the fishery is a disaster. Through decades of mismanagement, a large number of the fish populations, like cod and flounders, which have supported groundfish businesses for centuries are now severely depleted. These declines led to the recent reductions in the commercial harvest levels and, ultimately, the declaration of a federal fisheries disaster and the appropriation of nearly $33 million to help mitigate that disaster.
Predictably, there were nearly as many opinions as to how best to spend these funds as there are people in the fishery. But, almost everyone recognized the urgent need to provide direct assistance to struggling fishermen throughout New England. With the declines in groundfish populations, many of these captains and crewmen have struggled to stay in business, make boat and mortgage payments and provide for their families.
But, sadly, the federal disaster plan recently announced by the National Marine Fisheries Service provides no direct assistance to the vast majority of fishermen in New England. By setting arbitrary landing criteria for vessels to qualify for relief and entirely ignoring the region’s crewmen, this National Marine Fisheries Service plan simply leaves too many people behind. In Massachusetts alone, we have around 700 federal groundfish permits, more than 400 active boats and more than a thousand crewmen on groundfish vessels.
Yet, under the federal plan, only about 100 people will likely receive direct federal assistance as owners of qualifying permits. I work with captains who missed the arbitrary qualifying requirement by less than 150 pounds of fish and crewmen who saw their pay and, ultimately, their jobs evaporate over the course of just a few short years. But, right now, those guys are still waiting for help.
Fortunately, the commonwealth has an opportunity to make this right. The federal plan allocates $8.2 million directly to the state to spend in disaster mitigation with substantial latitude in how they approach that task. The process for deciding how those funds will be distributed is just underway and will likely take months of work from the recently organized task force which is helping the Division of Marine Fisheries to develop the plan.
It is essential that the commonwealth does the right thing and addresses the glaring gaps in the federal plan by prioritizing commercial groundfish fishermen that have been forgotten.
Fishermen shouldn’t be left behind because they’re smaller in scale or because they responded to the obvious declines in groundfish populations like codfish by targeting other fish. And hardworking, taxpaying crewmen, many of whom depended just as much on the fishery to make a living as anyone else, shouldn’t have to rely on the charity or endorsement of a captain in order to get the assistance they need.
To be sure, disaster assistance is a Band-Aid and not a long-term solution to help turn this fishery disaster around. We absolutely need to improve the quality and timeliness of our fisheries science and catch information to support better management decisions. We also need to transition to a management style that better recognizes the complex interactions between fish populations and their changing environment.
Those efforts are underway and are essential. But, first, we need to prioritize getting desperately needed help to the fishermen in the commonwealth who need it.
Tom Dempsey is the policy director of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, a nationally recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting fish and fishing for future generations. He also serves as a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, which manages fishery resources in our region’s federal waters.