By Michael Souza
PBN Staff Writer
Ever-wary local fishermen welcome the Sept. 13 U.S. Department of Commerce declaration of the New England groundfish fishery as a national disaster, but they wonder if any federal money that follows to Rhode Island will get to those who need it before it’s too late.
“The possibility of monies being appropriated for this questionable groundfish closure, if in fact it finds its way to Rhode Island, needs to be directed to an institution that represents an overwhelming majority of the fishing community,” said Richard L. Fuka, president of the Rhode Island Fishermen’s Alliance. “Currently there is no such institution that can fill that job description. My concern, as the leader of the state’s largest commercial-fisheries organization, is the Rhode Island fishing community not having a voice in directing any money in the proper direction.”
Robert J. Ballou, assistant to the director of the R.I. Department of Environmental Management, understands Fuka’s concerns.
“There is no pot of money that has already been set aside, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” Ballou told Providence Business News last week. “I don’t think anyone expects the federal government to start cutting checks as a way to address the problem. I think [fishermen] are hoping for a very solid, balanced, comprehensive investment in the fisheries that will enable them to move forward by helping with [their] costs.”
Quotas for several species such as cod, haddock and yellowtail flounder are expected to be cut by 70 percent in 2013, leaving some independent fishermen on the doorstep of disaster.
The disaster declaration allows Congress to provide monetary relief for fishermen and their communities. The declaration is viewed by fishermen as acknowledgement that the current catch-shares system of regulating groundfish and enforced since May 1, 2010, has caused economic stress in the states of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. The question remains how much will be appropriated and how will it specifically be used to assist fishermen. A letter to Congress, co-signed by the states’ four governors, requested $100 million in assistance.
According to the governors’ letter, each state will develop a detailed spending plan to address their needs. Funds will provide assistance through investments in the safety and sustainability of the fleet, provide job training for fishermen to help deal with changes in fishery management, or temporary financial relief. The aid also will support sector operating costs and cover at-sea monitoring costs. Some funds will be used for research focused on improving stock assessments and the systems of data collection for the fishery. With the livelihood of some fishing communities at stake, the improvement of fisheries science remains a top priority for many in the industry.