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November 17. 2013 7:07PM

U.S. legislators, including 3 from NH, urge federal disaster relief for fishermen

PORTSMOUTH — A bipartisan group of 38 lawmakers, including three from New Hampshire, sent a letter to congressional leadership last week urging them to include fishery disaster relief in any final funding package for 2014.

Among the fisheries that have been declared a disaster is the Northeast multi-species ground fishery, of which many New Hampshire commercial fishermen used to take part. In September 2012, a federal fisheries disaster was declared for Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York. Although several fisheries across the country have been declared disasters by the U.S. Department of Commerce and require federal aid, no money has been distributed.

Mitigation fund

In July, $150 million in federal disaster relief for fisheries was included in the Senate Appropriations Committee passed Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014. But it has not been enacted into law.

The bill would specifically create a fishery disaster mitigation fund with funds to be used for mitigating the effects of commercial fishery failures and fishery resource disasters as declared by the secretary of commerce.

"For the communities they affect, fisheries disasters are as devastating as other federally declared disasters," the letter reads. "These funds could be used in a variety of ways to provide fishermen vital help, including support for emergency financial assistance, operational costs where necessary, economic development programs and science initiatives to manage the fishery in a timely way that gives confidence to all stakeholders."

The letter was signed by U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH, and Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, and U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-NH.

"Providing economic relief, within our budget constraints, will help New Hampshire's fishermen access critical assistance at a time when our historic small boat fleet is on the brink of extinction because of unfair federal regulations," Ayotte said in a statement to the Union Leader on Thursday. "However, our main focus should be on allowing fishermen to make a living by removing onerous federal regulations."

Science behind cuts questioned

In January, the Northeast Fisheries Management Council approved massive cuts over two years to Gulf of Maine cod and haddock allocations, citing depleting stocks. But many fishermen have questioned the science used for stock assessments, and the cuts have docked many New England ground fishermen who cannot make enough money fishing to justify the costs of going out to sea.

Congress is reviewing the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act governing national fisheries for renewal. Ayotte spoke at a Senate hearing about the need for better science and encouraged National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials to better consider the economic impact of their decisions, as the act requires them to do.

Ayotte said she will continue to urge federal officials to work toward a more sensible regulatory climate that will allow New Hampshire's fishing industry to survive in the long term.

Shea-Porter said these funds are incredibly important to New Hampshire because the fishing fleet is composed mainly of smaller boats that have relied heavily on cod and haddock for their survival.

"The fishing industry is vital to our economy and seacoast communities, and this funding is crucial to the livelihood of New Hampshire fishermen," Shea-Porter said.

Shaheen, who along with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, proposed the approved funding in the Senate bill, said disaster relief for New Hampshire fishermen is long overdue.

"Getting our fishermen disaster relief resources is critical to the seacoast economy and the fishing industry's future. Our fishermen shouldn't have to wait for Washington to act any longer," Shaheen said.

gmacalaster@newstote.com


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