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Gloucester Daily Times - Column: NOAA Decision Denies Fishermen the Relief they Need and Deserve

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Gloucester Daily Times - Column: NOAA Decision Denies Fishermen the Relief they Need and Deserve

By John Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy

Earning a living as a Massachusetts fisherman has never been an easy job. High seas, foul weather, hard labor and an uncertain harvest make it one of the most difficult jobs in the world. In recent years, our fishermen have also faced a barrage of restrictions from Washington that make their job even more difficult. The latest regulation, Framework 42, halved the days-at-sea for many fishermen and put them at even greater risk.

As a result, New England's groundfish industry is in a crisis, but the federal regulators who reduced fishermen's days-at-sea are refusing even to give them a lifeline. Instead, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's narrow interpretation of federal law will deny our fishermen the disaster relief they desperately need and obviously deserve.

Current federal law clearly allows a disaster declaration to be issued to prevent devastating economic losses caused by a regulatory action. The crisis in the groundfish fishery is precisely the kind of situation that warrants a fishery resource disaster to be declared.

Everyone agrees that protecting the resource is essential to the sustainability of the industry. Framework 42, however, was unnecessarily harsh on Massachusetts fishermen; earlier this year, Gov. Patrick and the Division of Marine Fisheries sought a disaster declaration from the Department of Commerce. The governor's request was backed by a state economic impact report demonstrating the harm caused by the regulation to the commonwealth's fishing industry.

According to the governor's report, Framework 42 has cost fishermen $22 million. This estimate tracked closely with the federal regulatory agency's own estimate, and we strongly supported the governor by urging the issuance of a disaster declaration.

In rejecting Massachusetts' request, the agency stated it was "sympathetic" to the groundfish communities' "economic difficulty." However, it declined to call it a "disaster" or provide any real assistance, even though the Senate has passed a resolution urging the agency to do so. All the sympathy in the world won't help our fishing families through hard times.

The Bush administration's claim that a disaster declaration isn't appropriate because the fishery hasn't collapsed sets a standard that appears nowhere in the law. Nor, contrary to the agency's claim, is it true that this is the historical standard the agency has applied in the past.

In fact, such declarations have been issued when fishing stocks have been unavailable, such as in the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, or in Massachusetts during the massive red tide in 2005. Groundfish stocks are essentially as unavailable today as they were 13 years ago, when a disaster declaration was made for our fishery.

The agency has no consistent standard for determining when to issue a disaster declaration. That's why the agency is now soliciting comments on this very issue. We're pleased that the agency is taking at least this step, and we plan to submit our views; our fishermen are struggling now and need our assistance now.

We are continuing to fight for our fishermen by including $15 million for Massachusetts fishery disaster relief in a Senate spending bill. We are working with our colleagues in the House to insure this provision is enacted into law.


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