By Richard Gaines
Legislation to restore import duties on seafood to fisheries research -- money that, over the years has been diverted into NOAA operations -- has been filed by U.S. Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Olympia Snowe of Maine.
Companion legislation to the Senate bill filed Thursday is to be filed on March 19 when the House returns to session, according to the office of Congressman Barney Frank whose district includes New Bedford. Congressman John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, is a co-sponsor.
The intent, as expressed Thursday by Kerry, is to realign the 1954 Saltonstall-Kennedy Act to its original purpose.
Co-sponsored by the future president, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy, and his Republican colleague from Massachusets, Leverett Saltonstall, the law required 30 percent of import duties on seafood and fish products to be reserved for research and development of the domestic fishing industry.
However, over the years, Congress has chipped away at the commitment. In 2010, duties on imports were $376.6 million, yielding $113 million that the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act ostensibly meant for fisheries R&D. Instead, Congress appropriated $104.6 million for NOAA operations, leaving only $8.4 million for actual fisheries' uses.
The Kerry-Snowe Fisheries Investment and Regulatory Relief Act would require that at least 70 percent of the set-aside money be used for the original purpose -- developing the domestic fisheries, which are recognized as among the best managed and most productive. Yet imports, including from aquaculture and from relatively low control systems, account for more than 85 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S.
The Times reported last March that the Congressional Research Service had calculated approximately $400 million intended for fisheries' development and marketing had been used to fund NOAA operations over the last decade.
"We can't fix our fishing problems if we don't restore trust," Kerry said in a prepared statement. "And you start rebuilding trust by investing in fishing science that's credible and comprehensive and comes from the fishing community itself."
He described the legislation as "a downpayment on trust because it returns the use of the Saltonstall-Kennedy funds to our fishermen, as its bipartisan creators intended."
In a fact sheet released to the Times, Kerry's office described the way the import duty setaside for research would be distributed to each of the eight fishery management regions.
Using the 2010 funding audit as an example, his office said, NOAA and the regional councils would equally split approximately $6.8 million for operations while the rest, approximately $74.4 million, would be reserved for research, and put to uses determined by committees representing various stakeholders at the regional council level.
The authorized purposes would be cooperative research, data collection, economic analysis of management decisions, economic services to fishermen including permit banks and buybacks, fisheries impact statements, improving quality and value of landings, reducing bycatch and habitat restoration, according to Kerry's office.
Other co-sponsors in the House are William Keating and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Frank Guinta of New Hampshire, Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud of Maine, Tim Bishop of New York and Joe Courtney of Connecticut.