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Scituate, Marshfield fishermen question amount and timing of federal relief

Posted by Jessica Bartlett  February 6, 2014 02:35 PM

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The $75 million in fisheries disaster relief approved by the federal government has been good news for the fishing industry as a whole, but South Shore fishermen are uncertain as to how much relief they will receive.

“The good news was the overall package, the things uncertain to me is how much would be for Massachusetts itself,” said state Representative Jim Cantwell, a Marshfield Democrat who also represents Scituate.

Competition will be high for the funding, which was approved in mid-January as part of a $1.012 trillion spending bill. According to staff in US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s office, the money will support those impacted by six fishing disasters declared around the country.

In New England, the 2012 groundfish fishery failure affected fishermen from Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey. The disaster was declared due to low fishing stocks key to the industry.

Funds will be distributed in the form of block grants to each state, and distributed based on need. Government agencies from each affected area were compiling loss totals in the interim.

Whatever Massachusetts eventually receives, Cantwell hoped Scituate and Marshfield fishermen would see some relief.

“Marshfield and Scituate are the fourth most productive fishing ports in the state – after New Bedford, Gloucester, and Boston. We do have a pretty thriving fishing community in the area,” Cantwell said.

According to Scituate fisherman Frank Mirarchi, the need for help is dire.

“[In] Scituate, there’s nobody fishing,” Mirarchi said. “Between the horrible weather, which has been a deterrent and that we’ve run out of fish to catch in the first week of February. The fishing year doesn’t end until April.”

Mirarchi said the problem lies with annual catch limits, which go through April 30. This year, limits are at a record low for the region, down 50 percent from 2012, which was down 50 percent from the year prior.

The changing limits have been coupled with wide swings in fish population. The result has been an overabundance of fish in one species, but not enough quota to catch them, or a low population of fish in another species with quotas that can’t be fulfilled.

Since 2012, the problem has put seven out of 15 Scituate fishermen out of business. Of the eight that still exist, none currently has work, Mirarchi said.

“The relief money is desperately needed,” Mirarchi said. “There are people living hand to mouth. There is no savings and no income for the next three to four months.”

The funding will help in two main areas, the senator's staff said, providing relief to fishermen struggling in the short term, but also providing money to study and ameliorate fishing problems in the long term.

“My main goals are making sure that disaster relief aid is distributed as soon as possible to those who need it most, and ensuring that funds are used both to provide short-term relief and to support the long-term sustainability of Massachusetts’ fishing communities,” Warren said in an e-mailed statement.

Cantwell was concerned that money might be diverted to groups such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or the Department of Marine Fisheries.

Yet the senator’s office confirmed that the funds would not be used for things state and federal groups would pay for out of their normal budget.

The timeline for the funding is still unknown. Staff in the senator’s office said officials were working quickly to create a distribution plan, but were waiting on feedback from all the stakeholders.

Last week, the Northeast Seafood Coalition, which represents a majority of groundfish permit holders including Scituate fishermen; the Cape Cod Fishing Alliance; and Maine Fishing Association all outlined their spending hopes.

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