By SHAUN KIRBY
NARRAGANSETT—Local fishermen have expressed concern regarding Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee’s recent appeal for and federal approval to declare the New England groundfish fishery as a disaster. The move will allow Congress to immediately provide emergency financial relief for groundfish fishermen in the New England region, which Chafee deemed necessary in order to help assist the local fishing industry during the current economic downturn.
“I want to thank and commend Acting Commerce Secretary Blank for her wisdom in swiftly issuing this critical disaster declaration,” Chafee said this week. “We have recently seen an unprecedented level of cooperation and collaboration among biologists and the fishing community, and we should not punish those hardworking fishermen who comply with regulations and play by the rules.”
“The commercial fishing industry is one of Rhode Island’s premier economic assets, and we must work to bolster it,” he added. “This emergency relief, therefore, is important for both our local economy and the health of our waters. These badly needed funds will prevent Rhode Island commercial fishing businesses from suffering devastating losses.”
A number of local fishermen, however, have viewed the disaster declaration as an unwanted hand-out and, unless the fishing industry itself has control over how money is dispensed and used, unnecessary.
“Few organizations have ever done well by being in a position of chronic dependence on governmental productivity and efficiency, and the fishing industry is no exception,” said Ted Platz of the Commercial Fisheries Center of Rhode Island and a monkfish fisherman.
“One only need look at the other sectors of the economy where the government is in charge to see how this plays out,” he said. “The fishing industry is suffering primarily because it is entirely dependent on our government to provide the science necessary to sound management. The situation with cod is a perfect example. In nine years, the [National Marine Fisheries Service] Science Center has only done three stock assessments on cod, and we have too few data points to manage effectively. When one of those assessments is off by a substantial margin, as is the case with cod, the error goes undetected for years and the problem multiplies rather than getting corrected.”
Fred Mattera, Vice-President of the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation (CFRF) and a long-time fisherman, echoed Platz’s sentiments and expressed skepticism about the realistic efficacy of any federal relief within the fishing community.
“I don’t want to take anything away from anybody, but I have felt that whenever this has happened, it causes more problems, and where the money goes is always distorted,” said Mattera. “There comes the question of how it is dispersed, then you start to have meetings about how [relief] will be used, such as will it be used to purchase more fish for the groundfishery or will it be a direct check to everybody, and how then do we validate who qualifies, and how much you get.”
Platz stressed that the fishing industry would benefit more from an endowment system controlled by fishermen themselves, through which science could be coupled with the fishermen’s knowledge of the stocks that the harvest.
“My belief is that if industry were empowered to produce science that supplemented the work of the Northeast Science Center, then we would begin to correct the structural problem that has always plagued fisheries management in New England; namely, the abject paucity of science brought to bear for fisheries management in the region,” Platz said. “The Science Center does not have the budget to produce all the science we need. However, based on experience we do not feel that increasing their budget would be an effective means to solve the science deficiency problem.”
“We would prefer to see industry receive some sort of endowment that would allow industry to hire assessment scientists,” he added. “By empowering industry to supplement the production of science for the region, we are effectively introducing the power and effectiveness of private sector economics to the problem of fisheries science production.”
Platz’s and Mattera’s viewpoints on the emergency relief contends with the assessment of federal and state organizations working with the fishing industry, such as the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
During the past year, research conducted through the New England Fisheries Management Council has indicated that stock levels for groundfish in the New England fishery, particularly for species such as cod, haddock and yellowtail, have decreased significantly.
Although Chafee admitted in an Aug. 24 letter appealing to the U.S. Department of Commerce that ‘the Rhode Island commercial fishery is diverse,’ and ‘less dependent on groundfish than other New England states,’ he noted that there are 108 Rhode Island-based fishing vessels possessing federal permits, 51 of which are enrolled in one of six approved groundfish sectors.
“In 2011, Rhode Island landed 1.3 million pounds of groundfish, with a dockside value approaching $2 million, in Rhode Island,” the letter read. “Those landings are far less than amounts landed in prior years.”
Ballou also noted that, although the disaster declaration has been made, it is still too early to determine how emergency relief funding would be allocated.
“We simply do not know yet about the mechanism in doing that, in terms of what form that would take, the way the funds would be allocated, and who would administer that program,” he added. “We anticipate finding out.”