BOSTON (AP) — New England lawmakers are preparing to ask Congress for $100 million in disaster relief funds for fishermen, including money to help them exit the industry if they wish and subsidies for those who stay in.
The proposal is outlined in a draft letter to congressional leaders from Sen. John Kerry that's being circulated among the New England delegation.
Discussions are ongoing about how to allocate the $100 million, and the details and dollar amounts discussed in the letter could change.
The proposal comes after several Massachusetts lawmakers in early August repeated a request to the U.S. Commerce Secretary for a disaster declaration for New England fishermen and fishing communities. A declaration would open the door for federal disaster relief funds.
No declaration has been issued, but the Kerry "believes the finish line is in sight," said Jodi Seth, Kerry's communications director.
"He's already working on the next steps, which includes a legislative strategy to make financial assistance a reality so that New England's fishermen are treated the same way as farmers in the Midwest when hard times hit," Seth said.
The New England fishing fleet, already pared down by years of tightening regulations, is facing catastrophic cutbacks in 2013. For instance, preliminary numbers indicate cuts as high as 72 percent are coming in the catch of cod in the Gulf of Maine.
Huge cuts for any species of bottom-dwelling groundfish, such as cod, flounder and haddock, restrict the fishing on even healthy stocks because the healthy and protected fish swim together.
The weak state of important fish stocks is driving the massive cuts. In the past, overfishing has been a key culprit in the decline. But in recent years, fishermen have caught certain species at the rates recommended by regulators, only to find out later the species was in far worse shape than scientists thought and, in retrospect, fishermen should have taken less, so deep cuts are needed.
The situation has caused intense frustration and calls for improved science. Fishing advocates and some lawmakers have also said it justifies federal assistance, since fishermen are following the rules but still getting killed by regulations.
In the draft letter obtained by the AP, Kerry asks for $67.5 million in aid to fishermen and fishing communities. Some of the money would, for instance, go to retrain fishermen for different jobs, while other funds would train industry holdouts to "improve their efficiency" so they can better handle the coming cuts.
Other tentative requests include:
— $15 million to cover the costs of the independent observers that monitor the fishing catch. The government has covered this cost, but the industry must pay it, starting next year.
— $10 million to cover the anticipated costs of the loans that would go into default if an industry buyout program is created. Such a program, which would have to be approved in an industry referendum, would provide federal loans to fishermen who wish buy boats or permits from fishermen who want to leave the industry.
— $7.5 million to fund cooperative fishery science research between regulators and fishermen.
The Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group, said that its board voted to support the draft proposal this week.
"For any mitigation plan to be effective everything has to be on the table — including science, management, the law and financial assistance," the coalition said in a statement.
Members of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association also supported the draft proposal.
"As much as anything, I'm happy to see that our delegation understands that we need to support better science, necessary monitoring and some sort of way to help the guys who simply can't make it," said Chatham fisherman John Tuttle.