Feds issue Northeast fishery disaster declaration

Jose Batista, of Gloucester, Mass., sorts cod at Jose Batista, of Gloucester, Mass., sorts cod at the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction in Gloucester, Mass. (April 17, 2003) Photo Credit: AP

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The U.S. Department of Commerce Thursday declared the Northeast Multispecies Groundfish Fishery a disaster area, opening the door to up to $100 million in federal relief for commercial fishermen and impacted communities that make a living trawling for cod, yellowtail flounder and winter flounder, among other species.

New York members of Congress asked for the disaster designation because of impending cuts in fishing quotas they say could devastate the local fishing industry. Congress must now craft a relief package to determine how best to aid those affected by the sharp quota reductions that go into effect next year. In a letter to the governors of six northeastern states, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the Commerce Department emphasized that when quota reductions of up to 75 percent are implemented next year, fishery "failure" will result.

"Despite fishermen's adherence to catch limits over the past few years, recent data shows that several key fish stocks are not rebuilding," wrote Rebecca Blank, acting Secretary of Commerce. "After reviewing the information available on the potential catch limits for the 2013 fishing year, I am deeply concerned about the potential impacts to Northeast fishermen and fishing communities."

In a joint statement, U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Rep. Tim Bishop -- all Democrats who earlier had urged Commerce to include New York in any disaster declaration -- applauded the move, saying it "allows Congress to appropriate funding to ease the hardships faced by New York's fishermen."

Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for Cuomo, said, "We will work with the Department of Commerce and our federal representatives to ensure that any fisherman or woman on Long Island, and in other parts of New York, get the aid they are qualified to receive."

Long Island fishermen said the disaster relief is badly needed. Longtime commercial ground-fisherman Hank Lankner has said the new reductions would "basically put us out of business." He said he's trawled for groundfish out of Montauk for 25 years.

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Bonnie Brady, executive director of the Long Island Commercial Fishing Association, an industry group, said while she was "confident" New York's lawmakers would fight to make sure New York fishing interests are included in any congressional aid package, she was concerned that the New England states would work to edge out New York when funds are finally allotted.

Dozens of Long Island fishermen and women trawl for groundfish in the northeast fishery, she said, and many more depend on and support the industry from New York.

"Senator Gillibrand will work to ensure that the funding levels passed by Congress reflect the needs of New York's fishermen," said Angie Hu, a spokeswoman for Gillibrand.

New York fishermen are not permitted to catch winter flounder, once a thriving species in the region, because of surveys showing sharp population declines. The loss of that "million dollar" annual fishery, Brady said, has constituted a disaster locally since 2009. Brady said federal regulators' implementation of a catch share system for ground fish, which allots a share of the quota annually to fishermen or fishing coops based on historical landings, has contributed to the problem.

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