State budget leaves fishery high and dry


photo/Jake Lear
photo/Jake Lear

State budget leaves fishery high and dry 
Governor seeking emergency federal aid

By Chris Busby

The $6.3 billion state budget for the next two years, signed by Gov. John Baldacci last week, falls far short of providing the assistance Maine’s groundfishing industry desperately needs, industry advocates say. But Baldacci has taken the first steps in an appeal for federal disaster relief aid to buoy what remains of the state’s struggling groundfishing fleet.

Earlier this year, after state lawmakers soundly rejected a proposal to allow fishermen to sell incidentally caught lobsters in Maine (called lobster “bycatch”), the Legislature’s Marine Resources Committee put together a package of financial incentives for fishermen that amounted to nearly $3 million in rebates, fee waivers and other assistance. 

According to Hank Soule, manager of the Portland Fish Exchange, the annual value of lobster bycatch landed and sold in Massachusetts, where it’s legal to sell lobsters caught in dragger nets, is about $3 million. The incentive package was intended to lure fishermen back to Maine ports by providing an equal amount of financial relief. It included an exemption from the state’s 5 percent sales tax on diesel fuel, and rebates for money spent on trucking, ice and handling fees at the Portland Fish Exchange. 

In the end, the industry got about a tenth of that package: $250,000 for rebates on diesel fuel, and $90,000 to help fund the work of a groundfish ecologist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, on Commercial Street. 

That amount “will not put a dent in vessel attrition to Massachusetts,” Soule said in an e-mail to The Bollard

“Not enough – not nearly enough,” said Portland City Councilor Ed Suslovic, a vocal advocate for the industry. “To me, this is a slap in the face to the fishing industry.”

“We wanted much more,” said State Rep. Herb Adams, the Parkside Democrat who helped put the package together. “But the budget, you know – everybody wrings the towel to get as much as they can in the state budget, and that’s what we got.” 

Adams said legislative efforts to get more financial relief have already begun at the state level, and Gov. Baldacci has formerly filed paperwork to grant the industry “emergency status,” the precursor to an appeal for federal disaster relief funds. 

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick has already requested disaster aid for the Bay State’s groundfishing industry. In an April 9 letter to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Patrick said new federal regulations limiting the number of days at sea boats can fish cost his state’s fishing communities at least $22 million last year alone.

The fate of either state’s aid request is uncertain, partly because the industry’s “disastrous” situation is not the result of a natural disaster, but rather is said to have been caused by federal regulations designed to help depleted fish stocks rebound. Asking the federal government to pay for a “disaster” of its own making is an “awkward request,” a Commerce Department official told the Gloucester Daily Times in April. There is no precedent for the approval of federal disaster aid based on such a request, the official said.

Suslovic, a former state legislator who chairs the City Council’s Legislative Committee, said state lawmakers had a chance to rescue Maine’s groundfishing industry “at virtually no cost” by passing the bycatch bill, but chose not to.

“Now they want the feds to do it,” he added. “But they’d have a lot more credibility if they’d stepped up” and provided more relief from Augusta.

Maine lobstermen vigorously opposed the bycatch bill, claiming it would damage both the lobster population and Maine lobster as a marketing brand. Adams joined his fellow Marine Resource Committee members in their unanimous opposition to the measure. He too cited concerns related to conservation, and said the bill would not guarantee the lobster bycatch would be sold in Maine.

Even the $90,000 for ecological research was less than advocates hoped to receive. According to Adams, the state pledged to cover half the cost of the $200,000 research position four years ago, but until this session, lawmakers hadn’t provided a dime. Now that they’ve agreed to honor their promise and chip in, the funding is still $10,000 short.

“What we got… no pun intended, is about a drop in the ocean of what we need,” Adams said of the overall package. “But we will come back next year” and request more funding.

That’s nice, fishing advocates say, but the question they’re asking is whether enough fishing boats will be back next year to keep the industry alive in Maine. Commenting on the diesel fuel rebate and research funding, Suslovic said, “I don’t even think it’s enough to send a message to the fishing industry that the state of Maine is serious about keeping them here…. It’s damn frustrating.”

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