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Maine's Groundfishing Fleet Awaits Word on Sandy Disaster Relief
12/14/2012   Reported By: Jay Field

Maine and nine other states would split $150 million in groundfishery aid, as part of a Superstorm Sandy relief bill headed to the floor of the U.S. Senate for consideration. Both houses of Congress and President Barack Obama need to sign off on the package by the end of the year for it to take effect. As Jay Field reports, the measure's progress comes in the wake of Jane Lubchenco's announcement that she will resign as head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the end of February.

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When she took office in 2009, Jane Lubchenco vowed to get New England's ailing groundfishery back on track. In an e-mail this week, announcing her intention to resign, the marine ecologist wrote she had succeeded in "...ending overfishing, rebuilding stocks and returning fisheries to profitability."

"It's hard to really say that any one of those things, except for ending overfishing, has taken place," says Bob Vanasse, who runs Saving Seafood, a Washington D.C.-based industry group that represents captains, fishermen, seafood processors and brokers in the eastern United States. "Most of the fisheries are actually in extremely difficult conditions. So to say that fishing has returned to profitability is a very peculiar claim."

One exception, says Vanasse, is the scallop fishery off Massachusetts. Regulators in Maine are hoping that dividing the scallop grounds here into three zones - and moving to a management system resembling crop rotation - will lead to a comeback, like the one down south.

As Lubchenco prepares to leave NOAA, debate continues over perhaps the most controversial change that occurred on her watch. In May of 2010, NOAA moved to a "catch shares" system in a bid to revive stocks in the depleted New England groundfishery. Regulators set catch limits for each species like cod, haddock and flounder. Fisherman are allotted a portion of the allowable catch that they can haul in themselves, or sell or lease to someone else.

Policymakers, and many groundfishermen here in Maine, say the change has been a largely positive one. Glen Libby runs Port Clyde Fresh Catch. "We've been thinned up enough up this way," he says. "If we get thinned out anymore, we won't have anything."

Libby, who's also a member of the Maine Coast Fishermen's Association, points out that there are just 40 groundfishing boats in the entire state, and none between Port Clyde and the Canadian border. "It's done several things that it was designed to do. It's controlled the catch levels."

Libby says it's the only way that Maine will be able to restore its stocks of cod and other species. But policymakers and fishermen in southern New England say the move to a catch share system under Lubchenco has been a disaster. Big operators in places like New Bedford and Gloucester, Massachusetts have been able to buy up permits and monopolize a large part of the catch, while smaller boats have smaller and smaller percentages to work with.

Meantime, the stocks have failed to rebuild, causing the federal government to declare the New England groundfishery a disaster earlier this fall. Saving Seafood's Bob Vanasse says his clients hope the Obama Administration reviews the recent history, when it starts weighing successors for NOAA's Lubchenco.

"Our communities and our fisheries are, in fact, hurting," he says. "And one would hope that they'll appoint a NOAA chief who understands that. I don't know if they will."

Lubchenco says she'll be leaving at the end of February. Between now and then, she may have one more big project to carry out: If Congress and the President sign off on the Superstorm Sandy relief bill, it will be up to Lubchenco to come up with a plan to administer the $150 million in ground fishery aid.


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