Federal aid restored to some of Chatham groundfish fleet
CHATHAM — The clouds may be dark, the weather stormy, but local fishermen stuck in port this week could at least celebrate two pieces of good news.
On Thursday the state Division of Marine Fisheries announced how it would distribute $6.9 million in federal fisheries disaster money. Most of the money, more than $6 million, would go to fishermen as direct aid that would reach more fishermen than originally proposed.
Initially, a state working group set qualifications for receiving the money that cut out more than half of the Chatham groundfish fleet.
Ten vessels in what is known as the Georges Bank Fixed Gear Sector, which operates out of Chatham, qualified for a share of the money under the original threshold of landing 20,000 pounds of groundfish in any year from 2012 to 2014. But local fishermen felt that excluded those who did not catch cod, haddock, flounder and other bottom-feeding groundfish species because they were no longer plentiful, but were still being required to pay for special observers, known as At-Sea Monitors, because their nets were capable of catching these fish.
The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance; state Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown; state Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich; U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass.; and Gov. Charlie Baker asked the division to reconsider. The result was new criteria that lowered the qualifying amount to 10,000 pounds of groundfish or having at least one trip in 2014 in which the vessel carried an At-Sea Monitor. Eighteen of 24 vessels in Chatham now qualify for the aid, and the pool of qualifiers statewide expanded from 138 to between 164 and more than 200 vessels.
The money will be split equally among the vessels, but the state had not determined the size of each share as of Thursday.
To add to that good news, on Wednesday the New England Fishery Management Council voted to include an exemption from carrying At-Sea Monitors for fishermen who use large-mesh nets to catch monkfish and skates. Those observers are required as a compliance check to make sure that groundfish vessels are accurately reporting what they catch and what they discard. They would have cost fishermen $710 for each day they are onboard and an estimated $10,000 a year per vessel.
“We’re very thankful to the state Division of Marine Fisheries, to Dr. (David) Pierce (the new division director), and to Governor Baker’s office for going back and redoing the original proposal,” Chatham fisherman Jim Nash said. “The money will help, but more important to me is getting the exemption for the large-mesh nets.”
Nash said in the past five years, the 24 boats in the fleet had caught less than half a percent groundfish bycatch while targeting skate and monkfish with nets whose openings are so large groundfish species easily escape. Their total groundfish bycatch for last year amounted to 608 pounds for 20 boats making more than 1,500 trips.
At the same time, these fishermen were required to carry monitors more often than any other fleet. An exemption would relieve them of that burden but also put valuable observer time onto boats that actually do catch groundfish, Nash said. The Chatham fleet would still be required to carry observers that do scientific work. Federal money pays for those.
The exemption is part of regulations that are still a work in progress. Fixed Gear sector manager Claire Fitz-Gerald said they are hoping it will be finalized in December and be ready for the next fishing year in May. — Follow Doug Fraser on Twitter:@dougfrasercct.