Many Cape Cod fishermen, operating under shrunken quotas for cod, have shifted their focus to catching other fish species such as dogfish, skate and monkfish.
But that business decision, some lawmakers worry, could be jeopardizing the fishermen's ability to qualify for the last pot of federal disaster relief funding being dispersed by the Baker administration to help offset the hit to their livelihoods from declining fish populations.
The Division of Marine Fisheries, after issuing draft criteria for the dispersal of roughly $6.5 million in remaining federal fishery disaster aid, held public hearings this summer soliciting feedback on their proposal. Lawmakers from Cape Cod and the Islands are now urging the administration to reconsider the criteria that they say will exclude over 100 fishing boats that could soon be hit with the added cost of paying for at-sea monitors to police their catches.
"We on the Cape represent a group of fisherman who belong to a groundfish sector down here that the draft proposal as written, I'm not sure any of them would qualify for relief," said Rep. Sarah Peake, a Provincetown Democrat.
Eight lawmakers, including Democrats and Republicans representing the Cape and Islands, sent a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker last Friday urging a rewrite of the rules so that all 200-plus boats in the state's groundfish fleet from Gloucester to Nantucket can benefit from the remaining disaster money.
A spokesman for the administration said it was reviewing the comments "before deciding on a path forward" to distribute the money.
"As part of the process leading up to the distribution of Bin 3 federal disaster aid, the Baker-Polito Administration conducted a public comment period to solicit input from fishing industry personal [sic], local businesses, and stakeholders. We look forward to reviewing all comments before deciding on a path forward for the distribution of Bin 3 money which will be used to ensure the future viability of the Commonwealth's fishing industry," Peter Lorenz, spokesman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said in a statement.
The lawmakers applauded Baker for the position he has taken opposing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's plan to shift the cost of at-sea monitoring to New England fishermen, but Peake said species such as skate and monkfish that are considered groundfish for monitoring purposes would not be factored into calculations for the disbursement of disaster funding.
"We strongly urge you to reconsider the current Bin 3 proposal that as drafted would benefit only a small percentage of the fleet, and instead develop dispersal criteria that will provide aid to every commercial groundfish business impacted by the disaster," Beacon Hill pols wrote in their letter to Baker.
Baker sent a separate letter in mid-August signed by the state's all-Democrat Congressional delegation to the United States commerce secretary and Congressional leaders urging the federal government to pay for at-sea monitors on boats. He also objected to NOAA's suggestion that federal disaster funds be used to help fishermen pay for the monitors, arguing that Congress approved the money to be used for "the future viability of the fishing industry."
However, Peake said that under the Baker administration's plan for the last pot of disaster funding only about 60 of the state's 200 groundfish vessels would qualify for relief.
"If there isn't a more equitable distribution of the Bin 3 funds to be spread across I'm not exaggerating when I say we will be creating a new fisheries disaster because these men and women can't afford to go out and bring in their day-trip catch with a value $1,000 or $1,200 and turn around and write a check for $710 to the federal government for monitors," Peake said.
The letter to Baker was signed by Sens. Daniel Wolf and Vinny deMacedo and Reps. Peake, Timothy Madden, Randy Hunt, Brian Mannal, David Vieira and Timothy Whelan.
While the Division of Marine Fisheries is currently being led by acting director David Pierce, the lawmakers from Cape Cod and Nantucket are also confident that their former legislative colleague George Peterson, the head of the Department of Fish and Game, has heard their concerns.
"I have all the faith in the world that the Baker administration and George Peterson are going to take a look at this and draft a new proposal," Peake said.