By Sean Horgan
---- — The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed the $1 trillion Appropriations Bill containing $75 million in disaster aid to fishermen and fishing communities yesterday afternoon, sending the measure along to the Senate, where it is expected to pass in a vote that could come as soon as today.
The landslide passage in the House, by a vote of 359-67, was regarded as the most prominent hurdle remaining in the path of the bill that provides the first tangible instance of direct federal financial assistance to fishermen and their communities since the Department of Commerce’s 2012 declaration of a disaster in the Northeast groundfish fishery.
The bill’s successful journey through the House appropriation process also represented an immense victory for the Massachusetts House delegation, including Rep. John Tierney.
Starting literally from scratch, the Massachusetts delegation helped convince House appropriators to come up with $75 million — half of the initial $150 million Senate appropriation — to aid fishermen in the nation’s fisheries.
The bill is expected to pass in the Senate, where the initial appropriation of $150 million had strong support, including that of Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey.
If also approved by Senate lawmakers, the bill will provide landmark assistance to fishermen in Gloucester and elsewhere whose lives have been turned upside down by the fishery disaster and by the response of federal regulators, which included closing traditional fishing areas and instituting extraordinarily deep cuts in catch quotas for cod, haddock and other groundfish.
It remains to be determined how the $75 million will be allocated to eligible fishermen and fishing businesses, though the initial appropriation is expected to flow from the Commerce Department to individual states and from there into the fishing communities.
In Massachusetts, the state Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF) is expected to play a central role in the portioning of the funds.
Late yesterday afternoon, state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, said that the DMF, in response to a request by Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, plans to hold three public hearings on the state of the Northeast groundfish fishery, which are expected to include details on how the disaster funds will be distributed.
The first public hearing is set for Jan. 27 at the DMF offices on Emerson Avenue in Gloucester.
“Now that the funding for the fishing industry is on the fast track in Washington, it’s critical that we lay the groundwork for its effective use in Massachusetts,” Tarr said. “I’m pleased that DMF is responding promptly. We need to make sure that money is being spent to meet the needs of fishing families and ports and not any particular bureaucracy or collateral interest.”
The bill’s passage in the House was welcome news in Gloucester and throughout the Bay State.
Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk hailed the impending financial assistance as a mechanism that should help breathe new life into the port of Gloucester and help steady its hobbled small-boat fishing fleet. Kirk also praising the work of Tierney and his colleagues in the Massachusetts delegation.
“John Tierney never lost his focus,” Kirk said. “Sen. Warren jumped in right away on this issue and was an immeasurable help, and Sen. Markey came here to Gloucester on New Year’s Day as a show of his support for our fishermen and our fishing industry. This was a star performance by all of them on behalf of Gloucester.”
Kirk said the federal disaster aid represents an opportunity the city and the fishing industry cannot afford to squander.
“We really need to invest this wisely in a sustainable fishery and the future of the city of Gloucester,” she said.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, also a Democratic candidate for governor, applauded “the bipartisan federal appropriations plan worked out by Congress” and thanked the House for voting to authorize “critical funding to provide support for the hard-hit fishing communities in our Commonwealth.”
Coakley, whose office is suing NOAA in U.S. District Court in Boston for its management of the fishing disaster and its inattention to the economic implications of its management decisions on fishing communities, urged the Senate to follow suit and pass the appropriation.