State Representative Antonio Cabral urged Governor Deval Patrick’s administration yesterday to write the schooner Ernestina, in dry dock in New Bedford, into the state’s five-year capital plan after blaming former governor Mitt Romney for letting the historic vessel fall into disrepair.
“The previous administration kept trying to convince us that the Ernestina would be able to be repaired and maintained through some magic of private industry. I don’t think that’s possible,’’ Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who is running for mayor of that city, told the state Energy and Environmental Affairs secretary, Richard Sullivan, at a committee hearing.
The Ernestina was built in 1894 at the James and Tarr Shipyard for the Gloucester fishing fleet. According to the schooner’s website, the boat sailed to within 600 miles of the North Pole and later brought immigrants to the United States. It was returned to the United States in 1982 as a gift from Cape Verde and sailed as a tour boat until 2005 when delayed repairs rendered it unable to sail.
“I think this needs to be part of the capital plan of [the Department of Conservation and Recreation]. I don’t see any other way around it,’’ said Cabral, the chairman of the House Committee on Bonding.
Sullivan told Cabral that after investing $140,000 to put the schooner in dry dock, the administration was expecting a report shortly on the estimated cost of needed repairs to return the boat to water. The secretary said the administration was also in conversations with Mayor Scott Lang of New Bedford and the operators of the Mystic Seaport in Connecticut about getting the schooner into a curator program or finding a nonprofit to operate it.
“It is not lost on us the importance of this to you,’’ Sullivan said. “There will be a significant investment at some level.’’
Cabral also asked Sullivan to support legislation that would elevate the Division of Marine Fisheries, currently under the Department of Fish and Game, to department status.
Cabral said he believed Massachusetts, despite its rich fishing heritage, did not pay adequate attention to the promotion of the fishing industry like other states along the Eastern Seaboard. In New Bedford alone, Cabral said, the fishing industry is responsible for $2 billion in economic activity.
“That’s how we grow jobs in Massachusetts, by paying close attention to the companies we have with potential to grow. I think it’s crucial. It’s not an issue that should take two or three years to change,’’ Cabral said.
Cabral wants to create a new Department of Marine Fisheries that would expand the role of the division beyond its focus on regulation, and, like the Department of Agriculture, be able to administer grants to assist fisherman and on-shore processing plants grow business.
“We’d be happy to discuss it,’’ Sullivan said.