BOSTON—U.S. Sen. John Kerry on Wednesday asked the nation's ocean chief to support a federal disaster declaration for New England's fishing industry, saying it's "desperately needed."
Kerry, D-Mass., also asked National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco for money to improve fisheries science and pay millions of dollars for required monitors who record the fish catch at sea.
The requests were among 11 Kerry made in a letter to Lubchenco that he wrote as a follow-up to her visit to Massachusetts early this month to face questions about her agency's oversight of the local fishing industry.
Some local fishermen say a new management system unfairly doled out the fish catch and is killing traditional fishing communities by forcing small boat fishermen out of business. Under the system, fishermen are awarded individual shares of the catch of each species, which they manage in groups called sectors.
Lubchenco says the new system is a dramatic improvement and will lead to healthier fish and higher catch limits. She said Wednesday the NOAA was ready to help the fishing industry.
In his letter, Kerry pushed Lubchenco to support Gov. Deval Patrick's request last November for a federal disaster declaration and $21 million in economic aid, calling the declaration "desperately needed to help our fishermen deal with the effects of federal regulations."
"For fishermen who are losing the way of life their family has proudly carried on for generations, there is no time to waste," he wrote.
Kerry asked Lubchenco for an "appropriate" level of funding for a scientific review of the health of all New England fish stocks by the end of 2013.
And he requested she use $7.5 million allocated to the NOAA in a Senate appropriations bill to pay for monitors who record how much fishermen catch and discard at sea. The monitors are needed under the new rules to ensure fishermen don't exceed strict catch limits. The government has so far absorbed their extra cost, but it's supposed to fall on fishermen next year.
In requests that could increase the amount fishermen can catch, Kerry asked Lubchenco to support opening up various closed fishing areas and to allow fishermen to catch a greater percentage of a previous year's unfilled quota on a species.
Kerry also asked Lubchenco to consider relaxing the 10-year recovery period for overfished species. If that period were extended, catch limits could also be relaxed. Fishermen have made the case in federal court that the NOAA was wrongly interpreting the 10-year rebuilding time frame, but a court this year upheld the government.
Kerry also urged Lubchenco to quickly return to Massachusetts to talk again with fishing industry representatives.
"I cannot emphasize enough how important it was for the community to see and hear from you and your team in person," he wrote.
Lubchenco said in a statement Wednesday she had "heard the concerns expressed by local fishermen and members of Congress" and announced two actions she said would help improve management of New England groundfish and ease the economic burden of the fishery's observer program.
"We want to assure fishermen that NOAA will continue to fund the cost of at-sea monitoring for New England groundfish through April 30, 2013, the end of the 2012 fishing year," she said in a statement. "While the budget for fiscal year 2012 is still uncertain, we are committed to securing this funding."
In addition, she said, the NOAA will "contract with an independent group to initiate a participatory evaluation process of the management reforms under way."
She said NOAA has been working to "improve science collaboration with state and private research institutions, enhance data management systems to assist the fishing industry with more timely and accurate information, and strengthen outreach and communications."