Hard-Hit New England Fishermen Receive Financial Aid

STRUGGLING New England fishermen can breathe a small sigh of relief due to a new $30 million government assistance package.

The aid package, announced March 21 by Commerce Secretary Ronald Brown, is only the first step in the long road to recovery for New England's collapsed fish industry. Fishermen have been devastated by low fish stocks in Atlantic waters, as well as stringent conservation measures.

``This $30 million package will be used to address immediate economic needs,'' Mr. Brown said. ``It will help fishermen who are working as hard as they can but who can't bear up under the burden of existing debt.''

The two-part funding package, which comes from the president's contingency disaster fund, will aid both the fishing industry and local communities. The aid package breaks down as follows:

r $18 million will be made available for communities that depend on the fishing industry. The funds, administered by the Economic Development Administration, will be appropriated to communities through revolving loan funds and grants.

r $12 million will be targeted to individual fishermen through loan guarantees and grants to encourage them to get involved in other industries, such as aquaculture and harvesting underutilized species like mackerel.

These funds, distributed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will also go toward setting up so-called ``fishery assistance centers'' throughout New England, which will provide loan assistance information and counseling.

Because of overfishing and weak conservation measures in the past, New England's fishing industry has declined dramatically over the past three decades. Species of groundfish such as cod, haddock, and yellowtail flounder have decreased, as have stocks of tuna and scallop.

Commercial fishing in the Northeast generates around $600 million yearly in revenues. About 4,000 vessels along the eastern coast catch groundfish and other species that have been in short supply, according to the Commerce Department. The agency estimates that as many as 20,000 fishermen could be affected by the industry's collapse.

In 1965, fishermen harvested about 780,000 metric tons of groundfish from the region. Now, they catch less than 250,000 metric tons, Brown said.

In addition to depleted fish stocks, stringent conservation regulations issued by the Commerce Department in January are an added burden. The goal of the regulations is to halve groundfishing and scalloping over the next five to seven years.

Brown acknowledged the severity of the situation for New England fishermen and said the $30 million package is only the beginning.

The Clinton administration has asked Congress to appropriate $50 million in the 1995 budget to a fishery management program geared to build up sustainable fisheries, he said.

While many New England fishermen welcome the $30 million funding package, others are skeptical. ``I'm hoping the way that money is distributed won't prolong people's bankruptcies,'' said Hans Davidsen, a New Bedford, Mass.-based scallop boat owner.

Robert Bruno, another New Bedford-based fisherman, said he favored only certain parts of the aid package. ``Schooling and retraining? Yes.... But as far as it goes for studies and other types of programs in that area, I don't see it,'' he said.

Mr. Bruno and others said they hope the government will initiate a federal buy-back program of fishing vessels. Brown specifically made reference to such a program and said the idea is still under consideration.

``I would be more than willing to get out of the industry,'' Bruno said.

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