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Fishing industry nets $50 million, but likely be back for more

WASHINGTON — Even though beleaguered fishermen have reeled in millions of federal dollars, some say they will need even more to stay afloat.

The money, intended to provide relief from environmental restrictions, overfishing and foreign competition, was included an $11.2 billion emergency spending bill that President Clinton signed last month.

The bulk of the package's money was for military operations, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration got $50 million to help fishermen.

"You're going to see us coming back for more,'' said Leesa Cobb, president of the Pacific Marine Conservation Council, which represents commercial fishermen and scientists. "I hate to say that, but we'll have to. In the coastal communities along the West Coast, you're going to see people losing their boats and homes.''

The West Coast groundfish industry and conservation groups were hoping for $100 million for a boat buyback program in which the government would pay them for their vessels. They got $5 million to help retrain fishermen forced out of business by overfishing.

Groundfish are species that live on or near the bottom of the ocean.

For year, fishermen have grappled with a general decline in catches.

The 24-year-old Magnuson-Stevens Act created the first U.S. management authority over fishing in waters from three miles to 200 miles offshore.

The law ended overfishing by foreign boats, but overfishing by the U.S. fleet continued, leading to declines in several fish species. To replenish stocks, regional fishery management councils have set catch limits and made specified waters off-limits to fishermen.

New England fishermen caught $557 million worth of fish. Eight years later, their take was $540 million. Fishermen on the Pacific saw a drop in earnings from $362 million to $284 million over the same period.

Despite the criticism, the $50 million relief package is among the largest the industry has received.

"The fishing industry historically has not gotten a lot for disaster relief,'' said Eugene Buck, a senior analyst for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. Buck said when the industry gets federal aid, it usually comes in increments of $5 million to $10 million.

In debate on the latest package, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized the spending and said Congress is "placing the fish industry at the top of our list of pork.''

Lawmakers representing fishermen insist the aid is vital.

"Lobsters represent a $52 million industry in Connecticut,'' said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn. "This is not chicken feed. The lobstermen aren't looking for a handout, but this is a case where there's a role for Congress to help out.''

New England groundfishermen are getting $10 million through a government program that will buy back 600 fishing permits that are not being used.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called it a "necessary first step'' and said more money may be needed for boat buybacks.

While the fishermen appreciate the relief, some say they could do more to help themselves.

Paul Parker, executive director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, said the fishing industry should sink some of its own money into boat buybacks.

"The federal government needs to do more research to study the fish stocks, but taxpayers shouldn't bear all the burden for helping us,'' Parker said.

Others say the best way to reduce the industry's reliance on federal aid is to restrict more fishing areas and increase aid to fishermen.

Lee Crockett, executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network which represents conservationists and commercial and sport fishermen, said more restrictions would put some fishermen out of work. But he said it is a sound investment to give those fishermen temporary federal aid while fish stocks replenish themselves.

"If you want to stop this raid on the Treasury, you're going to need more regulations,'' Crockett said. "That means there's going to be a period where fishermen are going to have a tough time, but it won't be stretched out. If there are no fish for fishermen to catch, they're going to keep coming, hat in hand, looking to Congress for money.''

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