editorial – Fishing ports should use disaster funds for new jobs. The Wind Shills are taking advantage, the NSC is planning, and some fishermen are ready to roll!

Battered by  new federal limits on the amount of fish they can catch, Northeastern cod  fishermen need help both to maintain their boats and equipment in tough times,  and to transition into other marine-related jobs. Luckily, they can count on  strong political support from Massachusetts senators Scott Brown and John Kerry  and from governors and members of Congress throughout much of New England. Those  backers have now persuaded the Obama administration to declare the collapsing  groundfish industry an economic disaster in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts,  Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. The move won’t necessarily alter the  catch limits — nor should it — but it opens the door to financial disaster  relief.

Hard-hit fishing communities should spend the money  wisely. That means, among other things, helping to establish new marine  industries. New England senators and representatives are seeking $100 million in  disaster aid. If Congress goes along, it will be a one-time injection of  economic-development funds that fishing communities must not squander.

Fishing communities should not expect the industry to return to normal any  time soon. The number of fishermen in Gloucester, for instance, has dwindled  from well over 3,000 in the mid-1800s to the low-hundreds today. The challenge  will be to keep an appropriate number of boats and fishermen economically  afloat, without merely subsidizing a dying industry. Determining the proper size  of the fishing fleet will require better assessments of the fishing stock by  federal regulators and more cooperation between fishermen and researchers. As a  gesture of goodwill, the federal government should continue a program that pairs  fishermen with regulators and pays them an average of $630 per day at sea.

But the harder task will be shifting fishing families into marine jobs that  don’t involve fishing. In Gloucester, Mayor Carolyn Kirk is already working with  colleges and entrepreneurs to create more marine research and industrial jobs.  Meanwhile, Representative Ed Markey has suggested that some of the marine skills  involved in fishing might be useful for offshore jobs implanting wind turbines  for energy. The Northeast Seafood Coalition, a lobbying group, should advise  local officials on how best to spend the federal aid.

“With this funding, we can move forward,” said Nicolas Brancaleone,  communications manager for the coalition. The best way to move forward is to  realize that this disaster declaration is a unique opportunity for economic  transition. If it is handled properly, the iconic culture of fishing can be  maintained, while a new marine culture takes root on the New England coast.