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Today the US Commerce Department declared disasters not of fishermen's making in three key fisheries on four US coasts: the North Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, the Bering Sea, and the Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific Ocean. The declaration opens the door for Congress—if they choose to accept the mission—to appropriate funds to help struggling fishers. The disasters are:
The Northeast, where even though most fishers have adhered to tough quotas on several key groundfish—including cod in the Gulf of Maine and yellowtail flounder in the Georges Bank—stocks are not rebuilding.
Alaska, where low returns of chinook salmon have resulted in commercial fishery disasters in the the Yukon River fishery (ongoing since 2010), the Kuskokwim River (ongoing since 2011), and Cook Inlet fishery (beginning in 2012).
Mississippi, where historically high flooding of the lower Mississippi River in spring 2011 wiped out the oyster fishery and the blue crab fishery from massive freshwater flows. (This disaster might have included the inshore shrimp fishery too, since flooding drove landings down by 41 percent in 2011. But Commerce didn't deem it a commercial failure since revenue losses were "only 19 percent less than the 2006-2009 average.")
The causes run the gamut of natural and anthropogenic. In other words, something of everything, including plenty of unknowns. The disaster declaration for Alaska states:
Exact causes for recent poor Chinook salmon returns are unknown, but may involve a variety of factors outside the control of fishery managers to mitigate, including unfavorable ocean conditions, freshwater environmental factors, disease, or other factors.
The causes in New England are deemed unknown, and severe fishing quotas are pending for 2013, reports Boston.com:
The final numbers aren't in, but officials said preliminary information indicates that catch limits could go down by 72 percent for the cod population in the Gulf of Maine and 70 percent for cod on the Georges Bank fishing grounds east of Cape Cod.
The New England disaster declaration is "a huge win" for fishers, says Democratic Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, via the AP. "Our fishermen are the farmers of the sea and today our fishermen are facing exactly what farmers in the Midwest are facing—a drought. They need our help to get through it."