SCITUATE – State senators next week will debate a plan by South Shore lawmakers to pay lobstermen during a months-long annual fishing closure advocates say cuts income of some fishermen by as much as half each year.
State senators Patrick O'Connor and Bruce Tarr have filed a budget amendment that would allocate $12 million to pay lobstermen $1 per week per trap they are licensed for during time they are not allowed to fish. The state annually shuts down more than 9,000 square miles of water for at least three months in efforts to protect migrating right whales.
"Since the state is imposing these restrictions on the industry, we should be providing the industry with relief," O'Connor, R-Weymouth, told The Patriot Ledger. "We've seen governments get creative with mitigating the problems that came with COVID shutdowns, and I see no difference here."
The state senators were joined by state representatives Patrick Kearney and Joan Maschino, local fishermen and advocates at Scituate Harbor Friday, where O'Connor said they were asking for "just a small portion" of the $640 million the industry produces each year to be returned to the lobstermen.
"These are real dollars being earned by real people supporting local economies, and we need to show them we care about them," said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen's Association.
Since 2015, regulations have banned the use of lobstering equipment from Feb. 1 until at least April 30 off Cape Cod Bay and beyond, shutting down the local industry for the winter. The goal is to reduce the chances of right whales, which are common in Cape Cod Bay during late winter and early spring, becoming entangled in the gear. For the last several years, the presence of right whales has pushed the closure to mid May.
John Haviland, president of the South Shore Lobster Fishermen's Association, said Massachusetts fishermen have been at the forefront of right whale protection, and deserve relief in return.
"Lobstering and commercial fishing is part of the fabric of this community," Kearney (D-Marshfield) said Friday. "It's important that we at the state level set up this fund so, in the time of forced closure, they are able to provide for their families and stay in the communities they work and live in."
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O'Connor said the idea for the budget amendment came out of a conversation with Patriot Ledger photographer Greg Derr, who has been covering the communities of Marshfield and Scituate for decades.
"Greg said it was a shame we were not doing something for lobstermen like we were doing for other gig industries," O'Connor said. " A lot of the things I do just come from conversations I have with constituents. Greg had no financial bearing here, he just wanted to make sure these families were taken care of, and he was right."
If passed, the budget amendment would allocate $12 million to retroactively paying lobstermen for this year's closure and set up a regular budget item to be funded each year. If it does not pass, O'Connor said he plans to file the idea as a standalone bill.
"Massachusetts is flush with cash right now. Last month alone we had a $2 billion budget surplus, so asking for $12 million to help families on the South Shore and across the state seems very reasonable," O'Connor said.
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Reach Mary Whitfill at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on The Patriot Ledger: Budget amendment aims to pay South Shore lobstermen in off the season