ELLSWORTH, Maine — Federal officials declared a groundfish fisheries disaster for the Northeast on Thursday, paving the way for Congress to appropriate money that would go to fishermen affected by the declining fish stocks.

According to a prepared statement released Thursday morning by the U.S. Department of Commerce, several key fish stocks are not rebuilding, which is expected to result in further restrictions on catch limits for the 2013 fishing season.

“The Department of Commerce has determined that the diminished fish stocks have resulted despite fishermen’s adherence to catch limits intended to rebuild the stocks,” Rebecca Blank, the acting secretary of the department, said in the statement. “I am making a fishery failure declaration so that Congress is able to appropriate funding that will mitigate some of the economic consequences of the reduced stocks and help rebuild a sustainable fishery.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Paul LePage and other New England governors signed a letter requesting the declaration.

In a separate prepared statement released Wednesday, before the disaster declaration was made, the governor’s office said the declaration would prompt federal officials to provide $100 million in relief funds to the Northeast groundfishing fleet. Reduced catch limits for cod, haddock, yellowtail flounder and other groundfish species are expected to go into effect by May 1, 2013, due to updated stock assessments that show the biomass of such species to be lower than previously thought.

“Given the magnitude of the projected cuts — up to 73 percent — the impacts to the commercial fishing industry will be profound, affecting vessels of all sizes and gear types throughout the region,” the statement indicated.

LePage said in the statement that, because of the anticipated catch reductions, “disaster relief is more critical than ever.”

Meredith Mendelson, deputy commissioner for Maine Department of Marine Resources, said Thursday that the declaration “lends a lot of credibility” to the conditions that groundfishermen are facing.

“We have a lot of work to do to mitigate the impact of those [catch] reductions,” Mendelson said.

When industry relief funds might become available depends on when Congress might approve the appropriation. The proposed $100 million aid package could be debated in Congress during the lame-duck session after the election, according to some federal officials.

All four members of Maine’s congressional delegation released a joint statement Thursday, welcoming the disaster declaration.

“The fact is, key fish stocks have not returned to support our fishermen despite their adherence to new and rigorous management practices,” the delegation said in the statement. “It is now time for Congress to support this industry by lowering operating costs for this upcoming fishing year and by investing in the resource for the long-term through scientific research to better understand these challenges.”

The aid package as currently conceived includes direct aid to fishermen and money to cover required costs, such as the independent observers to monitor their catch. It also includes funds to improve fishery science and stock assessments, which fishermen complain are inaccurate.

Federal and state lawmakers have pursued the disaster declaration since 2010, when new regulations were enacted in New England that put tough limits on how much fishermen can catch of a given species.

In the two years since, federal scientists have reported key stocks aren’t rebuilding quickly enough, including cod in the Gulf of Maine and yellowtail flounder in the Georges Bank fishing grounds off southeastern New England.

The Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group, applauded the disaster declaration and said regulations are needed that better account for how fisheries fit into the larger environment.

“It is unfair to hold fishermen exclusively accountable for natural cycles of complex ecosystems,” the coalition said.

Johanna Thomas of the Environmental Defense Fund said a better grasp is critically needed on how fish abundance is affected by factors such as climate change, pressure on local coasts and warming ocean temperatures.

“The problems facing the fishery … are long-term and the solutions should be also,” she said.

According to state officials there are approximately 45 fishing vessels based in Maine, the vast majority of them in the southern part of the state, that are using active groundfish permits. In 2011, those vessels brought ashore in Maine more than 5 million pounds of groundfish, with an estimated dockside value of nearly $5.8 million.

Annual landings for most of Maine’s groundfish species used to amount to millions of pounds each year, according to DMR statistics.

For example, in 1991, more than 21 million pounds of cod were landed in Maine, but last year the cod caught by Maine fishermen amounted to only 814,000 pounds. Redfish landings in Maine peaked at nearly 80 million pounds in 1950 and still totaled more than 10 million pounds in 1982, but last year only 123,000 pounds were harvested in the state.

At their 2011 totals, groundfish currently make up roughly 2 percent of the volume, and 1 percent of all the value, of all commercially harvested marine fish species in Maine. Lobster, the state’s largest fishery, accounted for 104 million pounds, or 77 percent of all the total volume of all commercial fish landings, and $334 million in gross income for Maine fishermen in 2011.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Follow BDN reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....