A sparse crowd filled the Waypoint Event Center in downtown New Bedford for a public discussion on how to spend nearly $7 million in federal relief aid for local commercial groundfishermen. 

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries is meeting with three other port communities (Gloucester, Plymouth, Chatham) this week to gauge thoughts on a draft developed by a working group on June 30th in Gloucester.

The draft includes up to $6 million to go toward direct aid to federally licensed commercial groundfishermen, with some restrictive criteria to determine who is eligible. Some of that money could also go toward increased fishing opportunities and at-sea monitoring costs.

Sector 13 manager John Harren the costs of having observers on vessels, which will become the burden of the industry starting as early as August, is just too high for his men to make a profit.

"It's a very sad state of affairs the fishing fleet in New Bedford will be depleted one more time because of consolidation and high costs. The industry is willing to take observers but they just can't afford to pay for them," Harren said.

He adds that many of his 22 fishermen will turn to other species of fish if the observation regulations on groundfish remain in place as-is.

The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates the average cost of an observer to be $710 per day aboard a vessel and $2.64 million annually nationwide.

Harren also mentioned that active fishermen aren't attending public meetings like this one because they feel like their thoughts have no effect on decisions.

Another use for some of the funds is expected to go toward an industry based survey of cod stock in the Gulf of Maine. David Pierce, acting director for DMF, says $450,000 is to be put toward the three-year study in the southwestern potion of the gulf.

Pierce says many fishermen have little faith in the studies previously conducted by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center, which has been echoed by other industry leaders. Pierce says this new study should help re-build those bridges.

"We have every expectation that we're going to get very useful information that will assist the Northeast Fisheries Science Center with their assessments and they're going to be using it and embracing it," Pierce said.

Governor Charlie Baker is also said to be on board, already allocating $250,000 toward the project.

Public comment is open until August 7th, and a final proposal is expected to be submitted next month as well.

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