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The Globe and Mail

U.S. fishery disaster adds to drought woes

Pink salmon froth the water around Kodiak, Alaska's Buskin River weir, Sept. 11, 2012.

James Brooks/AP

With the declaration Thursday of a national fishery disaster, American food producers are now facing catastrophes on two fronts.

Severely low stocks of key groundfish species such as cod and flounder spurred the declaration by the Commerce Department, after a two-year campaign by members of the region's congressional delegation. The move clears the way for disaster aid to be allocated to coastal communities.

Fishery disasters were also declared in Alaska, because of low returns of Chinook salmon in some key regions, and Mississippi, where flooding in the spring of 2011 damaged some of the state's oyster and blue crab fisheries.

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At the same time, hot and dry conditions continue to plague large parts of the U.S. Plains and southern states as the worst U.S. drought in more than five decades expands its grip on some key farming states.

At least "moderate" levels of drought have now enveloped more than 64 per cent of the contiguous United States, up from 63.39 per cent the week before, according to the Drought Monitor, a weekly compilation of data gathered by federal and academic scientists.

"This is the greatest extent of drought we've seen all summer," said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist at the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. "The drought is easing in the east, but we're seeing more of it expand in the Central Plains, Rockies and Dakotas."

The drought has been exacerbated by long stretches of high temperatures.

"That has been the kicker all summer, how hot it has been," said Mr. Fuchs.

Kansas, in particular, remained almost entirely parched, with more than 60 per cent of the state in exceptional drought and more than 88 per cent in extreme drought.

Thursday's fishery disaster declaration is "a huge win" for the region's fishermen, said U.S. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democrat. "Our fishermen are the farmers of the sea and today our fishermen are facing exactly what farmers in the Midwest are facing – a drought," Mr. Kerry said. "They need our help to get through it."

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In a statement, acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce Rebecca Blank said she was "deeply concerned" about the potential impact to the northeast fishing industry of lower catch limits.

"Fishermen in the Northeast are facing financial hardships because of the unexpectedly slow rebuilding of fish stocks that have limited their ability to catch enough to make ends meet," Ms. Blank said.

Mr. Kerry and other Massachusetts lawmakers have requested $100-million (U.S.) in economic disaster assistance.

The crux of the problem for the fishing industry is that despite reduced catch limits in recent years, several key fish stocks in the formerly teeming waters of the Gulf of Maine and on the Georges Bank off the New England coast are not rebuilding, Ms. Blank said.

That will potentially force catch limits to be even lower for the 2013 fishing season, which starts May 1.

The Northeast Seafood Coalition, an industry group, welcomed Thursday's declaration but said regulations are still needed that better account for "natural cycles of complex ecosystems" rather than making fishermen what it said were scapegoats.

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