A federal spending bill that passed the US House on Dec. 17 is being heralded by a bipartisan group of House members as a major victory for West Coast trawlers.
The provision secured in the legislation would forgive more than $10 million in accrued loan interest forced on the West Coast groundfishing fleet because of mismanagement by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the group said.
The bipartisan group said in a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Dec. 9 that NMFS had mishandled implementation of a $36 million buyback program in the wake of the West Coast groundfish fishery economic disaster of 2000. Thirty-six million dollars of that amount was provided in the form of a loan that remaining vessel owners agreed to repay over 30 years based on a percentage fee on ex-vessel revenues.
After the buyback was approved by the fishing industry, NMFS expended $36 million in loan proceeds to retire fishing vessels in late 2003 and interest began accruing on March 1, 2004.
However, the letter said, NMFS failed to implement a repayment system until September 2005 and during that 18-month delay, NMFS prohibited the remaining vessels from making loan repayments, adding $3.8 million in interest from the outset.
This oversight and the resulting compounding interest had led to the remaining vessels owing over $13 million more than they would have owed had repayment started immediately.
The letter was signed by Senators Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; and Kamala Harris, D-Calif.; along with Representatives Jared Huffman, D-Calif.; Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.; Greg Walden, R-Ore.; Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash.; Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., and Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore.
The legislation is part of a package expected to be passed by both the House and Senate in the third week of December and signed into law prior to Dec. 20 to avert a government shutdown.