Federal Fishing Agency Likened to Payday Lender

By Tom Bacon

An ill-managed federal loan program meant to stave off disaster in at the Washington and Oregon fishing industry is under attack by lawmakers of both states in both major parties.

A bill up for a hearing this week in the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee written by Washington Republican Jaime Herrera-Buetler has drawn a champion from across the aisle and across the Columbia River - Peter Defazio of Oregon.

The bill would essentially require the federal government to start all over on a loan program set up a decade ago in response to a west coast fishery disaster caused by too many fishermen and not enough fish.

In 2003, Congress authorized $36-million in the form of a loan to buy out 91 fishing vessels and 239 fishing permits for waters offshore from Washington, Oregon and California. The surviving fishermen were to repay the loan. But the way the program was handled, in DeFazio's view, made the National Marine Fisheries Services just like an unscrupulous payday lender.

The agency charged exorbitant interest rates and didn't even set up a repayment plan until nearly two years after the loan was granted. That had the effect, Herra-Buetler said, of running up the tab. More than $4-million of interest accrued before the remaining fleet could even begin to pay down the debt.

Her bill would require the agency to refinance the loans for fishermen who still depend on ground fish - that is, bottom dwellers such as halibut, cod and flatfish - at today's much lower interest rates, and it would cap the collection fee at three percent of a retired vessel's value, not five percent as the loan now demands.

House lawmakers heard support for the measure from Washington and Oregon port and fishing managers.
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