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BOSTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Commerce Department on Thursday declared a national fishery disaster for the northeast United States as a result of severely low stocks of key groundfish species such as cod and flounder.
The declaration, which came after a two-year campaign by members of the region's congressional delegation, 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.
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," Blank said.
U.S. Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, a Democrat, termed the declaration "a huge win" for the region's fishermen, while Republican Scott Brown said he was "relieved" at the move "after two years of delay."
"Our fishermen are the farmers of the sea and today our fishermen are facing exactly what farmers in the Midwest are facing - a drought," Kerry said. "They need our help to get through it."
Kerry and other Massachusetts lawmakers have requested $100 million in economic disaster assistance.
If funds are appropriated, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will would work with federal lawmakers and state officials to develop plans to preserve coastal communities from Maine to New York.
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, Blank said.
That will potentially force catch limits to be even lower for the 2013 fishing season, which starts May 1.
In late July, a preliminary report from the New England Fishery Management Council said that 2013 quotas would probably be lowered "markedly."
The council said that cod and yellowtail flounder caught in the Georges Bank, located in the Atlantic Ocean east of Massachusetts' Cape Cod and south of Nova Scotia, would probably need to be reduced by an estimated 70 and 51 percent, respectively, in 2013.
The catch limits for other species, including haddock and American plaice, were also subject to sharp cuts.
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.
Editing by Cynthia Osterman