- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2004

BOSTON — A week after last month’s Nor’easter, the seas had finally calmed enough for Gloucester lobsterman Geoff Thomas to check the damage to his traps. He didn’t expect more than what winter normally dishes out.

Mr. Thomas quickly learned he was wrong. Buoys on traps that were supposed to be hundreds of feet apart had been bunched next to each other. Many traps were simply gone.

“When we finally got out there and saw what happened, it was total amazement,” Mr. Thomas said.

Mr. Thomas lost 250 of his 600 traps in the storm, which devastated lobstermen from Cape Cod Bay to the New Hampshire line.

Last week, those lobstermen became eligible for up to $1.5 million each in low-rate federal loans after the U.S. Small Business Administration declared the storm a disaster.

Fishermen began applying for the loans this week at SBA workshops in ports around the state. Some, however, were stymied by a requirement that the money be used for unpaid bills or operating expenses, but not “physical losses,” such as traps.

Bill Adler of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association said the storm damage was the worst since the “Perfect Storm” of 1991. The complications of getting a loan only push some fishermen closer to ruin, he said.

“The worst part about it is not being able to go to work,” Mr. Adler said. “They can’t do it if they don’t have the equipment.”

Lobster is the state’s second-most-valuable seafood: Its $56.7 million in revenue trailed only scallops in 2002, the most recent year statistics are available. But both the total catch and revenue have dropped since 2000, when lobstermen pulled in $67.5 million.

The Nor’easter, which hit between Dec. 6 and Dec. 8, was particularly hard on northern Massachusetts, where some coastal communities were pounded by waves and more than 30 inches of snow.

The rough water tumbled the traps along the ocean floor, balling them up in a tangled mess that either can’t be found, or are too heavy to be retrieved, Mr. Adler said. Other traps were knocked around and damaged beyond repair.

Mr. Adler added that because of an unusually late lobster season, caused by cool waters in early summer, more lobstermen than usual hadn’t pulled their traps by December. He estimated 400 of the 940 lobstermen in the area were fishing when the storm hit.

One Scituate fisherman reported that all 450 of his traps were damaged in the storm, according to numbers submitted to the SBA by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

A Plymouth fisherman said 600 of 700 traps were damaged. A Gloucester fisherman reported damage to 500 of his 750 traps.

The trap damage led to catch declines ranging from 40 percent to a total loss, compared with the previous December, according to MEMA figures.

Despite the damage, the state didn’t qualify for an SBA “physical disaster” declaration that would have given lobstermen loans to buy traps, said SBA spokeswoman Colleen Hiam. Instead, the lobstermen qualified for an “economic injury disaster,” which makes assistance available for operating expenses.

For an SBA physical disaster declaration, the state needed to show that at least 25 lobstermen in a single county lost 40 percent of their businesses’ value in the storm.

That would be a tall order considering that even a heavy loss of traps at $65 each wouldn’t approach that threshold for businesses with boats worth $100,000 to $200,000.

An SBA disaster declaration is different from a presidential disaster declaration, which is requested in cases where damage is more severe.

The presidential declaration makes many federal aid programs available, not just SBA loans.

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