The federal government declared the Northeast groundfish fishery a disaster in 2012. But disaster arguably struck the region’s groundfishing fleet, particularly in Maine, long before that.

In 1982, there were 328 vessels from Maine actively fishing for groundfish. By 2012, the number had fallen to 63 vessels participating in the first true industry that took root in colonial America — fishing for cod, haddock, flounder, pollock, hake and other ocean bottom dwellers. In 2014, 52 Maine vessels held groundfish permits.

The disaster declaration paved the way for Congress to provide disaster aid, and Congress followed suit in February 2014, granting $32.8 million to New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.

But the funding the states have distributed so far has largely gone to those who have continued to land groundfish — not the dozens of vessels that have been forced out of the fishery, arguably those most affected by the fishery’s disastrous state. In Maine, 50 groundfish permit holders qualified for $32,500 each in disaster relief because they had caught at least 5,000 pounds of groundfish in at least one of the past four years.

In the coming weeks, Maine has a small opportunity to use its remaining disaster funds in a different way — to help set the groundfish fishery on a sustainable path for the future and make it a viable and affordable option for new and small players, including lobstermen looking to diversify beyond the booming crustacean.

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