By Richard Gaines
---- — Mayor Carolyn Kirk’s “bridge plan” for modernizing and retooling America’s oldest fishing port was never presented for comment or criticism to the city’s own Fisheries Commission she created to advise her on fisheries issues, or to the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest and most influential industry group.
”Individual elements were distributed,” said Harbor Planning Director Sarah Garcia in a telephone interview Thursday. “The final one was not sent out.”
The plan was cobbled together and released in a five-point proposal last Friday by harbor and waterfront activist Valerie Nelson and Garcia from ideas generated from a workshop they organized in April, attended by a cross section of industry stakeholders.
Nelson has also traveled to Washington to lobby for support for the plan which is a work in progress, according to the mayor.
With more than 250 members, the seafood coalition, founded in 2002, represents more than half the boats in the Northeast . And, through its registered lobbyist Glenn Delaney, has for many years been active in lobbying Congress, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its science policy advisory arm, the New England Fishery Management Council.
The recent organization of the Nelson-Garcia solutions workshop and subsequent lobbying effort behind the evolving proposal has befuddled and in some cases angered fishermen, the coalition and political leaders.
Among the ideas cited in the “bridge plan” that struck the industry and its allies as especially troublesome were these two:
To “retool the industry through investments in sustainable, innovative businesses”; and, to “shift from a high volume, low-value fisheries to a high-value, low-volume fisheries with a lighter economic footprint.”
Gloucester has been the primary port for landings of groundfish from the Northwest Atlantic since the 17th century, and due to the volume of fish landed by boats working Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, it remains the only port in the region that has refused to diversify and continues to process the bulk of landings from boats home ported in Maine and along Massachusetts Bay.
In 2011, the last year of published statistics, Gloucester landed 77 million pounds of fish with an ex-vessel value of $59 million, a figure with an economic impact multiplier of between 400-500 percent.
Environmental groups have demonized the fishing industry in Gloucester for its reliance on trawling — pulling nets along the bottom, held down by heavy doors, a process that is alleged to destroy bottom structure and in some circles is compared to “clear cutting” forests. Others, including many academic marine and NOAA scientists, insist that trawling — when done along sandy bottoms, where the practice is now limited — has no harmful impacts.
Critics of the mayor’s “bridge plan” expressed concern that it seems to concede that the Gloucester fishing tradition is no longer ecologically viable.
”It is imperative that we all get on the same page,” state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr. “We need to be careful that we do not forsake the present for the future.”
State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante said the approach taken by the mayor’s plan seemed to shift the focus from a continuing struggle over the statutory and regulatory system, which has commanded a more than 50 percent cut in landings for 2013 toward a reinvention of the Gloucester industry.
Ferrante added that the appointment last week of Cameron Kerry, general counsel for the Commerce Department to be interim Secretary of Commerce, creates an opportunity to reverse a ruling by NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard that he could not allow a second year of “interim” relief for the industry, a move that would provide significant relief to the fleet now suffocating with draconian catch limits. Cameron Kerry is Secretary of State and former U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s brother.
”Unfortunately,” said Ferrante, “now, when we should be focused on the interim rule, focus has shifted to an un-fully vetted plan to transition the industry rather than maintain it.”
The seafood coalition, the New England Fishery Management Council, the policy proposing arm of NOAA, and members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation all wrote to Bullard arguing that he could grant the industry a second year of interim relief on Gulf of Maine cod and other stocks that would vastly increase the opportunity for landings. Bullard cited an unreleased legal opinion from NOAA General Counsel Lois Schiffer as the legal basis for his decision to impose catch limits that would end overfishing rather than allow an interim action that would only reduce overfishing.
Gov. Deval Patrick last month also made a personal appeal to a top aide to President Obama for the White House to overrule Schiffer and grant the industry interim relief as well as disaster assistance. Nothing came of the effort, but Ferrante said the effort has not ended.
The bridge plan cites Kirk as the catalyst for the resistance to this policy and other that have resulted in the decision last September to declare the entire Northeast groundfishery had devolved into a socio-economic disaster.
The prepared statement outlining the transitional bridge plan indicates that “multiple stakeholders in Gloucester have come together under the leadership of Mayor Carolyn Kirk to formulate a comprehensive transition or bridge plan to navigate through this crisis.”
In fact, however, Kirk has navigated an independent path on fisheries. She did not attend a meeting of fishermen with newly installed U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren in February and decided against attending a meeting last Friday with state House Speaker Robert DeLeo and fishermen that was organized by Ferrante.
Former Mayor John Bell, who foresaw the hard future for the commercial fleet and to buffer the economic hard times helped organize the coalition and the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund, which was endowed with $12 million in mitigation funding from the state for the taking of fishing grounds just off shore for liquefied natural gas facilities, declined to comment directly on the bridge plan being advanced by Kirk, Garcia and Nelson.
But he said in an email that, “ if there is a time when all New England’s leadership needs to be listening and working together on behalf of our ground fishermen, it is now.”
Kirk, meanwhile, said “the plan is the result of the Solutions Workshop of a few weeks ago, when over 50 industry leaders and stakeholders came together.”
“We boiled the feedback down into one page which captured everything from immediate disaster relief to industry retooling,” she said. “We envision a future ground fish industry in Gloucester and will have to retool it ourselves. “The solutions workshop and resultant Bridge Plan is a first step in a very long road ahead for the industry.”
Garcia said the “bridge plan” was attached to the agenda for the May meeting of the Fisheries Commission.
“Many of the commission members had been at the workshop,” she said. “No one showed a need for further comment on the plan’s recommendations — to support the fleet, support the on-shore processors, improve the research, invest in diversified fishery, and undertake a truly collaborative effort to propose better management approaches.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.