By Richard Gaines
---- — In drawing a distinction between a federal lawsuit filed by Attorney General Martha Coakley to halt NOAA’s draconian groundfish catch limits and federal lawsuits like one he filed against NOAA a day later for his Conservation Law Foundation, CLF’s senior counsel Peter Shelley said the action was not “hypocritical at all.”
Shelley said that Coakley’s suit was political, while CLF’s was substantive — challenging the new opening of areas closed to fishing and allowing fishermen to carry over 10 percent of their unused 2012 quote to the 2013 fishing year.
“Our suits are not political,” Shelley added. “They’re strictly based on the facts, and we do it as a last resort.”
Yet in 2001, during a lengthy oral dissertation at a professional conference in Phoenix, Shelley provided a detailed explanation for the political benefits of suing the federal government.
“... Litigation is newsworthy,” Shelley said, according to a transcript of his presentation. “Our objective is to build a political constituency for a healthy ocean.
“That is why the Conservation Law Foundation takes the positions it takes and does the advocacy work it does. That is why foundations support sustainable fishery management support groups like the CLF, and that is why we go to court,” he said. “We do not go to court just to win a motion or a case.
“... The only news outlets that cover (New England Regional Fishery Management) council meetings are the Commercial Fisheries News and the National Fisherman. Their coverage is pretty obscure, at a micro-level, and uninteresting to most people,” Shelley added. “Bringing a lawsuit, on the other hand, guarantees front-page headlines. That placement and exposure gives the conservation community an opportunity to explain to the American people, who are incredibly ignorant about the marine system, about what actually is going on in our oceans. Generating a newsworthy event gives us an opportunity to educate the public.”
Asked how he reconciled his claims to operate politically and yet non-politically, Shelley sent an email to the Times, saying:
“It is an important distinction that I think most people recognize,” he said. “‘Politics’ in terms of the position taking that professional politicians fancy and ‘politics’ in the sense of building a constituency for a public cause have very different underlying motivations and objectives.
“Vito Giacalone (a leader of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund and the Northeast Seafood Coalition) seeks to build a political constituency for the positions of the Northeast Seafood Coalition as does Bob Vanasse (executive director the news site savingseafood.org) for the seafood industry he tries to speak for,” Shelley continued.
“I would not and don’t think I have suggested that either of them are engaged in the same politics that I believe the attorney general was engaged in (May 30) at the (Boston) fish pier, or in her litigation, even though Vito at least was standing side-by-side,” Shelley said. “Our goal is public education, as is Vito’s or Bob’s (even if I disagree with the specifics from time to time).
“The attorney general’s statements, in my opinion, were not intended to educate the public at least to the specific facts behind (the catch limit decisions by NOAA that she was suing to stop) ... My 12-year-old statement was that litigation does produce front page news, and that exposure provides an opportunity to education and inform even with the Gloucester Daily Times,” he said.
“It is one of the oldest characteristics of ‘public interest litigation,’ whether you believe such litigation has value or not.”
Coakley’s office issued a statement in response to Shelley’s initial accusation of political litigation by the attorney general.
“Rather than resorting to false and personal accusations, our office chooses to argue on the facts,” said Chris Loh, Coakley’s communications director. “The indisputable facts are that NOAA has a history of overzealous enforcement and their new regulations will be a death sentence to the fishing industry.
“Our motive is simple,” Loh said — “to make sure the federal government does its job right instead of devastating our fishing industry.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.