By Richard Gaines
---- — Nearly a month into a groundfishing year of crushing limitations — with cod landings off by 84 percent at Gloucester’s leading auction, and boat captains laying off family crew and selling homes to keep their boats afloat — Congressman John Tierney Wednesday expressed disappointment that the White House has “not done more” to help relieve the groundfishing industry disaster the administration acknowledged last September.
Tierney’s renewed push for aid comes with fishermen are taking desperate measures to avoid landing a year’s allocation of a single stock in a single tow, thereby forcing themselves off the water for the rest of the year, which just began May 1.
The allowable catch across the suite of most desired stocks were slashed by more than 50 percent.
Joe Orlando, captain of the mid-sized dragger Padre Pio and president of the 35-boat Gloucester trawl sector, was modifying his nets to keep them closer to the bottom as he shifts his fishing focus from the iconic cod and haddock to dabs -- smallest of the flatfish, which burrow in the sand and mud of the Gulf of Maine.
He and the rest of the day boat fishermen preparing for the bittersweet opening June 1 of hundreds of nautical miles of water that was closed to fishing through May.
In previous years, the opening of the closed areas was a joyous time for the fleet of day boats. But with cod landings reduced by 78 percent based on a confidential NOAA legal opinion, and other desirable stocks under unprecedented tight limits, the fish that can be taken from the newly opened water is severely constrained.
”You gotta be careful,” said Orlando. “I’ve got an allocation of only 1,600 pounds of haddock; I could do that in one day, and then I’m through.”
In a letter to President Obama’s chief of staff, Dennis R. McDonough, Tierney, the Salem Democrat whose district includes Gloucester, asked the White House to support his bill to fund disaster relief with one year of the designated revenue stream equal to 30 percent of tariffs on imported seafood — a figure estimated at $100 million.
The trade deficit in seafood surpassed the $10 billion mark last year and has been edging upward.
In New England, Chris Duffy, general manager of the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange, said imported seafood from Norway — caught and frozen at sea and flown into Boston within two days — have filled the void left by the draconian reduction in domestic cod landings. That also adds to the tariff revenue stream and is holding down prices in spite of the paucity of local landings.
A 1954 federal law securing 30 percent of seafood import tariffs for fisheries research, development and marketing over the decades has been eroded with the bulk of the funding diverted into the general operations budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by agreement between Presidential administrations, Congress and NOAA.
Tierney also asked that McDonough name a White House liaison to serve as the point person on fisheries-related issues with Congress.
Tierney is the second elected official from Massachusetts in recent days to appeal for White House attention on behalf of the destabilized industry.
On April 25, Gov. Deval Patrick asked Valerie Jarrett, special counsel to President Obama, for disaster relief funding and a legal ruling reversing a decision made by NOAA’s regional administrator John Bullard, whose ruling denied the inshore fleet centered here in Gloucester a second year of relief from extreme cutbacks in cod landings. In effect, Bullard’s ruling reduced access to Gulf of Maine cod, the lifeblood stock of the small boats, by 78 percent.
The ruling was essentially mandated by a confidential legal opinion from NOAA General Counsel Lois Schiffer. Bullard said he was required to deny the pleas of industry leaders, backed by members of the state congressional delegation, the New England Fishery Management Council and the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.
Industry advocates submitted legal arguments asserting that a second year of interim relief was legal, and would still reduce overfishing. But Jarrett turned a deaf ear to the governor; the White House did not respond to a series of queries from the Times for the thinking behind the decision of the White House to do nothing.
In his letter, Tierney pointedly complained that getting help for the fishing industry has been frustrated by the administration.
“Securing this funding has been challenging in the Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives,” Tierney wrote, “but I have been equally disappointed that the administration has not done more to support our efforts.”
Duffy said the Cape Ann Seafood Exchange last year sold 103,000 pounds of cod in May, the first month of the 2012 fishing year, which was constrained by a 22 percent cut in the allowable catch after NOAA agreed to set a precedent allowed by the Magnuson-Stevens Act and reduce rather than end overfishing, a legal term meaning mortality that kept the stock from theoretical maximum sustainable yield.
This year, in May, Duffy said the exchange projected to sell less than 20,000 pounds of cod — a drop of 84 percent —but he noted that prices, despite the extreme collapse of domestic supply, remained roughly level with last year’s, ranging from $4.48 a pound for large cod last year to $4.84 this year and from $2.19 a pound for “scrod” (small) cod last year to $2.21 this year.
Factors explaining the seeming anomaly, he said, were imports from Norway, caught, frozen and flown in within two days, and the questions about the ethics of eating domestic cod, given the drastic cutbacks ordered by Bullard and Schiffer, suggesting that eating domestic cod was contributing to an environmental catastrophe.
In addition, said Duffy, only high end restaurants can afford the price point of cod dishes, and others were defaulting to lesser priced fish and substituting frozen imports, leaving the boats with little cod in their portfolio of allocation, effectively forced to fish for lesser valued stocks while watching supermarkets and restaurants to switch to imported cod as the only viable way of offering what once was the fish that made Gloucester the world’s most famous fishing port in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“Plate cost is driving people in other directions,” said Duffy.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.