By Richard Gaines
---- — A month before the fishing culture of the Northeast — running from Maine to New York but based here in Gloucester and New Bedford — faces severe constraints or immobilization by extreme limits on landings, the Obama White House Monday remained mute and continued to distance himself from the federally recognized “economic disaster” wrought in large part by the president’s own administration as efforts to provide relief go nowhere fast.
Most Massachusetts Democrats in Congress tick off letters written and legislation filed to relieve the crisis.
But most have blamed House Republicans for blocking a $150 million disaster relief package that was hurriedly glued to a $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief appropriation in the lame duck session last year.
At the same time, most Democrats refuse to acknowledge that Obama has never said a word about the need to help the fishermen who found themselves integrated — mostly against their will — into an industry re-engineered as a catch share and quota commodity market that has forced smaller independent boats to bow out of the business.
One exception has been Congressman John Tierney, whose 6th District includes Gloucester and all of Cape Ann.
“The administration has not been responsive enough to the plight of the families and businesses impacted by conditions in the fishing industry in the Northeast, and in Gloucester particularly,” Tierney said Monday in a prepared statement. “I have repeatedly pressed this matter and will continue to do so at every opportunity.
“While it is appreciated that the White House and the Department of Commerce did, at our request, issue the emergency declaration,” he added, “much more needs to be done, and we continue to seek a stronger involvement from the administration as we pursue strategies to resolve the critical issues facing our fishing community.”
For his part, Obama has continued to distance himself from the policies and their architect, the celebrated scientist Jane Lubchenco, who quietly stepped down as NOAA administrator at the end of February. The White House press office did not respond to a request for any statement issued evaluating or commemorating Lubchenco’s four years at NOAA on the president’s nomination.
Obama failed to acknowledge the disaster, propose or advocate for relief from the most extreme threat to the survival of the nation’s oldest industry.
Instead, White House spokesman Keith Maley sent the Times a copy of the letter by Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank to Gov. Deval Patrick, who had urged the disaster declaration months earlier, while noting the disaster was caused by the catch share program.
“This determination provides a basis for Congress to appropriate disaster relief funding...” Blank wrote on Sept. 12, a full 11 months after Patrick filed his request, which was followed by letters from the governors of New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York.
Most members of the congressional delegation freely condemned the House Republicans but went out of their way to avoid identifying or blaming the president by title or name for causing the disaster, delaying the decision to declare it as such or lend the authority of the office to the effort to provide relief.
But former Congressman Barney Frank, a Democrat, and former Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, saw a failure of Presidential leadership.
The most ardent defense of Obama’s performance on fisheries came from Rep. Ed Markey and Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
“President Obama’s administration declared a disaster,” wrote Markey in an email. “It was Republicans in Congress who refused to help.”
“I am disappointed that House Republicans have blocked disaster funding for our fishermen who are struggling during this difficult time,” said Warren, noting she had co-authored an amendment to the fiscal 2014 budget that would allow disaster relief so long as the funds were diverted from other sources to maintain budget neutrality.
Rep. Bill Keating, whose district includes Cape Cod and the ports of the the south side of Massachusetts Bay, faulted “our government” for the suffering of the fishermen whole interim Sen. William “Mo” Cowan, according to his spokesman, believes “the department (of Commerce, which includes NOAA) has done too little.”
But Frank, who retired after 32 years in Congress at the end of the last session, and Brown, who was beaten by Warren last November, laid the blame for the calamity of the fisheries at feet of the president.
The longtime unofficial head of the Atlantic fisheries caucus, Frank, described himself Monday as “disappointed” in the president, accusing him of showing “real indifference” to the plight of the fishermen. He traced the president’s penchant for indifference to the undo influence on Obama of environmentalists who are “insensitive to the working people of America.”
“Action speaks louder than words’ so does inaction,” said the Republican Brown, who is in private law practice and a contributor to Fox News.
Frank, Brown, Tierney and Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, all called for Obama to fire Lubchenco to no effect in the middle of Obama’s first term.
With support from Tierney and Frank, the House twice approved a Jones amendment to a budget resolution in 2011 that would have halted the expansion of catch share programs on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. But the economic planning experiment was never presented to Congress for its approval, and Lubchenco never mentioned her intention to make catch share the top priority of her tenure at NOAA during her confirmation hearing despite having helped write a policy paper for Obama during the transition urging him to adopt catch shares as national policy.
State Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, the Senate majority leader, said action to help the fishing industry required Obama’s embrace.
“Now is the time for the Obama Administration to demonstrate clearly that it cares as much about fishing families as it does about General Motors and AIG. There is a clear path to avoid socio-economic disaster in ports like Gloucester and New Bedford, and that path needs to be taken.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.