Destination — Washington D.C.
Assignment — an act of Congress, redress of grievances.
Working title — "United We Fish."
The stakes are high. Most informed and reasoning stakeholders agree that the statutory and regulatory system is on its way to securing the sustainability of the nation's great fisheries, but at the cost of endangering thousands of fishermen's jobs and the economic vitality and cultural stability of the villages, towns and few cities in the Ocean Nation — the narrow sliver of American shoreline that rings the United States.
From Gloucester, the spiritual co-capital of Ocean Nation, Mayor Carolyn Kirk embarked by train yesterday afternoon for tomorrow's grass-roots rally of U.S. fishermen, her message honed to a sentence:
"We don't want this moment to be the end of the line for the Gloucester fisherman," Kirk said yesterday.
Richard Grachek, a commercial fisherman, is catching a train this morning out of New London, Conn.
Jim Hutchinson, managing director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which mobilized the demonstration, is leaving from Forest Hills, Queens, N.Y., by car this morning with two friends.
A bus chartered by the commercial fishermen of Point Judith, R.I., was set to swing through New Bedford in the predawn hours today before bee-lining to the Capitol.
And a commercial fishing couple, Mary Beth and John de Poutiloff, along with their 13-year-old child and two dogs, are driving down from Provincetown.
Vito Giacalone and a few members of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition are flying down for the mass demonstration at the U.S. Capitol, which is set for tomorrow at noon. The coalition is the region's leading trade organization.
"Our message in D.C. is that we have and are ending overfishing," said coalition executive director Jackie Odell. She said if Congress eliminates the arbitrary 10-year deadline for all stocks to be rebuilt at once — an unrealistic, unnatural goal, she said — the fishery and the fishing industry can prosper together.
Bill Lee, the one-time informal spokesman for colleagues in the commercial fleet of Cape Ann, was driving back to Washington from Florida where he was taking courses for nautical assessing, the career he chose once his fishing business was broken last year with penalties for technical paperwork violations, he has said.
Lee had made it to Cape Hatteras, N.C., by midday yesterday, and was confident he'd be at the U.S. Capitol by the Wednesday rally, which Jim Donofrio of the New Jersey-headquartered Recreational Fishing Alliance predicts will be "the most important day in fishing history."
A group of Florida spearfishermen, members of the Fishing Rights Alliance, have already flown in and were there yesterday, active in promoting the modification of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. The effort has united recreational anglers, charter fleets and commercial boats within the last great American industry to have managed to avoid the kind of investor-driven economic scale that has conglomerated family farming.
"Fifteen guys have been in meetings all day, and we're booked all day tomorrow," said FRA's Dennis O'Hern.
With the stocks responding to conservation programs, the fisheries, once at the brink of collapse, are pulsing with life once again.
The restoration, however, rings hollow to fishermen who have sacrificed catch and revenue during the long road back. Those who've held on during radical losses — fleet sizes down much as 50 percent in the past decade — are digging for a final struggle to remain at work.
At a meeting in Gloucester last week to shape the message, one talking point that emerged was that America — despite having a regulated fishery that is admired by the rest of the world for its rationality — imports 80 percent of its seafood, much of it from nations with dirty or anarchic fisheries.
The national rally tomorrow is the culmination of a growing industry movement to fight back against perceived over-regulation, heavy-handed enforcement, and regulatory changes that federal officials concede will eliminate industry jobs and small-business boats.
A few hundred fishermen rallied last October outside the East Coast headquarters of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester to denounce the policies and laws that are aimed at culling the fleet and concentrating fishing capacity.
Federal officials, however, did not miss a beat in the march to impose a radical industry reorganization engineered to supplant the old industry made of small boat businesses with a modern investor model.
The few hundred who rallied in Gloucester — along with another 300 who turned out to protest National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration enforcement tactics at Gloucester's City Hall and Fishermen's Memorial last summer — is expected to have grown tenfold for tomorrow's rally.
The event will feature U.S. Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Kristin Gillibrand of New York, Congressmen Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Walter Jones, R-N.C., Tim Bishop, R-N.Y., and other reform bill co-sponsors among the more than two dozen speakers — a starting point, but no more than that, even the fiercest advocates concede.
But one who will not be speaking is Eric C. Schwaab, who was second in charge at Maryland's state Department of Natural Resources until hired earlier this month by NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco to preside over the National Marine Fisheries Service — the No. 1 fishing job in the nation.
A request by NOAA officials that Schwaab be allowed to introduce himself to the national gathering of petitioners was rebuffed yesterday.
"It's not about conciliation — too bad," said Monica Allen, a public affairs specialist for NOAA, NMFS' parent agency. "Eric is going to go anyway."
"What I told Monica was that Eric and no one from NOAA can help us, and I don't want to see him booed off the stage," Donofrio said. "It's up to Congress to fix Magnuson. I also said that NOAA under this administration enforces all the arbitrary deadlines.
"This is our day — a day for all the collective fishing community to redress their grievances to Congress and not a day for NOAA to grandstand and make believe they can help us," said Donofrio, a lead organizer.
"I said that, if Eric wants to say he will work with Congress to reform Magnuson and rid the bill of all arbitrary and non-scientific deadlines, then he will be a welcome speaker."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.