GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 2, 2010

Fed lawmakers go over NOAA chief's head

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The request by 23 federal lawmakers to deliver higher, emergency catch allocations for the New England groundfishery was sent to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke over the head of — and without even a "cc" to — National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco.

And the disassociation was meant to be a message — a sign of growing frustration with Lubchenco, a number of sources have told the Times.

Harry Gural, press secretary for Congressman Barney Frank, a lead organizer of the letter, brushed aside the omission.

"NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce so there was no reason to cc it," Gural said in an e-mail. "Commerce is likely to have distributed it to those most involved with these issues."

However, unofficial sources told the Times the decision was intended to dramatize the writers' increasing disappointment with Lubchenco, a former board vice chairwoman with the Environmental Defense Fund — the chief promoter of the catch share system that was installed Saturday in modified form to govern the New England groundfishery.

One source with direct knowledge of the discussions about the direction of the letter said the decision to seek help for the fishing industry from Locke and overlook Lubchenco — who has been engaged in lengthy talks and written exchanges with Frank that he has found unproductive — was deliberate, and meant to express frustration with Lubchenco.

"It seems pretty obvious they're going over her head," said a second source close to Frank, who emphasized he was not privy to the precise reasoning for the letter's route.

Meeting May 12

The fishing news aggregator Saving Seafood last week reported that Locke had replied and agreed to meet on May 12 with the letter writers. In addition to Frank and local Congressman John Tierney, they include all eight senators from Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and New York, as well as other House members from those states with coastal constituencies.

The congressional letter noted that the new catch share system for New England, which went into operation last Saturday, comes with general allocations of some stocks so low — and based on dated research — that the industry was likely to reach the limit quickly, then be required to stop fishing for other stocks with much greater allocations.

The Conservation Law Foundation said it opposes approach taken by the federal lawmakers.

Peter Shelley, director of the CLF's advocacy center, said lawmakers should not be involved in micromanaging the fishery.

He described CLF as an "avid supporter of the council system of fishery management," referring to the eight councils created by the Magnuson Act to act as instruments of NOAA, including the New England Fishery Management Council. There are councils for each of the eight regions of the nation's waters, a 200-mile wide exclusive economic zone that begins at three miles from land. The first three miles are under control of the states.

'Undercutting' council?

"In our view," said Shelley in an e-mail answer to questions, "this sort of congressional action undercuts the council's jurisdiction and decision-making. The council hasn't asked for emergency action; the council hasn't asked to suspend or delay sectors; and I don't think that the Secretary of Commerce should — even if he has the power, which I question — supercede a properly enacted council fishery management plan."

Shelley went on to say such initiatives would set a "bad precedent" because it "disenfranchises the council and the fishermen and others who have participated in the council process."

EDF Ocean Policy Director Julie Wormser said the council and the National Marine Fisheries Service within NOAA is increasing catch limits wherever new data or flexibility within Magnuson allows. A new survey of pollock, the No. 1 "choke" species in the New England mixed groundfishery, is due in June.

"For the other stocks mentioned in the letter to Secretary Locke, increased investments in science are needed to speed up new stock assessments and safely increase catch limits without overfishing stocks," Wormser added. "It would be very helpful if Secretary Locke and Congress agreed to make those investments."

Early shutdown

The congressional letter, however, noted that the low allocations of pollock (25 percent of the catch last year), Gulf of Maine winter flounder (39 percent), southern New England yellowtail (62 percent), Gulf of Maine cod (85 percent) and Georges Bank yellowtail (86 percent) are expected to force the early close to the season, which began Saturday.

"Some fishermen have informed us that, last year, with a single pass of their trawl, they landed more of one species, pollock, than they were allocated for the entire 2010 fishing year," they wrote.

Charles Baker, a Republican candidate for governor, last week wrote to Locke adding his voice to those of the letter writers in support of emergency action.

New hard catch limits with deterrent penalties from the 2006 reauthorization of Magnuson require fishing to stop when the allocation is reached.

The "choke stock" problem, the lawmakers' letter noted, has continued to limit the industry to a small portion of the allowable total catch.

"In 2007 (the last year for which we have data)," the letter told Locke, "only 27 percent of the total allowable catch was harvested because of regulatory measure designed to protect the weakest stocks."

The congressional letter concluded that, without emergency action from Locke, "fishermen will yet again be forced to walk away from abundant species within the groundfishery leading to significant job loss and tens of even hundreds of millions of dollars in forfeited revenue."

Fruitless talks

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Frank, who drafted the letter, each have been engaged in talks with Lubchenco from the beginning of her term early last year.

Frank has undertaken personal diplomacy with Lubchenco with few if any results. At Lubchenco's confirmation hearing in January 2009, Snowe challenged her to fix the "dysfunctional" relationship between her agency and the New England industry.

If anything, relations have worsened, leading to a protest at NOAA's regional offices in Gloucester last October — where Lubchenco was hung in effigy — and the national "United We Fish" protest outside the U.S. Capitol in February.

The frustration the fishing industry and its advocates are having with Lubchenco is not shared by EDF, from where Lubchenco led the push for catch shares, the commodification of the fisheries to encourage consolidation and investor involvement.

EDF backing

EDF has applauded nearly every act by Lubchenco, who last year said she wanted to see a "sizeable fraction" of the boats removed from the fleet to make the New England groundfishery sustainable and the fishing economy stronger.

EDF's praise of Lubchenco began as she started her job. Wormser's EDF blog entry about Lubehenco's first foray to New England, to a council meeting last May, to pressure the council to approve catch shares without delay, stated:

"Not only was she in charge, but she gave the region an overwhelming sense of relief," Wormser wrote. "Hearing it directly from the highest leadership position in NOAA, everyone in the room knows that there is someone in charge who truly understands the problem with fisheries from a biological perspective and who has great sympathy for those who make a living at sea.

"Today, Jane Lubchenco rewrote the future of the groundfish fishery in New England. Her work set us all up in an excellent position to permanently transform New England's groundfish fishery from worst to first in the next few years," Wormser wrote.

"We are now focused on capitalizing on her explosive start as NOAA Administrator to take full advantage of her skilled leadership to speed the transition to catch shares for not only New England groundfish but the rest of this region's fisheries," she added. "What a glorious day."

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.