By Richard Gaines
---- — Gov. Deval Patrick has aimed lower than the state attorney general and more than 60 lawmakers had requested in seeking an 11th-hour reprieve for the groundfishery.
Instead of appealing to President Obama as Attorney General Martha Coakley and lawmakers had hoped, the governor asked the acting commerce secretary, Rebecca Blank, to “encourage” NOAA to reverse a legal position, explained in an undisclosed memorandum, and allow a second consecutive year of lesser catch reductions in Gulf of Maine cod than the 77 percent the agency is targeting now.
Cuts of that level for the fishing year beginning May 1, are widely feared to be the coup de grace for the Northeast groundfishing fleet, declared to represent a socio-economic industry disaster last September.
Asserting that he is governed by the confidential legal memo from NOAA General Counsel Lois Schiffer, NOAA’s Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator, John Bullard has said was close to publishing a binding administrative rule that would cut in shore cod landings by 77 percent, Georges Bank cod, yellowtail flounder by more than 60 percent and many other stocks by significant amounts.
Asked why the letter was sent to the acting commerce secretary and not the president, Reginald Zimmerman, a spokesman for the governor said in an email, “Secretary Blank ... is a member of the Obama administration.”
Patrick and Obama became friends as Harvard Law School students; Patrick was a co-chairman of the Obama re-election campaign.
Patrick wrote to Blank that he agreed with the New England Regional Fishery Management Council, a policy forming arm of NOAA, that the Magnuson-Stevens Act allowed the NOAA to implement a second consecutive year of much less extreme cuts by writing an interim action. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, which requires all fishery management plans to end overfishing, clearly allows one year interim actions that only reduces overfishing. It does not specify an allowance for a second or successive year, though it also does not preclude any such action, which industry officials and state and federal lawmakers have emphasize to no avail.
NOAA wrote a one-year interim plan for in shore cod for 2012 that limited the cut in landings to 22 percent. A second interim action would not necessarily hold to that magnitude of reduction.
Writing to the acting commerce secretary Monday, the governor was responding to a flurry of requests in recent days including from Attorney General Martha Coakley and more than 60 legislators to issue a direct appeal for President Obama and, in effect, look to overrule Schiffer, an appointee of former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco.
The April 4 letter from more than 60 state lawmakers — drafted by the Gloucester delegation, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante — emphasized the need for the president to intervene citing the lack of permanent top leadership at Commerce and NOAA.
The Cabinet agency has not had a Senate-confirmed secretary since last June, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the $5 billion sub-cabinet agency, has been leaderless since Lubchenco’s resignation, effective the end of February. It was on her watch that the Northeast groundfishery was placed under a new catch share management system that encourages commodity-like trading in fishermen’s quota shares.
The industry began an accelerated consolidation, as Lubchenco said she intended, and began weakening generally last year as the value of the catch shares slipped and catch limits were lowered in accord with stock surveys that showed the vitality of the stocks generally weaker than previously expected.
Gov. Patrick sought a disaster declaration in November 2011, which was quickly followed by parallel requests by the other coastal New England states’ governors and New York’s. But Blank did not grant the request until last September, and after the devastation if Hurricane Sandy, Congress has not provided any disaster assistance.
President Obama has remained mute on the subject, and his 2014 budget request for NOAA does not include disaster assistance. Acting U.S. Sen. William “Mo” Cowan Tuesday asked Kathleen Sullivan, NOAA’s acting administrator, if “there is a particular reason or rationale” for the decision not to include disaster assistance in the President’s 2014 budget for the Commerce Department.
Sullivan said the norm is not for the president to request disaster relief. But in response to Cowan’s followup question, she conceded there are not normal times.
The exchange took place during a NOAA budget hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard.
In a second letter Monday, this one to Republican Chairman Paul Ryan of the U.S. House Budget Committee and Democratic Chairwoman Patty Murray of the U.S. Senate Budget Committee, the governor asked them to include disaster aid in the federal budget for 2014, now beginning to wend its way through Congress.
A Senate-approved $150 million disaster assistance appropriation was dropped from a $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief bill at the end of the last Congress.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.