GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

August 29, 2012

Fishery disaster call adds more steam

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — New York joined Massachusetts and two other New England states Tuesday in seeking a federal disaster declaration for the Northeast groundfishery whose commercial and recreational fleets, in rapid consolidation, are facing catch reductions of 45-73 percent next year based on preliminary estimates by government scientists.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. John Kerry’s office hinted late Monday that a regional disaster declaration is being drafted by the administration.

The radical catch cutbacks are driven by stock assessments, as mandated by the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, but the government’s science has drawn increasing skepticism. Last week, Mayors Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester and Jon Mitchell of New Bedford urged a freeze on catch limit reductions until confidence was restored in the assessment process.

In his filing for Massachusetts, Gov. Deval Patrick asked for $21 million, but there has been no estimate of the budget for a regional disaster.

Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine filed disaster requests six or more months ago, but have gotten no response, either from Jane Lubchenco at the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or the Department of Commerce, NOAA’s parent agency, and the silence has angered elected leaders of the filing states.

Considered a pivotal battleground state in the presidential election, New Hampshire has the nation’s shortest coastline and smallest commercial fleet. It numbered just 57 boats in 2009, before Lubchenco took office, demanding and getting an accelerated transformation of the Northeast groundfishery into a catch share system that has fueled consolidation and bipartisan congressional opposition.

Commercial landings in New York ports dropped from $1.5 million to less than $300,000 in the four years through 2010, NOAA’s data revealed, with most New York boats landing elsewhere. The value of landings by New York boats was off by about 50 percent to $1.1 million over the same period, according to NOAA’s data.

The added steam for a disaster aid declaration comes as, a week from today, the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford with a large number of co-plaintiffs will attempt to convince the First U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston that Lubchenco’s catch share regimen for the groundfishery was illegally imposed — finessing the statutorily required industry referendum before catching rights can be allocated to participants.

Sens. Kerry and Scott Brown, with Reps. John Tierney, Barney Frank and William Keating, wrote a letter of complaint to President Obama two weeks ago, asking why the administration has been willing to give disaster relief to agriculture producers, including catfish farmers, but not to groundfishermen.

On Monday, Kerry’s office provided reason for optimism that a positive response of some sort was finally in the works.

“The last two weeks, Sen.Kerry has been in near daily contact, not just in writing but by phone and in person, with the White House and the Commerce Department about the disaster declaration and a strategy to accompany it,” said Jodi Seth, Kerry’s spokeswoman. Seth also pointedly said Kerry was withholding judgment on whether Lubchenco should be fired, as Brown and Tierney have already urged.

At an Aug. 3 news conference in Boston, Kerry seemingly made quick approval of the disaster request filed by Gov. Deval Patrick last November a condition for his refusal to join Brown’s repeated demand that Lubchenco be ousted.

“If we don’t get a response at this point in time,” Kerry said at his news conference, “I’ll have comment on that.”

Asked Monday whether enough time had transpired without a disaster declaration to resolve his opinion on Lubchenco’s fitness to serve, Seth said that Kerry felt “it would be counterproductive to say anything that distracts from that intensive hands-on process until it is resolved very shortly.”

The New York State appeal for disaster relief was in the form of a letter by Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand and Congressman Timothy Bishop, whose district includes the fishing ports of Eastern Long Island. All are Democrats, as are Kerry, Tierney, Frank and Keating. Brown is a Republican.

The New York delegation wrote “to express strong support for a ... disaster declaration to be issued for Northeast fishing communities, including those in New York, after the New England Fishery Management Council’s Groundfish Committee released a preliminary report indicating catch limits for New England groundfish stocks could be drastically reduced by as much as 70 percent in 2013.

“It is vitally important that New York is included in any disaster declaration and that our fishing communities are provided with sufficient disaster assistance to stem the adverse economic effects of potentially devastating cuts to already reduced catch limits and years of restrictive management measures,” the lawmakers wrote. “While recent reports have focused on New England states, we must emphasize the harmful impact these potential reductions will have on New York.

“Many Long Island commercial groundfishermen have already been forced off the water or into other fisheries due to the federal Southern New England (SNE) winter flounder possession ban in 2009. Southern New England winter flounder landings represented 80 percent of all groundfish landings on Long Island in 2008 and constituted a multi-million dollar fishery to Long Island’s fishing communities,” Schumer, Gillibrand and Bishop wrote to Acting Commerce Secretary Roberta Blank.

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