Congressman Barney Frank says he will call an East Coast congressional caucus within two weeks to organize what he recognizes will be an uphill battle against environmental forces to create a more equal balance between the reconstruction of fish stocks and community interests.
"We have a reasonable chance, not quite 50-50," said Frank.
But he said the effort was justified because of the unrequired harm being done to the fishing communities along the Atlantic coast by regulators who misinterpret the legal principle imbedded in the Magnuson-Stevens Act to balance ecological with economic and sociological interests.
"We're reaching out to everyone," said Bruno Freitas, Frank's chief of staff. He said U.S. Sen. John Kerry and Congressman John Tierney of Salem, who represents Gloucester, "are on board."
Frank is one of about two dozen congressmen and senators who have signed on to the Flexibility in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act, filed in the U.S. House by Congressman Frank Pallone of New Jersey. The Senate version was filed by Charles Schumer of New York.
Their effort has attracted endorsements by more than 100 recreational and commercial fishing organizations and opposition from a phalanx of environmental groups and scientists led by the Pew Environment Group.
Earlier this year, Pew organized an Internet petition against any modification of Magnuson, and filed letters from 67 smaller environmental groups and 116 scientists with Congress in support of the rebuilding deadlines required by Magnuson.
Lew Crockett, Pew's director of fisheries policy, said he understood and shared the concerns about the economic impacts of Magnuson's requirements for rebuilding the overfished stocks. But, rather than weakening the law, he favored economic relief while moving to achieve the recovery of the fisheries.
A resident of Newton whose district includes New Bedford, Frank said he was moved to try to form a winning coalition to rewrite sections of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by the recent decision of regional fishery regulators to scale back harvests from the healthy scallop stock, crown jewel of the New England fishery.
Announcing his effort during a telephone interview Thursday with New Bedford radio station WBSM-AM, Frank said the New England Fishery Management Council's decision last month to cut back harvests of scallops was influenced by "some of the more rigid environmentalists."
Similar complaints about the council's setting conservative catch limits on groundfish have been expressed recently by industry leaders in Gloucester.
Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, said this week she worried that catch quotas could doom the effort to restructure the industry into voluntary cooperatives known as sectors.
"The effort is long overdue," said fishing industry attorney Steven Ouellette, who has estimated the groundfishing fleet has been denied access to as much as $500 million by unnecessarily conservative actions based on misreading Magnuson.
Frank said he would meet with members from "Maine to North Carolina" to discuss how to change the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act which added annual catch limits to required 10 year rebuilding plans for distressed stocks.
Together, according to Odell, those provisions in the hands of regulators unwilling to utilize the limited flexibility allowed to them by the law, have brought unnecessary restriction to the fishing industry.
Frank has questioned the rigidity of policies traced to Magnuson that hold to hard deadlines for the recovery of the stocks.
"Whether fish recover in seven, nine or 11 years, doesn't seem to me to be a moral issue," Frank said in an interview with the Times last month. "To them," he added, meaning Pew its allies, "it seems to be."
"Catch limits are just starting to take effect, so its premature to change the law," said Pew's Crockett. "Give it a chance to work.
"Our message is stay the course," he said. "We can predict what can happen if you give (regulators) additional flexibility."
Along with the 10-year rebuilding deadlines and the imposition of catch limits, added by the 2006 reauthorization, Magnuson-Stevens also contains National Standard 8, which requires regulators "provide for the sustained participation ... of communities; and to the extent practicable, minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities."
What this language requires has been bitterly argued in court and committee rooms.
Frank and his allies dispute the assertion of regulators that National Standard 8 goes not give them authority to flex timetables.
Regional fisheries administrator Patricia Kurkul met with fishermen during a two-hour protest at the regional offices of the National Marine Fisheries Service at Gloucester's Blackburn Industrial in October, but told them only Congress can change the statutory timetables for restoration of the stocks.
The Pallone and Schumer bills create specific justifications for lengthening rebuilding programs. Included among these are to "minimize the economic impacts on communities" so long as the stock is "on a positive rebuilding trend."
The preambles assert that "flexibility is needed so that rebuilding can be completed within a reasonable timeline that allows stocks to recover without making fishermen extinct."
Frank said the Pallone and Schumer bills were the basic model from which he would propose the caucus work.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or via e-mail at email@example.com