By Richard Gaines
U.S. Sen. John Kerry has put his political weight behind the struggles of the fishing industry in its growing fight for relief from the regulatory, economic and law enforcement policies created and being carried out by the Obama administration.
Expressing disappointment and frustration at the lack of progress in a year's struggle dating to the Feb. 24, 2010, national fishermen's rally in Washington, D.C., Kerry announced plans organize a field hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee — somewhere in Massachusetts, and no later than April.
The hearing would gather testimony for comprehensive legislation aimed at modifying the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the landmark 1976 law that governs America's fisheries and is credited with achieving sustainable stocks and ending overfishing.
Kerry also made it clear Tuesday that he is bringing his concerns directly to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco in a private meeting to be scheduled.
"I've asked for a meeting with Secretary Locke and Administrator Lubchenco because I want them to hear firsthand just how badly these folks are hurting and talk about how together we can provide tangible relief," Kerry said in a statement to the Times.
"By calling for an accountability hearing and by filing comprehensive legislation which covers science, regulations, and enforcement," said state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, the Gloucester Democrat who attended a private strategy meeting with Kerry and about two dozen fishermen in New Bedford on Monday. "Sen. Kerry is using the powers of the Senate to corral a misguided and wayward agency.
Ferrante's work set in motion the pressures on Lubchenco that led to her ask Commerce Department IG Todd Zinser to investigate vindictive law enforcement actions against the fleet and shoreside businesses.
New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang described Kerry's attitude as "extremely disappointed in Locke and Lubchenco."
To break with Lubchenco marks not only a shift in position for Kerry, but a political division within his own household. His wife, Teresa Heinz, chairs a family foundation that honored Lubchenco a decade ago when she was at Oregon State University organizing anti-fishing forces into a global network doing foundation funded research.
Major foundations have put close to $500 million into the study of oceans and polices aimed at constraining fishing.
Kerry's deepening involvement in fisheries issues, however, showed in the aftermath of a 259-159 House vote early Saturday morning to cut off funding for any new NOAA catch share programs on the East and Gulf coasts.
The Senate has yet to take up the bipartisan catch share funding freeze — sponsored by Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who represents that state's Outer Banks, and co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Frank Pallone of New Jersey.
The first year of groundfishing after commodification of the stocks into tradeable catch shares has sent the New England ports spiralling downward as the number of active boats has dropped and control concentrated in a small number of bigger hands, which are leasing or buying shares from inactive or closed boat-businesses.
The 2004 Democratic Presidential nominee, Kerry is among President Obama's most important allies in the Senate and the Democratic Party. And the Heinz Family Foundation — chaired by Kerry's wife, Teresa, an environmental philanthropist — bestowed a $250,000 prize on Lubchenco a decade earlier.
Heinz created the foundation to honor her late husband, Sen. John Heinz III of Pennsylvania, who was killed in a helicopter crash. She and Kerry met at an Earth Day rally.
Although Kerry has made common purpose with industry's struggle for law enforcement and economic relief, he has held back while other members of the delegation, notably Reps. Barney Frank, John Tierney and Sen. Scott Brown — as well as Gov. Deval Patrick, who is a personal friend of the president — have denounced administration fisheries policies.
Frank, Tierney and Jones all urged the president to sack Lubchenco last year. And although Frank pulled back from that demand just days later, Tierney and Jones never have, while Patrick and Brown joined them in condemning the Locke and Lubchenco for rejecting a formal request for economic and regulatory relief. That request was backed by report by academic scientists showing the catch share system was rendering the economies of the fishing ports into crisis.
Notably out of step at the time with his colleagues who appeared at last February's "United We Fish" rally in Washington, Kerry raised eyebrows within the industry by appealing to protesters in private meetings to keep an open mind regarding Lubchenco, whom he described to fishermen as "your friend."
Kerry's younger brother, Cameron, is chief counsel at the Department of Commerce, and appeared with Lubchenco last summer at a tightly choreographed "summit conference" on law enforcement problems in NOAA.
The event was called after the inspector general published volumes documenting how the federal fisheries police force and litigators had squeezed millions from fishermen via exaggerated fines for minor or technical violations, used as much as $50 million from the Asset Forfeiture Fund to finance operations and purchase 200 vehicles for 179 agents, a luxury boat used for fishing trips, and overseas travel to exotic destinations for conferences unrelated to cases.
A letter from Inspector General Todd Zinser to Lubchenco last April told the NOAA chief that former fisheries police chief Dale J. Jones and his hierarchy shredded the vast majority of documents in his office in the fall of 2009 during the investigation. And, according to the letter — which was leaked to the Times and CBS — the documents destroyed could have been relevant to the investigation.
Yet no NOAA personnel have been brought up on charges or otherwise penalized for their actions.
Only last week, CBS news quoted Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, as saying, "I want to make sure heads roll" in the wake of the revelations.
Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, said Tuesday his organization "is very pleased that Sen. Kerry is finally looking at addressing the deficiencies and arbitrary deadlines in Magnuson that are keeping both recreational and commercial fishermen from accessing healthy stocks of fish.
"With the senator's leadership and experience ," he added, "he could take this reform to where it needs to go without jeopardizing real conservation and sustainability."
House and Senate bills to modify the Magnuson Act, which became the unifying goal of the mass rally last February, have now expired, officials said Tuesday. That leaves a vacuum to be filled as the industry reloads, notably in the surprise success and 100-vote margin for the Jones amendment to stop Lubchenco's single-minded push to install catch share systems across the nation's fisheries.
Catch shares were promoted most heavily by the Environmental Defense Fund, whose directors in recent years have included Sam Walton of Walmart, Louis Raineri, the investment banker and former vice chairman at Salomon Brothers, and Teresa Heinz.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-28307000, x3464, or at email@example.com.