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February 19, 2009

NMFS TARGETS FISH AUCTION

Agency issues 'notice' of $335K in fines, 120-day shutdown

The National Marine Fisheries Service has renewed a longstanding and bitter legal campaign against the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction.

By letter dated last Friday, NMFS informed the Ciulla family that founded and owns the auction — an essential shoreside service for the commercial fishing fleet and the linchpin of the Gloucester's marine industrial economy — it was being fined $335,200 and its license suspended for 120 days for a variety of alleged violations of the fishery regulation act.

An earlier case that the Ciullas won in an administrative trial remains unsettled.

In addition to the alleged 59 counts against the auction, NMFS is also bringing under- and non-reporting charges against 24 fishing boats, primarily from Gloucester, but also Rockport, Manchester, Marblehead and Newburyport.

Andy Cohen, NMFS' regional law enforcement chief, declined to identify the boats yesterday because the charges had not been formally issued.

The case burst forth to the surprise of the Ciulla family — and permit-holding fishermen identified as the source of the allegedly illegal fish brokered by the auction — who received the letter Monday amid a growing schism between the regulators and the regulated.

In recent days, a federal judge in Boston has chastised NMFS for paying lip service to the interests of the fishing industry.

Judge Edward Harrington negated core elements of its regulatory scheme while hearing a case brought by the states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire against NMFS. "Administrative agencies," he wrote, "are expected to approach their work carefully and thoroughly."

On Wednesday, seven of the region's coastal states' U.S. senators challenged the regulatory direction of the agency, arguing that NMFS was "pushing the industry off a cliff."

"We will not permit NMFS to regulate our nation's first fishery out of existence," wrote Sens. Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry, Democrats of Massachusetts, Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, Republicans of Maine, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrats of Rhode Island, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to James Balsiger, NMFS' acting administrator.

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