GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

May 3, 2013

NOAA report ignores 'disaster'

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — Without acknowledging the socio-economic disaster that has befallen the Northeast groundfishery, endangering the scale of the nation’s oldest fishery and the viability of small ports like Gloucester, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Thursday released its annual status of the stocks 2012 — proclaiming “significant continued progress to “end overfishing and rebuild fish stocks.”

In a 400-word cover message, the assistant administrator for fisheries, Samuel D. Rauch III, concentrated on the agency’s successes — noting that, of the 446 stocks managed by NOAA, 10 more were “no longer subject to overfishing,” the biomass of four other stocks have been rebuilt to the point that they are no longer considered overfished, and six other stocks were totally rebuilt.

Overfishing is defined as the taking of a share of the biomass that jeopardized its capacity to reproduce to maximum sustainable yield. The term “overfished” refers to a stock’s biomass and describes a stock’s biomass that is too small to produce maximum sustainable yield.

No longer subject to overfishing in the Northeast are southern New England /Mid-Atlantic windowpane flounder and yellowtail, while the windowpane and redfish are no longer overfished, the report states.

The status of the stocks was addressed to Congress which last month received President Obama’s $8.6 billion budget request for the Department of Commerce, the parent cabinet agency for NOAA.

The department’s budget in brief, submitted by outgoing acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank incorrectly asking for $5.447 million for NOAA — the agency meant to write $5.447 “billion” — notes the National Marine Fisheries Service budget request at $896.5 million.

NOAA’s budget, which has been in the billions for years, came under intense scrutiny by Congress last year in the wake of revelations that NOAA had made unauthorized shifts of $43.8 million, according to an internal investigation, from weather forecasting to bonuses and extensions to contractors, outlined in a report by MSNBC.

As the top fisheries official at NOAA, Rauch’s theme was one of unmodified progress — he contends the agency is doing well implementing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the overarching law governing the domestic fisheries — found in waters beyond the three-mile state limit out 200 miles.

The Magnuson Act, meanwhile, is up for reauthorization, and the first full-scale skirmish about changes are expected in a three-day conference in Washington, D.C. next week under the auspices of the eight fishery management councils, arms of NOAA assigned to formulate policy recommendations based on NOAA science.

“This report shows that fisheries management under the MSA (the Magnuson-Stevens Act) is working to address past overfishing problems and scientifically assess the status of the stocks,” Rauch wrote.

On Tuesday, John Bullard, NOAA’s Northeast regional administrator, announced unprecedented cuts in the allowable catch of cod and yellowtail flounder — all reducing the 2012 allocations of the stocks that are the lifeblood of the fleet by more than 60 percent of the 2012 allocations, leaving the Northeast groundfishery, made up of boats from Maine to New York’s Long Island, but centered here in Gloucester and New Bedford with an dark future.

Last September, the acting Commerce Secretary agreed with the socio-economic evidence supplied by Gov. Deval Patrick and the governors of the other Northeast groundfishery states and declared the fishery an “economic disaster.” But since then, one effort to generate financial relief for the industry died in the U.S. House at the end of the last session, and President Obama did not mention the Northeast groundfishery disaster in his budget request for the new fiscal year beginning in October.

A spokeswoman for Rauch said he did not mention the disaster in the status report because it covers only through 2011, notwithstanding the name of the report “Status of the Stocks 2012” and the repeated references to how well NOAA did in its mission to end overfishing.

“In 2012, we determined that 10 stocks are no longer subject to overfishing, four stocks are no longer overfished and six stocks have rebuilt, bringing the total number of stocks rebuilt stocks to 32 since 2000,” Rauch wrote in his cover message to the public and Congress. “These results show the clear benefit of science-based management in U.S. fisheries.”

He went on to say that “2012 is the first year that all federal fisheries operated under annual catch limits to end and prevent overfishing.”

The failure of precisely these tools were obvious as far back as late 2011, when a benchmark Gulf of Maine cod assessment contradicted a 2008 benchmark assessment which foretold of the imminent restoration of in shore cod to its desired biomass. Rauch was managing the cod crisis throughout 2011 and agreed to give the industry a year of fishing that did not end overfishing, but only reduced it. That concession still cut in-shore cod landings by 22 percent, and it is those limits that industry and Massachusetts political leaders have fought to extend for another year.

Instead, cuts in allowable landings of to 78 percent cut for Gulf of Maine cod went into effect for the new fishing year that began Wednesday – May 1 — with another two years under the same limits targeted to follow.

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