By Richard Gaines
---- — Claiming his hands are tied legally, NOAA regional administrator John Bullard has rejected a nearly unanimous request by the New England Regional Fishery Management Council to give the inshore cod fishery centered on Gloucester a second year of interim relief from extreme cuts in landings.
But Massachusetts federal lawmakers — including Sens. John Kerry and Elizabeth Warren and Congressman John Tierney — disagree with his interpretation of the governing Magnuson-Stevens Act and are already calling on him to reconsider his stand.
Without the relief sought by the council — and first proposed by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition — catch limits on Gulf of Maine cod could be reduced by between 76.8 and 82.6 percent, delivering perhaps the coup de grace to the nation’s oldest fishery, which traces to 1623 when boats from Dorchester, England, began working the cod rich waters to the east of Gloucester.
The Northeast groundfishery was declared an economic “disaster” in September by Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, based on the socio-economics in the regional industry and on the prospects for the coming fishing year. Also, after the past Congress deleted $150 million from a Hurricane Sandy relief bill last month, no replacement legislation has been filed.
The interim action on Gulf of Maine cod for the 2012 fishing cycle, which ends April 30, reduced landing limits by 22 percent compared to the prior year, and the seafood coalition — later backed by the regional council — had hoped to extend that limit rate for another year, in part while questions are answered regarding the assessments.
But the interim action traces to language in the 2006 re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, and Bullard said that the law allows only one year of “interim” emergency action.
His letter, dated Thursday, also cites “advice” from NOAA’s general counsel — Lois Schiffer — and sets up a showdown with the council, which holds a three-day meeting next week in Portsmouth, N.H. and voted 16-1 in December to request a second year of interim relief for the inshore groundfishermen, mostly locally owned day boats in Gloucester and other ports from Maine to Cape Cod.
NOAA, technically the Secretary of Commerce, makes executive decisions based on council recommendations, so unless Bullard changes his mind, the year of relief for the inshore cod boats will come to an end on April 30 and for the three years beginning May 1 there will be very little allocation of cod for distribution. Bullard also rejected a request for an interim action that would negate a reduction in landings of inshore haddock by more than two thirds.
Meanwhile, lawmakers representing the state’s fishing communities Friday urged Bullard to “seriously reconsider” his stand to reject the regional council’s request and 16-1 vote.
Joined by Congressmen William Keating and Edward J. Markey, Kerry, Warren and Tierney, whose House district includes all of Cape Ann, said they “strongly support actions to mitigate the impact of looming reductions to the projected allowable harvest of groundfish in New England waters for the 2013 fishing season ...”
“We believe that this specific proposal is pursuant to Magnuson Stevens ..., which Congress intended to help prevent the collapse of fisheries while councils prepare and implement new rebuilding plans for fish stocks,” the lawmakers wrote.
“The Department of Commerce has already taken the unprecedented step of declaring an economic disaster for the groundfish fishery before the season has even started,” they added. “This decision demonstrates how dire the situation has become for New England’s fishermen, and foreshadows severe economic hardship for coastal communities unless we act...”
The Northeast Seafood Coalition, the Gloucester-based industry group which first signaled the perceived authority within Magnuson to extend the interim measures, also responded with a statement Friday reiterating its belief that the legal interpretation behind Bullard’s position is wrong.
“The Northeast Seafood Coalition strongly disagrees with the Agency’s interpretation,” the nonprofit said in an email to the Times. “NSC sees Magnuson law quite clear on the allowance and timing of interim measures and how this relates to (Gulf o Maine) cod and haddock in 2013. Interim Measures for fishing year 2013, as permitted by Magnuson, were an opportunity for the agency to adopt mitigating measures to partially address a portion of the impacts caused by the drastic reductions proposed for the Gulf of Maine.”
Explaining his decision, Bullard cited a section of the Magnuson Act that allows for “a temporary exception to the overarching requirement of the Magnuson-Stevens Act to end overfishng immediately in certain narrow circumstances during the development or revision of rebuilding plan,” but he wrote that the exception cannot extend for more than 266 days.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.