By Richard Gaines
---- — The day after Peter Shelley, senior counsel for Conservation Law Foundation, derided Attorney General Martha Coakley’s federal lawsuit to block NOAA’s tight new groundfish catch limits as political “soapbox” posturing, CLF and a litigation partner filed two lawsuits of their own against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The attorney general’s suit, filed and discussed last Thursday at a news conference with representatives of the commonwealth’s elected leadership including Gov. Deval Patrick, the congressional delegation and Gloucester’s legislators — state Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante —asks the courts to reject cutbacks in landings of prime stocks of more than 50 percent up to 78 percent for Gulf of Maine cod, the most essential stock to the nation’s oldest industry.
Yet in lawsuits filed with Earthjustice in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., the CLF suits aim to prevent the agency from allowing fishermen to add to their 2013 allocations up to 10 percent of their uncaught quotas from the previous year, and to begin working in areas that had been closed to commercial fishing for more than a decade.
In a lengthy interview, Shelley explained why he saw important distinctions between the litigation by the attorney general, to allow more fishing, and his own to prevent it for CLF, which was organized in Boston in 1966 and remains the region’s environmental nonprofit most closely tied to the state’s elites, associated over its history with legendary Brahmin families -- Sargents, Cabots and Saltonstalls. CLF’s $12 million in assets have been assembled with grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Boston Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, endowed with the profits of the Intel Corporation the family helped found
“It’s not hypocritical at all,” said Shelley, who criticized Coakley for interfering with the federal regulatory process.
“The distinction for me is that I have seen time and time again when politicians — in this case the attorney general — hasn’t participated in the (fisheries management) process, and then comes in to try to influence the process in litigation,” Shelley said. “They’re not taking a legal position, there’s not much there except politics.
“Our suits are not political,” he said. “They’re strictly based on the facts, and we do it as a last resort.”
Coakley’s office begged to differ Wednesday.
“Rather than resorting to false and personal accusations, our office chooses to argue on the facts,” Chris Loh, spokesman for Coakley’s office, said in a prepared statement. “The indisputable facts are that NOAA has a history of overzealous enforcement and their new regulations will be a death sentence to the fishing industry. Our motive is simple – to make sure the federal government does its job right instead of devastating our fishing industry.”
Shelley discounted as irrelevant that the attorney general’s suit was supported by Gov. Deval Patrick, whose designee sits on the New England Fishery Management Council, the policy advisory arm of NOAA which voted 16-1 against radical reductions in catch limits for groundfish in 2013. The sole dissenting vote was taken by NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard.
In the face of the otherwise unanimous appeal by the council, made up of ocean state representatives and at large appointees chosen from lists of gubernatorial candidates by the NOAA administrator through the Secretary of Commerce, Bullard refused to ease limits on landings.
Underpinning both the attorney general’s suit and CLF suits filed last Friday is the same fact — that the Northeast groundfishery was declared by the acting commerce secretary to have collapsed into a “disaster” eight months ago despite industry’s adherence to the government’s resource management.
“Confirming this dismal outlook, fishermen have been unable to find enough cod to even come close to filling their small quotas,” Shelley wrote on the CLF blog. “The fish just aren’t there any more.”
This line is also favored by the Pew Environment Group, but fishermen took more than 60 percent of their inshore cod quota last year, despite market and regulatory limitations inherent in the unique mix of stock allocations on each permit. Low allocations in any one stock will halt fishing in all stocks.
In the face of the crisis, the attorney general sued to challenge the legality of the extreme measures imposed in response, while Shelley’s CLF were moving to provide additional protection to the resources — opposing the decision of the council and NOAA to allow uncaught carryover and fishing in longtime closed areas. Shelley has not been shy in arguing that all fishing for cod should be stopped, a step that would threaten the survival of the industry.
Bullard described his decision to reduce landings by 78 percent as a sign of the arrival of a “day of reckoning”; Coakley and many within the industry argue that such a radical reduction is “a death penalty.”
Bullard has agreed to consider allowing fishermen into three closed areas so long as habitat and spawning are not degraded and use 10 percent of unused quota from last year, which is an existing policy in part to discourage fishermen from taking risky trips in bad weather at the end of the fishing year rather than leave part of their allocation in the sea.
Shelley, however, argues that the closed areas were essential to the rebuilding of the distressed stocks.
Many of the closures were established to reduce fishing mortality, and are “artifacts of the old effort control system,” the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition argued in an email to the Times. The system now operates on hard catch limits “making other mortality or effort controls — like certain closed areas — redundant.
“Many of the existing closures greatly hinder fishermen’s ability to access and harvest their available allocation,” the coalition said.
“Contrary to the Conservation Law Foundation’s imprudent lawsuit, areas fishermen could gain access to ... are conservative and would be limited to areas not defined as habitat closed areas and/or potential new habitat management areas being considered under the larger Habitat Omnibus Amendment.”
The fierce clash between CLF and the fishing industry which has come to typify an increasingly contentious relationship reflects a divorce of one-time long ago harmonious allies.
More than 30 years ago, CLF partnered with Gloucester fishing interests to sue the federal government successfully to bar oil drilling on Georges Bank.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, ext. 3464, or at email@example.com.