By Richard Gaines
It has been nearly a year since America's fishing ports, building on a rally in Gloucester four months earlier, sent an estimated 5,000 people to Washington, D.C. to protest Obama administration fishing policies.
Since the Feb. 24, 2010 gathering at the north side of the Capitol dispersed in high spirits and hopes, there have been a small number of congressional hearings that have brought no profound changes.
But the hearings — and investigations through a federal Inspector General's office — have corroborated for many concern over the way that federal fisheries enforcement agents have used excessive tactics in penalizing fishermen and waterfront businesses.
And they have also galvanized fishing industry activists on three coasts to protest the alleged inside influence by major environmental organizations to carry out a national fishing policy that brings a further consolidation of independent fishing fleets, and encourages the buying, selling and trading of fishermen's catch shares in a policy that opens the door to outside corporate investment and, fishing activists argue, corporate control.
In the provinces since the Washington rally, intense political, legal and public struggles have erupted not only in New England, but along the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific coasts, where fishing allies have dug in against the Obama administration appointees and the Environmental Defense Fund, which has pushed its catch shares management system — and been propelled by enormous investments of the nation's best endowed and ambitious philanthropies.
Soon to be published research using public data bases found that EDF has received more than $30 million in grant funding to advance its catch share agenda, and that the big foundations have poured nearly a half billion dollars into myriad organizations over the past decade to influence government fisheries policy.
"The administration has put in place the most radical environmental people," said Sean McKeon, president of the North Carolina Fishermen's Association."
"My grievances with the current administration policies on fisheries begin with the appointment with a vice (chairwoman) of the Environmental Defense Fund to head NOAA, and then to allow the policies and agenda of EDF to be forced on the American public and fishermen," said Bob Zales II of Panama City, Fla.
Zales is president of the National Association of Charter Boat Operators and helped organize the Washington event.
On the surface, from port to port and coast to coast, some of the issues differ.
But invariably at the core of contention is the relentless push by environmental activists appointed by President Obama to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and convert fisheries management into the allocated catch shares under a controlled trading system.
Across all three fishing coasts, the vanguard of the crusade is EDF, which — in a 2005 memo obtained by the Times, bragged to a potential donor that it could carry out its economic policies from "the inside" through seats on the New England Fishery Management Council and elsewhere.
EDF's former board vice chairman, Jane Lubchenco, was Obama's choice to head NOAA in early 2009, and the organization is so closely associated with catch shares and NOAA's hierarchy that many in the fishing industry find their interests inseparable.
The next skirmish could come in St. Petersburg, Fla. An alliance of commercial and recreational interests in the Southeast has announced a protest rally against NOAA's policies. including catch shares.
Scheduled for Feb. 25, the event draws inspiration from — and falls a year and a day after — the national protest rally in D.C., which also targeted the conversion to the catch share system as well as the rigidity in the Magnuson-Stevens Act cited by federal officials as forcing them to reduce allocations.
Like the Washington protest, the upcoming event features the "I fish, I vote" theme while emphasizing the government's reliance of dubious science to justify closed seasons and constrain catch volumes.
EDF's $30 million backing
With a single-minded commitment to catch shares, EDF since 2005 has received more than $30 million in funding from three private philanthropies, according to a report of public databases set to be published by fisheries consultant and columnist Nils Stolpe, who made his research available to the Times.
Stople reports that the largest benefactor of EDF has been the Walton Foundation, which is tied to the global retailing and commodities giant Walmart and has given EDF more than $20 million in fishery-related grants.
In addition, EDF has received more than $9 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for catch share-related projects, and more than $1.5 million from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. In years before 2005, EDF received more than $3 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Together, the Walton, Moore and Packard foundations, with the Pew Charitable Trust, have made more n $480 million in grants to study and influence fisheries.
EDF officials did not respond to written questions from the Times regarding the grants.
In the meantime, EDF has pushed back against the fishermen's anti-catch share protests, organizing and financing small groups of fishermen to counter arguments that catch share systems and associated federal allocation decisions have sent fishing communities spiraling into economic decline.
EDF brought about 40 fishermen to Washington, D.C. for a work week of lobbying Congress in the days after last February's "United We Fish" protest, and packed a committee hearing room with a T-shirted team last spring to dispute the anti-catch share testimony of Brian Rothschild, the widely respected marine scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth who has noted the flawed science used to set NOAA's regulations and catch limits and stood as an ally of the fishing industry.
Enviro groups opposed, too
EDF, also the prime incubator of the so-called "cap and trade" economic policy, has also dawn opposition within the environmental community.
Among other environmental groups, Food and Water Watch and Ecotrust have been critical of catch share programs.
Food and Water Watch opposes what it says has amounted to the privatization of fisheries, and notes that in virtually all cases, commodification has caused equity and wealth to shift into larger, stronger corporate hands and away from the small, independent boats and businesses that populate ports like Gloucester.
Ecotrust, meanwhile, has issued a critique of "what amounts to the country's first wholesale privatization of a natural resource."
"This is like the rally in Washington," said Dave Campo, a co-organizer of the St. Petersburg event. "NMFS is way out of hand, We're reaching out all over, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Georgia.
"(As to) the catch share problem — EDF is trying to push this down our throats," he said. "EDF is behind the whole thing."
Food and Water Watch has published a study of the 10 U.S. catch share fisheries — through not including the new catch share regimen in the New England groundfishery — showing that just about 37 percent of the boats survived the transition.
And in North Carolina's four largest daily newspapers last November, the North Carolina Watermen's Association purchased large informational ads on catch shares.
"The message was simple," said association President Britt Shackleford, "Catch shares are no good. Every place they've been introduced, there's been a 30 percent reduction in the size of the fleet."
Shackleford's sentiment is widely reflected elsewhere.
A lawsuit filed by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford — with plaintiffs all along the coast from Maine to North Carolina — challenges the catch share regimen written by the New England Fishery Management Council.
In conjunction with that suit, the plaintiffs sought and were denied special rights to depose council and NOAA officials about the direct influence of EDF and allied environmental groups on the development of what Lubchenco has now deemed a national catch share policy.
But New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, who is in the midst of a legal struggle with the government for access to e-mails between EDF and government officials, has predicted the improper influences are so blatant they will come out anyway during the hearing.
Lang also draws support from Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk.
"The government hasn't broken the back of the commercial fishing industry yet," Kirk said. "We need to continue to show how big U.S. government is driving small business out of business with overbearing regulations, and zealous enforcement."
Meanwhile, on Feb. 3 in Key Largo, Fla,, according to the Miami Herald, fishermen gave federal officials a resounding "no" to catch shares.
"About the only attendees to speak in favor ... were members of a small crab fishery, and Eileen Dougherty of EDF," the paper reported.
And in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, a regional fishing organization and two locally based port organizations in California and Oregon filed suit against the catch share system that was years in the works.
Noting that the ownership of quota is not limited to "those actually fishing," warned Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen, "our next generation of fishing men and women will likely be seafaring sharecroppers forced to fish quotas held by processors, bankers and speculators."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.