GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 22, 2012

Fishing rally drawing new, united support

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The 2012 multi-coastal fishermen's rally in Washington, D.C. — now a month off, and two years down wake from the prototype that proved recreational and commercial interests could agree on the need for Congress to write some flexibility into the Magnuson-Stevens Act — is set for the same precise place focused on the same precise goal.

Only the ante has changed, said Jim Hutchinson Jr., managing director of the organizing Recreational Fishing Alliance.

"We are approaching an election, and they have not listened to us," said Hutchinson, whose group organized the 2010 "United We Fish" rally at Upper Senate Park, and has again taken the lead structuring an event already granted federal permits for noon on Wednesday, March 21.

As many as 5,000 attended the 2010 rally, and Hutchinson hopes and expects the upcoming reunion to be at least as large, with organizers on a steep learning curve.

This time, the website for the rally, keepfishermenfishing.com, features links to the bills of choice, bus schedule information from sites in Brooklyn, New York, New Jersey, North and South Carolina and Florida (so far) and "things to know" about the rally and getting around Washington, D.C.

Hutchinson said the permit also ensures that no counter rallies that could produce mischief will be allowed.

The agenda, said Hutchinson, is built around bipartisan legislation that is co-sponsored by Massachusetts Congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank that would remove the requirement for rigid deadlines for the rebuilding of overfished stock.

The cod crisis that has obsessed NOAA leaders and the New England groundfishing industry since late last year grew from a surprising 2011 stock assessment of Gulf of Maine cod that reversed an optimistic 3-year-old assessment by the same NOAA Science Center and effectively shattered expectations of achieving the 2014 deadline for completed stock reconstruction, Hutchinson noted.

The entire industry teeters on an assessment based on "questionable science," he added.

'Flexibility bill'

Filed by Congressman Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat, the Flexibility and Access in Rebuilding American Fisheries Act of 2011 would not only allow the extension of rebuilding timelines so long as the trajectory of the stock is positive and maintaining the fishery is warranted on socioeconomic grounds.

The bill, which has a companion in the Senate filed by Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and supported by Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, also compels the regional fishery councils' science and statistical committees to publish explanations of gaps in their data that affect the catch levels that Magnuson empowers the committees to set.

Another section of the "flexibility bill" reinforces what rally participants believe is the tilt in the interpretation of Magnuson by the administration away from the social and economic imperatives in the law — transforming it into a conservation statute rather than a balance between natural resource and human needs.

Hutchinson said the movement, sparked by the 2010 rally, accomplished what people thought "impossible" — getting a hearing for "flexibility" and a suite of 11 bills before the House Natural Resources Committee last year.

"Now we have to get the amendments out of committee and the Senate to pick up the similar bill," he said.

The focus on flexibility has finessed what has become a major fissure in the commercial industry over the administration's resolute commitment to commodifying the fisheries under a catch share management system that consolidates more catch quota and permits in the hands of fewer but bigger and better capitalized boats and businesses while smaller, independent boats and companies are forced out of the industry.

Gloucester participants

The Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition — which has adapted to the New England catch share system, for example — remains a bitter critic of the strict rebuilding timetable requirement in Magnuson.

The coalition's executive director, Jackie Odell, said she has been too distracted with the cod crisis to think about attending the rally, but added she was certain many Gloucester fishermen and members of the coalition's 12 regional sectors or catch share fishing cooperatives will be headed for D.C.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who attended the 2010 rally, said "in all likelihood," she would be back, but said she hadn't yet discussed the event with the Gloucester Fisheries Commission she revived and reappointed last year.

With contributions from recreational and commercial organizations that span all four coasts — Atlantic, Gulf, Pacific and Alaska, the organizers reported receipts of more than $17,000, enough to finance the rally and pay for outreach and marketing.

National unity

"The rally gives us an opportunity to be part of a national organization, which we need to be if we are going to make changes," said Bob Jones, the longtime executive director of the commercial Southeastern Fisheries Association. "The issues are the same as last time, no flexibility, no openness from NOAA leadership, just lip service, and a refusal to do more and better stock assessments. Instead, they put their money into catch shares."

NOAA could precede the March 21 rally with the announcement of an interim plan for managing the inshore New England cod catch for the 2012 fishing cycle, beginning May 1.

But buffering the hardship for one year, as the administration has signaled it was preparing to do, will only mean more extreme restrictions in catch limits in 2013 under the requirements of Magnuson as currently written, the same officials have acknowledged.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-238-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.