The crisis threatening the survival of Gloucester and other East Coast fishing communities — which have declined into officially declared disaster during the last four years — has not registered a blip during the 2012 national election campaign, even as voters go to the polls today.
Neither Mitt Romney nor President Obama has paid a whit’s attention to an $331 million industry, though Obama has given silent support to his team at NOAA Fisheries, headed by Jane Lubchenco, over calls for her ouster from several fedral lawmakers.
Here in Massachusetts, the epicenter of the conflict where the government has centered its regional offices and bipartisan political resistance is most intense, frustration is palpable.
A founder of the Northeast Seafood Coalition when he was Gloucester’s mayor in the previous decade, John Bell is not given to pessimism.
But “unfortunately,” he conceded Monday, “we haven’t seen a break in the culture of not caring about coastal communities; this has been typical over the years of many administrations.”
In close encounters with Gov. Romney, whose four years in the State House overlapped his six in City Hall, Bell said he found the future presidential nominee uninterested in fishing.
“He came down to a red tide event,” Bell recalled. “He looked at me and said I should be working on potholes, not fishing.”
And yet, President Obama, Bell also conceded, has also proved an intractable impediment to improving the lot of the small business entrepreneurs who work at great risk with small margins determined to maintain business independence.
“We have done a pretty good job in terms of proposing intelligent policy,” Bell observed. “Why we haven’t made it into the front door of the White House? I don’t know. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
The disaster, acknowledged in September by the acting commerce secretary, Roberta Blank, has the contours of the malaise of the general economy, with government-sanctioned consolidation and greater efficiency of operation at the expense of jobs. The result is that port communities — from Gloucester, New Bedford, Hampton, N.H. and Pt. Judith, R.I., through Montauk, N.Y., and New Jersey all the way to North Carolina’s Outer Banks — have come to feel shackled into a system imposed by central state planners under the subtle influence of conservationists and global investors.
A comprehensive critique of fisheries policy was written and delivered to a congressional subcommittee in March 2011 by Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Gloucester-based seafood coalition, the leading industry lobby with more than 300 fishermen members across the region.
He described an inflexible government agency that abandoned effort controls in favor of a pure allocation of the resource based on catch history. Fishermen who had been operating — buying and selling permits with days-at-sea currency to remain active — found themselves overnight transported into a parallel universe operating with an entirely new currency, based on their catch history .
“Many permit holders are locked into dire circumstances at no fault of their own,” Giacalone wrote.
The face of the Obama administration’s oceans policy, Lubchenco came to office aiming for consolidation.
“Dr. Lubchenco says the recent analysis suggests a significant fraction of the vessels will need to be removed to make the fishery sustainable and profitable,” her office wrote on April 10, 2009, in answer to questions from the Times.
She deigned to discuss fisheries with U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, leaving the now-retiring congressman so exasperated that, in 2010, he said Lubchenco’s attitude threatened his relationship with the White House.
That summer, Frank, whose district includes New Bedford, threw up his hands and said he would ask the White House to replace Lubchenco. He was joined by Congressman John Tierney and Sen. Scott Brown, along with Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican, and thousands of fishermen.
But the U.S. Senate campaign pitting Democrat Elizabeth Warren against Brown, and the 6th District congressional campaign, in which Republican Richard Tisei is taking on Democrat Tierney today, have found all parties agreeing on the need to help fishermen’s plight, with the sense of “me-too-ism” muting debate and inadvertently helping to keep the topic off the national radar.
Two other developments insured that Obama would not be asked to defend policies that were widely unpopular, considered akin to a hostile takeover, along the whole coast.
The first was the diplomatic protection provided by U.S. Sen. John Kerry. Massachusetts’ senior senator thanked the administration for the belated disaster declaration when it finally came nearly 10 months after the petition was filed by Gov. Deval Patrick, a co-chairman of the Obama re-election campaign.
The other development was Frank’s decision, announced at a national rally against administration fisheries policy by fishermen last March. As a retiring congressman, he declared his support for the president, but urged the crowd to make fisheries reform a litmus test for congressional candidates.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.