By Richard Gaines
The U.S. Department of Commerce has acknowledged hardships caused by new federal fisheries management policies, and promised Wednesday that Gloucester and New England's other main commercial fishing ports will be getting immediate special attention and assistance.
"Economic development assessment teams will deploy next month to conduct a two-day analysis of six Northeast fishing communities," the department said in an announcement posted on the agency's web site just after noon.
In addition to Gloucester, New Bedford, Portland, Maine, Point Judith, R.I., Montauk, N.Y. and Seabrook, N.H. were notified they were chosen to participate in the economic development consultations.
The announcement said that Commerce teams would conduct meetings with local leaders to help identify economic development challenges and opportunities facing local industries and communities.
Commerce Department spokeswoman Shannon Gilson said there have been "no pledges of any specific followup resources."
The announcement, however, partially meets benchmark actions for relief sought by Sen. John Kerry, who characterized the announcement as "a step in the right direction."
Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who was briefed by the agency, said Gloucester and the other ports were selected based on the economic hardships they are enduring in the implementation of Amendment 16.
Based on commodifying the previously common wild resources, that federal regulatory framework and its catch shares system is destabilizing port economies through a radical consolidation of fishing capacity into a comparative handful of well-capitalized businesses, while marginalizing the smaller players, according to a research study by academic and government scientists for Gov. Deval Patrick.
Compounding the troubles, the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute researchers wrote, are unnecessarily low catch limits set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which falls under the Commerce Department.
The governor's report was submitted to Locke, who, last October, had signaled a willingness to declare an economic disaster.
But in Jannary, Locke turned the state down flat, leading Rep. Barney Frank to complain that Locke was a weakling unable or unwilling to overrule underling ideologues pressing to constrain fishing.
"I appreciate the serious attempt by the Department of Commerce to work with distressed communities," Kirk said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "They will be taking a broad look at the economy and involve other regulatory sectors, including the Environmental Protection Agency."
Aside from fishing's economic impact on Gloucester, the city is fighting a preliminary order by EPA to vacate a longstanding waiver that exempted the city's regional sewer treatment plant from putting wastewater through secondary or biological treatment. The disputed expansion could cost as much as $60 million, and at least double sewer rates. Kirk contends the outlay would provide no environmental benefit.
"A holistic approach is what we need to bring in jobs and investment," she added.
Gloucester, New Bedford, and Pt. Judith have been centers of resistance to the commodification of the groundfishery, with fishermen's allocations pared radically from last year's harvest due to new statutory requirements for hard catch limits and deadline-driven completion of restoration of overfished stocks.
Kirk and New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang have also teamed to make their cities lead plaintiffs, along with dozens of coastal businesses from Maine to the Carolinas in a federal lawsuit challenging the system; they allege the regimen-writing process was biased in favor of politically connected fishing interests.
The Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, which modeled and helped promote the catch share system with its allies in the Environmental Defense Fund and Pew Environment Group, has been increasingly been leasing their quota for financial gain rather than using it to catch seafood.
The lawsuit, argued in U.S. District Court in Boston two weeks ago, helps make up a ring of external of political, legal and governmental and diplomatic events that frame Wednesday's announcement. These include President Obama's announcement earlier this month to nominate Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to be the next ambassador to China.
Locke's step into the diplomatic spotlight draws with it a contentious history in New England fishery management.
Although the administration's policies were forged at the Environmental Defense Fund — and in the office of NOAA administrator and former EDF officer Jane Lubchenco — Locke stepped in as a proxy for Lubchenco last summer after her stands sparked a national protest against federal fisheries policy and calls for her ouster from Frank and colleagues.
The fisheries' role brought Locke into conflict over the catch share program and the interpretation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act with the industry and its advocates — including Kerry, Gov. Patrick, Sen. Scott Brown as well as Reps. Frank and John Tierney of Massachusetts and Walter Jones of North Carolina.
Kerry met with Locke and Lubchenco at the start of the month; the aftermath was a letter from Kerry documenting the rough outlines of a proposed commitment to intercede and mitigate "the negative impacts that federal regulations are having on their communities."
Simultaneously, Kerry submitted testimony to a Senate subcommittee hearing on Obama fisheries policy, saying it has accelerated the growth of economic inequality.
"Due to an allocation schematic that left many of the fishermen with woefully small allocations making them unable to fish or afford to lease quota that would enable them to fish," Kerry wrote, "the bottom 90 percent of the fleet" was been weakened while "the top 10 percent" has grown stronger.
Kerry's meeting with Locke and Lubchenco came just days before Locke was designated for assignment to China — a nomination depends on support from the Senate Commerce Committee which Kerry chairs.
The announcement of the attention to fishing ports was unusual in that the action was not attributed to Locke, but to the Department of Commerce.
However the assistance might flow from the announcement by Commerce Wednesday, it bypasses the core conflict — the administration's refusal to recognize that the catch limits set by NOAA for the groundfishery were unnecessarily conservative, sending many active fishermen off the water, leaving control in the hands of the few better capitalized businesses, just as investment capital arrives and the fishery completes its recovery from decades of overfishing.
The bipartisan push back against Obama administration fisheries policies shifts to Washington, D.C. next Tuesday, with a meeting of New Bedford Mayor Lang's Ocean and Fisheries Council. In an e-mail blast, setting the date, Brian Rothschild, the University of Massachusetts fisheries scientist and industry champion, emphasized the breadth of the bipartisan political coalition behind the industry.
"As you know," Rothschild wrote, "Sen. Kerry (a Democrat) has made strong suggestions to reform NOAA. Sen. Brown (a Republican) has offered a bill to generate independent economic oversight of fishery management regulations. Congressmen Frank (a Democrat), stalwart as always, contributed in a material way to the reorganization of the U.S.-Canada fisheries understanding. The movement continues to grow," he said.
Rothschild also lauded Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, both New York Democrats, Kay Hagan, a North Carolina Democrat, and Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, for refiling legislation to write flexibility into the rigid requirements of the Magnuson Act.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.