lBOSTON — Attorney General Martha Coakley, state lawmakers, industry lawyers and representatives of the fishing industry took turns at a legislative subcommittee hearing Wednesday assailing federal fishery administrators and law enforcers for outdated science, and ill-conceived, improper, job-destructive policies and attitudes.
The catch share system promoted by NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco was a primary target of the witnesses — along with a corrupted law enforcement regime, Lubchenco herself and so-called green nonprofit groups that were said to share an anti-fishing agenda.
"None of us would need to be here if not for the top-to-bottom failings by the federal government to properly regulate our fishing industry here in Massachusetts," said Coakley, the first of seven witnesses — apart from lawmakers — to testify before the panel, the Subcommittee on Catch Share and Fisheries Management of the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
The hearing came a day after Republican Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire introduced legislation that would terminate any catch share systems that brought about unemployment of at least 15 percent of a fishery in the first year of its conversion to the commodity market system.
"As more and more jobs disappear from Massachusetts ports," Brown said in a statement released with the bill that was drafted in Ayotte's office, "congressional action is needed to save the fishing industry from overzealous federal regulation."
Opposition to Lubchenco has focused on her previous advocacy of catch shares while she was serving as official with the Environmental Defense Fund, and her single-minded focus on the hotly debated regimen, which has come to the New England groundfishery with a hyper-consolidating impact, as Lubchenco had predicted and expressed as a policy goal.
Three industry lawyers, two fishing business owners and a former fisherman — now a deckhand due in part to NOAA's faulty data collection and reporting — followed Coakley to the microphone, echoing and adding specifics to the statement by the state's attorney general.
One witness, attorney Paul Muniz, testified that he believes documents he'd sought from NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement in discovery while representing the now defunct Gloucester Seafood Display Auction had been shredded by Dale J. Jones Jr., then the director of law enforcement.
The discovery motion and shredding incident came in November 2009, and was brought to light by the Commerce Department inspector general, while Muniz's law firm, Burns and Levenson, was then defending the auction against a 59-count NOAA allegation that sought a 120-day shutdown and a fine or more than $300,000.
"My client went out of business this summer due to unpaid legal fees," added Muniz, who no longer represents the auction or the Ciulla family that owned and has now sold the business.
Jim Keding, cited by name by U.S. Sen. John Kerry as a victim of the federal regulatory system during a Senate Commerce Committee field hearing at the State House 10 days earlier, testified in detail about his undoing as a mom-and-pop fishing boat businessman. Although guiltless, Keding was induced to purchase a boat based on faulty data — a report by NOAA that the permit for the boat was considering was had a catch history worth 160,000 pounds of fish.
The report was wrong, and Keding discovered his permit was given only 17,000 pounds.
With NOAA transforming the New England groundfishery into a commodity market, and permits based on catch history, Keding was left with the equivalent of a $10 bill he had been led to believe was really a $1,000 note.
Keding thanked Kerry for personally intervening on his behalf, and Steve Welch, a colleague from Scituate, for giving him work.
"But I will never be able to get back into the business," he said. "NMFs (the National Marine Fisheries Service) has stripped me of every little bit of dignity."
Harriet Diedrickson, a scallop boat owner in New Bedford, released a chronology of the Lubchenco era, which began when President Obama selected her from academe and EDF.
Diedrickson noted to the subcommittee that Lubchenco got up and left the Senate committee hearing room last week just as Brian Rothschild, the marine scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth's School of Marine Science and Technology, got ready to speak.
He had been the first choice of Rep. Barney Frank to head NMFS, but Lubchenco chose to leave the position vacant for months when there were no other candidates. She instead settled on Eric Schwaab, who had little experience in marine fisheries.
Gloucester attorney Stephen Ouellette, testified along with Muniz and New Bedford attorney Pamela Lafreniere.
Ouellette, quoting from Rothschild's testimony last week to Kerry's hearing, said NOAA has settled on a willfully incorrect understanding of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that produces massive underfishing to the tune of perhaps $1.5 billion in economic activity.
He also said he believes that NOAA, stung by multiple investigations instigated by pressures generated from the Legislature — and instigated by Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, a member of the subcommittee — has begun a retaliatory phase that will include upping the ante on Magnuson-Stevens Act cases into the criminal realm.
"They're coming back at the fishery as hard as they can," said Ouellette.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.