By Steve Urbon
NEW BEDFORD — The Northeast Fisheries Summit drew almost 300 people to this city yesterday, drawing a veritable "Who's Who" of the fishing industry.
And the vast majority of them gave the new NOAA fisheries director an earful about what they view as the coming crisis in the Northeast fishing industry.
Eric Schwaab, just three weeks into his job as national assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration, sat in the front row of the Whaling Museum's packed auditorium and heard one speaker after another assail his agency for its policies, its attitude, and its embattled law enforcement agency.
Representatives of all kinds of players in the fishing industry were encouraged to put their cards on the table, and they did, in 10-minute presentations that were sometimes angry, sometimes emotional.
It was an outpouring of frustration at a federal agency that many believe is trying to put them out of business when it isn't treating them like children or criminals.
The summit, organized by the University of Massachusetts and the mayor's office, followed on the heels of a Capitol Hill "United We Fish" protest in late February, an inspector general's report blasting fisheries law enforcement, and sworn congressional hearings last week in Gloucester and Washington, when word surfaced that, among other things, Dale Jones, NOAA's top law enforcement official, shredded documents while under investigation.
State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, drew applause when she announced, "I want to see the day when the agency respects the fishing industry."
Congressman Barney Frank, D-Newton, criticized NOAA and the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which he and many others believe needs amendment for being too rigid — and which he and a growing number of federal lawmakers are pushing to reform.
"The problem is that the basic law is wrong," he said.
Regulators today are sticking with current law, he said, the way people in medieval times believed the sun revolved around the Earth. While evidence mounted that the theory was wrong, but they kept making pained explanations, "but it was hard to maintain the theory."
"People don't like to give up on their theories," Frank said. But with Magnuson, "the fundamental basis is flawed. People have tried to put certainty where it doesn't belong."
Later, Gov. Deval Patrick, who hadn't heard the earlier comments, likewise assailed NOAA for ignoring this region's request in spring of 2009 that the science behind the fishing regulations be re-examined.
Maine fisherman Jimmy Odlin, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, joined those who accused NOAA of being "arrogant" by making policy based on flawed science — and, in doing so, harming fishing families and communities. He drew applause when he said that he is angry at the idea that "unsound science should be used to get people out of the business."
Bud Walsh, who actually helped write the original Magnuson Act, defended the idea that "sectors" management is necessary to the health of the industry. But he expressed surprise that the rules have become so complex.
"I have never seen such Byzantine regulations," he said. He suggested that the fishing industry adopt a corporate model to organize itself around the sectors and compete in the global market. But his suggestion was rejected by one participant who objected that such a move would remove all local control.
Again and again, participants returned to the concept of "catch shares" — segments of the overall catch that they will be allowed to land, based on their previous fishing experience.
As they have noted in other places, the catch shares are believed to be unreasonably small, don't provide for the "optimum yield" for fisheries, and threaten to stop fishing entirely as soon as the quota is reached for the most restricted fish, speakers said.
Meanwhile, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco continues to push for a national policy of "catch shares" while acknowledging the changes will mean further "consolidation" of the New England fleet.
The Magnuson-Stevens Act, meanwhile, calls for full rebuilding of all fish stocks at the same time — in 2014.
Gloucester's Vito Giacalone — who has developed most of New England's sectors as policy chief of the New England Seafood Coalition said, "the law demands at face value what we all know is unachievable."
Setting deadlines for fish population growth is "absolutely not attainable" he said. But the industry has no choice but to play along, he said, "because all resources are going clearly toward sector management," and away from "days at sea."
The forum's participants ranged from NMFS' Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator Patricia Kurkul to Seafood Coalition Executive Director Jackie Odell, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, and Environmental Defense Fund New England Ocean Policy Director Julie Wormser.
New Bedford boat owner Carlos Rafael, however, bluntly told fellow fishermen that, unless catch shares are postponed this spring, "50 percent of you will be out of business by August."
He suggested to enthusiastic applause that the National Marine Fisheries Service be cut in half when that happens — and the $150 million in savings could be used to start a boat buyback program.
Steve Urbon is senior correspondent of The Standard-Times of New Bedford.