By Richard Gaines
WASHINGTON — New York Sen. Charles Schumer has pledged an all-out effort to get a hearing "this year" for his legislation make clear to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that rebuilding overfished stocks need not be forced into the 10-year window mandated by Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Schumer's pledge implicitly calls out Sen. John Kerry to make good on his support for the concept of flexibility.
The first speaker at Wednesday's "Keep Fishermen Fishing" rally, which drew 21 members of Congress in a bipartisan alliance that virtually as one called for adding "flexibility" to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, Schumer set the urgent tone and business-like theme of the rally event with his blunt and reasonable goal — to "begin hearings on Magnuson reform this year."
To do that, the New York Democrat — who said his "Uncle Al" introduced him to bluefishing in Brooklyn's Sheepshead Bay — promised to lobby "my colleagues on the Commerce Committee to put the bill up for a hearing ... because we need an open debate now."
Neither Schumer nor any of his five cosponsors, which include Sens. Scott Brown, a Massachusetts Republican, as well Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kay Hagen of North Carolina — all of whom spoke at the rally — are members of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Indeed, the only senator at the rally who serves on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is Kerry. He is the senior member, wielding influence up and down and across the aisle, a fact illustrated by the cosigners on legislation he recently introduced to re-establish the principle of a half century old law — to use seafood import fees to promote the domestic fishing industry.
Along with Brown, cosponsors of Kerry's bill are Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican who has announced her retirement at the end of this year. Rockefeller chairs the Commerce Committee. Neither he nor Snowe have signed onto Schumer's flexibility bill.
For his part, though not yet a co-sponsor or even an announced supporter, Kerry made no bones at the rally about his belief in the need for flexibility in administering the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Combined with other Magnuson requirements — including hard catch limits that went into effect this year and NOAA's chronic lack of faith in its own science, which adds layers of uncertainty onto shaky stock assessments that rolled back catch limits in waves — the domestic fishing industry found itself battened down in a perfect storm of regulatory controls.
In the only written remarks prepared for the rally, Brian Rothschild, the distinguished marine scientist from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, reported calculating that underfishing, rather than overfishing, was the clear model in play due to federal interpretations of Magnuson and the buffers to scientific uncertainty.
His research found "roughly 60 percent of the quota was actually landed," with 60,000 metric tons left uncaught due to the buffers to scientific and management uncertainty. That, he said, has produced an unnecessary contraction of the fishing economy by about $200 million at the dock, not counting the multiplier as the landings travel to consumption and other industrial uses.
Rothschild summarized his written remarks in brief comments as the rally was winding down after more than two hours in Upper Senate Park across the street from the Russell Senate Office Building that houses Kerry's offices.
About 1,500 attended, less than half of the estimated number that came together in 2010. But with new recruits, congressional participation was up by about one-third. One new speaker was Congressman William Keating, a Democrat who represents the South Shore and Cape Cod. The first-term representative and former district attorney said, "The road is clear — take the conflict of interest out" and put (funding) into science."
In testimony on March 8, 2011, before the Senate Commerce Committee, Vito Giacalone, policy director for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, presented a nearly 6,000-word critique of federal fisheries policies, at one point writing "that the agency (NOAA) makes excessively narrow and incorrect interpretations of your legislation, ignoring useful opportunities to apply flexibility where it exists throughout the MSA (Magnuson-Stevens Act) that have avoided necessary problems."
Giacalone attended the rally, representing Gloucester fishermen virtually by himself, due, he said, to the inviting weather for the fleet, the impending April 1 seasonal closing of rich inshore fishing grounds, as well as the paltry allocations made available by NOAA policies.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk, state Sen. Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann Margaret-Ferrante, all spoke at the rally.
"Magnuson was written," said Tarr, who has mentored Brown on fisheries issues, "to keep foreign trawlers from taking our fish, but today it is the U.S. government that is taking our fish."
Along with the calls for flexibility in Magnuson came calls for the removal from office of NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, with Congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney as well as U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, reiterating oft-made demands.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org.