NEW BEDFORD — Eric Schwaab sat alone and quiet in the front row of New Bedford's Whaling Museum earlier this week.
The new head of the National Marine Fisheries Service did not so much as flinch as the movers and shakers of the New England fishery repeatedly described his agency as everything that is wrong with out-of-touch government bureaucracy.
Everyone from Congressman Barney Frank, Gov. Deval Patrick, Gloucester Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante to the Northeast Seafood Coalitions Vito Giacalone and owners of New England's scallop and groundfish fleet weighed in on behalf of New Bedford's and Gloucester's largest and most dominant industry — in New Bedford's case, a $241 million seafood landing port that could be cut in half if new NMFS regulations go into effect this spring.
It was billed as the "Northeast Fisheries Summit," and Schwaab, for the day, was as captive as a scallop in a dredge.
Of 17 scheduled panelists only one — Julie Wormser, New England ocean policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund — spoke in defense of NMFS' regulations.
The commercial fishing industry says NMFS regs — which will shift to a regulatory format that divides the fishery into cooperatives known as sectors — restrict their livelihood according to rigid and out-of-touch bylaws.
Schwaab, whom NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco recently chose over UMass Dartmouth's Dr. Brian Rothschild to head up the National Marine Fisheries Service, said he was all ears.
"There's no better way for me to get acclimated to this job — to appreciate the challenge we face — than to spend time listening," he said.
But then Schwaab, who worked for years in the state of Maryland Natural Resources department, told the gathering that they should "focus on the science."
Focusing on "the science," of course, is the cudgel with which NOAA bureaucrats have long browbeaten commercial fishermen, particularly in the big Northeast fisheries of Georges Banks and the Gulf of Maine.