By Richard Gaines
It has been more than five months since Gov. Deval Patrick, backed by Sen. John Kerry and the state's heavily Democratic congressional delegation, approached the Obama administration to get a federal fisheries disaster declaration.
Notwithstanding NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco's assurance to the Senate Commerce Committee in October that "we can turn it around quickly," the governor's Nov. 15 filing has gone unanswered, with no explanation from Commerce Secretary John Bryson — or from Patrick, who agreed in February to co-chair President Obama's re-election campaign.
The state's request for the administration to recognize that transformation of the groundfishery into a catch shares quota trading system has become a government-issue economic calamity reputedly backed by two scientific studies. The first concluded that most of the groundfishing business hadn't broken even in the first year of Amendment 16, which contains the catch share framework; the other was a case study showing hardship concentrated in the smallest of owner-operated fishing boat businesses, spread throughout secondary ports between Gloucester and New Bedford.
Since then, the economic condition and prospects of the Northeast groundfishery have only worsened, with a dire Gulf of Maine cod assessment bringing on an interim 22 percent cut in the total allowable catch for the 2012 fishing cycle that begins on Tuesday, and discouraging updates of past assessments assuring widespread constrictions next year in catch limits for groundfish stocks in Georges Bank.
Combined with dramatic cuts in the coming year in Georges Bank yellowtail — a core stock and potential impediment as bycatch to scalloping, New Bedford's golden egg-laying goose — and even deeper and wider cod cuts expected in 2013, the industry finds itself propelled by government policy and science onto an accelerating downward cycle.
The three-day meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council that ended Thursday in Mystic, Conn., was a compendium of discouragement, according to Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region's largest non-profit industry group.
In an email from Mystic Thursday, Odell listed the impediments that have combined into a "resource disaster and fishery disaster."
"Georges Bank yellowtail has an 80 percent reduction in total allowable catch for 2012, and Gulf of Maine cod goes under an Interim Rule with a 22 percent reduction," she said.
"Between the 2012 reductions, the updated groundfish review (and) more substantial reductions in 2013, (at sea) monitoring costs to be paid for by fishermen in 2013, and all the protected resource issues from Sturgeon to Harbor Porpoise closures," she said, "there will be no fishery."
Without doing a stock assessment, NOAA has agreed with the Natural Resource Defense Council that Atlantic sturgeon is legally threatened in New England and endangered along the rest of the Atlantic coast. NOAA also announced a October-November shutdown for gillnetters due to elevated bycatch in harbor porpoises.
The hardships, Odell said, will be widespread.
"I spoke at length yesterday at the microphone for our small boat-gillnet fleet," Odell wrote. "And we also are gravely concerned about Georges Bank yellowtail and Gulf of Maine cod in 2012."
"(The) Obama oceans policy is to eliminate commercial fishing completely," said Richard Burgess, who owns a multi-boat gillfishing business in Gloucester. "He answers to the environmental groups, and Jane Lubchenco answers to him."
Bryson and Lubchenco did not respond to questions about the lack of response to the disaster declaration.
"We're all scratching our heads," said Brian Rothschild, academic scientist at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He and the state director of marine fisheries, Paul Diodati, co-signed the research papers that formed the basis of the disaster declaration.
"There's a general lack of responsiveness, not only congressional initiatives but to industry, too," he said.
Rothschild said the frustration was like fighting "a monolithic machine.
"This is worse than nothing in the sense that at a minimum you'd think there'd be recognition of the problem," he said.
"Our offices have inquired frequently on the status of our request," said Rick Sullivan, the state energy and environmental affairs secretary Rick Sullivan, said in an email to the Times, "While we recognize that the cod crisis has likely played a role in delaying the response, we are frustrated by the delay and look forward to receiving a response soon on this important matter."
"As you know," added Kerry's spokeswoman, Whitney Smith, "only the governor can apply for a disaster declaration ... and only the Administration can grant it. Senator Kerry has continued to make the case for why we need it, he's personally helped to get the state's data and application updated and improved, and he's been a persistent interlocutor."
Rep. John Tierney wrote with frustration to Bryson Tuesday to say he believed NOAA had jumped the gun on announcing the fishing limits to protect harbor porpoises, adding he found the action "particularly disappointing."
"I am frustrated that NOAA continues to refuse to acknowledge how their policies have left our fishing industry in dire straits," added Sen. Scott Brown, the only Republican in the delegation. "Their silence on the disaster declaration request speaks volumes about their priorities."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.