Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren has warned that federal fishery regulations, biased to favor the "largest fishing operations" or "fishing factories," can open the door to foreigners' taking over and depleting stocks once again.
But it is a statement that left fishing industry executives and analysts scratching their heads — and government officials shaking theirs as well.
"It's far fetched, so far fetched," said Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.
Describing Warren's comments as "pure and simple discrimination," fishing industry journalist and consultant Nils Stolpe said, "The interviewee has fallen into the 'good fishing vs. bad fishing trap that the anti-fishing groups have been so intent on making part of their mythology."
Giacalone, a Gloucester fisherman, and Stolpe, a New Jersey- and Florida-based researcher and columnist, were given transcripts of the Warren interview with all identifiers removed, and asked to comment. Their opinions mirror others gathered from industry sources.
International fisheries officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration debunked Warren's concern as virtually impossible to imagine, given the protective barriers to foreign corporate infiltration of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
Warren, one of five candidates seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Sen. Scott Brown, issued her critique and concerns about the fate of America's earliest commercial enterprise in a lengthy interview with Blue Mass Group.
The Democratic and left-leaning independent blog posted a transcript on Sunday hours after Brown appeared in Gloucester to call on President Obama to fire NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who has championed commodifying fisheries through the catch share management system that has engendered job loss and consolidation of fishing power.
Foreign vessels have been barred from routinely working in U.S. waters since 1976 by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Although the seminal law which committed the U.S. to restoring the stocks to sustainable levels allows foreign nations to work in the EEZ under international fisheries agreements, there have been none since 1990, and "interest in having such a thing has practically died," said Dean Swanson, chief of the international fisheries affairs division at NOAA.
The required condition, a finding of the presence of fish in excess of the needs of U.S. harvesters, is considered a virtual impossibility in the foreseeable future.
The other avenue into U.S. fisheries for foreigners is through highly regulated joint ventures requiring pre-approval, said Mi-Ae Kim, an international fisheries management specialist in NOAA's Office of International Affairs.
The Coast Guard is empowered to protect against stealth infiltration via U.S. flagged vessels, and NOAA requires certificates of documentation to fish within the EEZ which "may preclude foreign entities from getting too involved," Kim added.
Yet Warren told the Blue Mass Group, "if the fishing factories can come in from Norway or from Iceland and stay for seven days out in the waters, we can manage them to make sure they don't take out all the fish, that's fine. But they will bring nothing into our economy here in the United States. They'll take our resource, but they'll do it without spending one red cent here...
"The way the industry is set up right now, all those jobs are in the United States," she said.
The root problem, according to Warren's analysis, "is the rules, right now, have been written to favor the largest fishing operations, and they're really operations, those fishing factories."
Warren's commentary was the first she's offered on fisheries since entering the 2012 Senate campaign in September and taking a commanding lead over other Democrats in fund-raising and polling to become the challenger to Sen. Scott Brown.
The campaign of Alan Khazei, the consensus runner-up to Warren in a campaign still 11 months from a Democratic primary next September, announced Wednesday that he would be dropping out today.
In her first visit to the Gloucester waterfront two weeks ago, Warren demurred when asked about fisheries issues, saying she had much to learn from her mentors — Congressman Barney Frank and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, who accompanied her in her tour of the Intershell International Corp.
She said the same at Blue Mass Group before launching into a dissertation about how the fisheries' and the struggle of the small boats for a fair share of the opportunities "connects up to the heart of what I've been working on."
Ferrante said she agreed with Warren's analysis.
"It's in our best national interest to have a vibrant small boat fleet," Ferrante said in a telephone interview. "If we can't, somebody will come in to do it."
Frank, however, dismissed Warren's initial discussion of fisheries as the rough impression of a novice to the murky complexities of ocean regulatory law and politics, which Frank has mastered representing New Bedford, the nation's No. 1 port in landings value.
"Does she understand all the specifics, does she know all the details? No, she doesn't," Frank said in a telephone interview.
Frank has managed to remain simultaneously in the vanguard of the fishing industry's resistance to the federal regulatory regimen for the northeast, and — together with fellow Democrat John Tierney, who represents Gloucester, and Republicans Brown and Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina — has called for Lubchenco's replacement.
While mentoring Warren, Frank allied with Brown across party lines in many aspects of the fisheries' fight. Indeed, elected officials of both parties have managed to subordinate partisanship to the interests of fishing communities along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
"The Magnuson-Stevens Act has essentially removed foreign fishing operations from U.S. waters," said Brown spokesman John Donnelly. "Sen. Brown believes NOAA is where the problem lies. The new catch share policies that aren't based on sound science are crushing our small fishermen and killing jobs in Massachusetts."
Asked to amplify her Blue Mass Group commentary, Kyle Sullivan, Warren's spokesman said in a statement, "The fishing industry wants the opportunity to work. In order to do that, they need higher allocations to catch more fish and a system that treats them fairly.
"Elizabeth recognizes that Congressman Frank and Sen. Kerry have taken the industry's requests directly to the Administration. Time is of the essence, and if the industry does not receive help soon, then we will need a change in leadership.
"When Elizabeth was in Gloucester, she heard concerns about the effects of the catch shares program, including consolidation in the industry and worry about the system evolving to allow foreign corporate influence."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.