By Richard Gaines
New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang said Wednesday the notorious, disputed and belatedly clarified fishermen's letter to Congress and NOAA national and regional officials didn't help the cause toward needed changes.
But Lang urged the industry to step back and take stock of ways Congress can remedy the system.
"Why are people apprehensive?" he said in a telephone interview. "Let's get everyone together and talk through pursuing the move to reform NOAA.
He said the answer to his question is that people "don't know what comes next."
But, "If NOAA follows the law, something better will come out," added Lang, who has spearheaded a court challenge to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's system of groundfish regulations.
Signed by more than 100 fishermen, the letter sparked a debate now in its third week over vague accusations about "a few voices calling for the overturn of the entire sector system," and "the media" for amplifying the radical notions until elected officials tuned in.
Instead, the writers argued, they wanted stability and greater federal investment in the New England groundfishery, which is now operating under a catch share management system that has brought fleet consolidation that critics note is costing jobs across the region.
Meanwhile, two other letters surfaced on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The first — signed by 18 of the original signers, and crafted in the offices of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, but sent to Saving Seafood, the industry news website, by Frank Patania, a Boston fisherman — sought to clarify that the original letter did not intend to "champion a national catch share agenda, and it is simply wrong for anyone to suggest that it does."
That was a thinly-veiled slap at the Environmental Defense Fund and the Conservation Law Foundation, both of which blogged about the original letter in ways that left the perception that the original letter writers were expressing support for the catch share system.
"EDF spun the letter," said Gloucester fisherman Russell Sherman.
A member of a sector organized by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, Sherman has been outspoken in opposition to catch shares, but signed the original letter and the clarification.
The second letter, which was also released by Saving Seafood, added 10 names to the original letter ,and the same 10 fishermen, all from New Bedford, said they chose to sign "in light of the clarification letter."
Dated Nov. 14, the eve of the November meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council, the initial letter was signed by more than 100 fishermen, with a clear plurality based on Cape Cod.
The letter was emailed to Sen. John Kerry's office by Tom Dempsey, an officer of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, which is in a political alliance with myriad environmental non-government organizations that have received funding from foundations pushing catch shares. Most prominent among those are the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, rooted in Intel Corp., and the Walton Foundation, created by the family that founded Wal-Mart.
The hook association invented sector fishing, and has received foundation grants to continue the development of the system that receives catch shares into sectors. And numerous foundations fund EDF's campaign to expand catch share management.
"EDF staff continues to support managers and industry leaders in an increasingly broad and rapid transition to catch shares in many different New England fisheries," the Alex C. Walker Foundation notes on its website.
"We coordinate our policy change efforts with allies including the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman's Association, Oceana, Earth Justice, Conservation Law Foundation, the New England Aquarium, and The Nature Conservancy."
The fishermen's Tuesday clarification letter emphasized, however, that the original letter "was not meant to champion a national catch share agenda, and it is simply wrong for anyone to suggest that it does."
"What we do share in common," the new letter states, "(is) a financial dependence on the groundfish resource, and a full understanding that the only available alternative to the sector management system," a return to the days at sea system, "would bankrupt us all."
Tina Jackson, who has led the opposition to Amendment 16 on behalf of her organization, the American Association of Fishermen and Their Communities, said that perspective was doomed because the government would simply winnow down the fleet with smaller allocations until the industry was left with a handful of catch share winners splitting the riches.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.