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December 18, 2010

Governor backing fishing lawsuit despite Pew push to steer clear

Gov. Deval Patrick will file an "amicus" legal brief and join a major lawsuit by fishing interests that challenges the legality and constitutionality of the new fishing regulatory system based on tight landings limits and a "catch-share" format critics say opens the door to outside investors gaining too much control at the expense of smaller independent boats.

The catch share program has at least temporarily disrupted seaport economies all along the East Coast, as the trading in shares of the total allocation creates radical consolidation, with reports that more than half the boats have been idled while multi-boat businesses reel in unprecedented revenues.

Despite increasing pressure from the Pew Environment Group to stay out of the fight, Patrick's office issued a brief statement to the Times reiterating a previous promise to join the suit, which was drafted by attorneys in Gloucester and New Bedford on behalf of those cities and other industry backers.

The lawsuit, which openly challenges the way the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its regional councils now regulate the industry, has already attracted amicus — or "friend of the court" — support from Congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney and the Washington-based consumer group, Food and Water Watch.

"The governor does intend to file an amicus brief in the lawsuit," said Robert Keough, assistant secretary for communications and public affairs in the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

"Governor Patrick remains committed to finding a balance between conservation and economic viability in the regulation of ground fishing in Massachusetts," Keough said.

"In the context of strict catch limits, the transition to the catch shares system has been difficult for the Massachusetts fishing fleet, with a significant economic impact," Keough noted.

An e-mailed letter from Peter Baker, manager of Pew Environment Group's New England Fisheries Campaign, had urged the governor to remain uncommitted to the law suit, which alleges Obama administration fishing policies have intentionally displaced small boat owners and given the fishery to the biggest operations.

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