Accusing the Obama administration of paying no more than lip service to an economic crisis of its own making in the New England groundfishing industry, an alliance of Massachusetts' lawmakers Wednesday asked for the help of Congressional leaders to leverage responsive action.
A bipartisan group asked the Senate and House to link approval of part of the Obama administration's fisheries budget to a requested emergency order that would raise fishermen's catch limits and relieve a growing economic crisis at the coast.
Fishery scientists in Massachusetts have reported that two-thirds of the fleet has been deactivated by the low allocations that distributed in shares last May.
They also noted that profits from the new system were concentrated in a small number of winners' businesses.
Action on an omnibus budget bill — including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's $50 million request to help implement catch shares — is expected in the Senate before the end of the year. The bill has not yet been approved by the House.
The letter sent Wednesday by Sens. John Kerry and Scott Brown and Congressmen John Tierney, Barney Frank and Bill Delahunt to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made clear the administration had given no sign it is responding to research presented by the state showing that the new catch share policy for the New England groundfishery centered in Gloucester and New Bedford had created an economic crisis.
Kerry, Tierney, Frank and Delahunt are Democrats, Brown is a Republican.
After months of legal research and discussions, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke wrote to Gov. Deval Patrick on Oct. 14 concurring that the Magnsuson-Stevens Act gave him authority to issue "an emergency regulation to revise catch limits whenever there is both sufficient economic and sound scientific data" supporting the action.
Patrick and the delegation, however, have expressed surprise and disappointment that Locke had not responded to the filing of research generated by state and academic fisheries scientists — including Steve Cadrin of the University of Massachusetts and the federal fisheries science center at Woods Hole.
Despite all the talking, the letter said, the discussions "appear to have led to little more than speeches and broken promises."
Monica Allen, spokeswoman for federal fisheries, said Wednesday that the administration would respond "soon."
The economic crisis was predicted by the industry, which was brought under catch share policy principles last May by the federal fisheries regional office, based in Gloucester's Blackburn Industrial Park.
The policy was pushed hard by new NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco through the New England Fishery Management Council.
Lubchenco had previously served as board vice-chairwoman of the Environmental Defense Fund, the driving force behind catch shares, which allocate fishermen a "share" of a total allowable catch, but also encourages fishermen to buy, sell or trade shares among colleagues or with outside investors.
The effect in a number of markets to date has been having larger companies buy up the shares of smaller fishermen struggling under tight catch limits — a shift that consolidates control of the fisheries in far fewer but larger corporate hands and drives out smaller independent boats.
EDF and Lubchenco's ardor for catch shares is not shared by other conservation groups, including the Pew Environment Group, Ecotrust and Food & Water Watch.
New England fishermen, who anticipated and rued the consolidation, have found it's already destabilizing the groundfishing industry based in Gloucester, New Bedford and Point Judith, R.I., with inactive boats causing shore side businesses to shut down.
There are small pods of fishermen who are catch share advocates in the fleets of mid-coast Maine and Chatham, but they have been kept whole in part through environmental subsidies.
The research that went with Patrick's letter to Locke on Nov. 5 noted that the way catch shares were introduced into the groundfishery had cost an industry that had been worth $45 million a year $19 million in "foregone economic opportunities" and $21 million in "direct" losses.
The letter to Locke also said the crisis was traceable to "unnecessarily low and precautionary" catch limits for the groundfish stocks "without sufficient and adequate analyses or consideration of those (catch limits) on sustaining Northeast fishing communities, especially those in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."
Locke's lack of response to the governor's letter reflects what industry and political leaders see as a disconnect with the Obama administration over fisheries policy that dates to the Senate confirmation of Lubchenco in March 2009.
The frustrations reached a boiling point last spring and summer, when Lubchenco effectively refused to respond to written analyses of fisheries policy problems while the federal fisheries law enforcment system was being exposed as unprincipled and vindictive by the Commerce Department Inspector General.
Congressman Frank and New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang have charged that administration fishing policy has been inordinately influenced by environmental forces harboring anti-fishing agendas.
The cities of New Bedford and Gloucester, along with Frank and Tierney, who represent the co-capitals of the New England fishing industry, have filed suit in U.S. District Court against the entire catch share regulatory regimen, asserting that the program was an agenda-driven scam designed to drive out the small business owners and leaving the equity of the market to the biggest businesses and investors.
The case which has drawn plaintiffs from Maine to North Carolina is due to for a March hearing in federal court in Boston.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.