By Richard Gaines
Gov. Deval Patrick is set to file an "amicus" legal brief and join a major lawsuit by the cities of Gloucester, New Bedford and a wide array of fishing interests, challenging the legality of the new fishing regulatory system that — 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, with reports that more than half the boats have been idled while the few multi-boat businesses are enjoying unprecedented revenues.
The trading of shares of the government's reduced allocation has debilitated many of the less capitalized, independent fishing boat businesses, inducing them to sell permits or lease out their quota to stronger competitors.
According to reports from Gloucester and New Bedford, more than half the boats have been idled while the few, larger multi-boat businesses are enjoying virtually unprecedented revenue gains.
The lawsuit and a political struggle between the industry and its political allies and the Obama administration and its lead official on fisheries, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, has sparked bitter hostility between the port industries and anti-fishing environmental organizations.
Lubchenco is a former Pew fellow and served as vice chairwoman of the board with the Environmental Defense Fund prior to being named to the NOAA post in 2009.
Under increasing pressure from the Pew Environment Group to stay out of the fight, Patrick's office issued a brief statement to the Times Friday reiterating a previous promise to join the suit.
The lawsuit, drafted by attorneys in Gloucester and New Bedford on behalf of those cities and fishing industry interests, has already attracted "amicus" - or "friend of the court" — support from Congressmen Barney Frank and John Tierney as well as 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 Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
"Gov. 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 ... has been difficult for the Massachusetts fishing fleet, with a significant economic impact."
A letter from Peter Baker, manager of Pew Environment Group's New England Fisheries Campaign, had urged the governor to remain uncommitted to the lawsuit, which alleges that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration policies have, by design, displaced small boat owners and steered domination of the fishery to the biggest operations.
Baker's theme, under the Pew letterhead was: "Gov. Patrick: Don't Waste My Tax Dollars to the Detriment of Our Oceans."
His text said in part that "the governor does not seem to be paying attention to all Massachusetts fishermen, but just to the vocal ones out of the biggest ports of Gloucester and New Bedford.
"There are other fishermen from smaller ports who prefer the new approach," Baker said. "They believe that it affords them the possibility of making a living, which they were not able to do under the old system called days-at-sea. These fishermen are making sectors work for them."
Some of those "other fishermen" are representatives of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, which has made political alliances with — and drawn financial support from — Pew and the EDF. A contingent traveled to Washington last week to deliver a similar message to high-ranking NOAA officials.
Another small contingent of fishermen was flown by EDF to Washington last winter after up to 5,000 fishermen and families met outside the U.S. Capitol for a rally against NOAA's fisheries policy.
The anger of the protesters was directed at super-conservative catch limits and the "catch-and-trade" system, which critics are now calling the catch-share system. EDF, the prime backer of the catch-share system, was also a driving force behind the controversial "cap-and-trade" scheme aimed at air pollution.
Lubchenco walked into her NOAA post committed to implementing EDF's catch-share system.
Before her nomination, she was also a leader in the corner of the scientific community that sees commercial fishing as a threat to the ecosystem. She co-authored "Oceans of Abundance," a political policy paper released after the 2008 presidential election suggesting that, without dramatic conservation measures, jellyfish would inherit the oceans. Scientific data from NOAA and other sources, however, continues to show that many of the fish stocks, including staples of the New England fishery such, have been rebuilt.
Lubchenco has been the lightning rod for the schism between the industry and the administration — with key members of Obama's congressional support system in conflict with the president.
The alliance behind the fishing industry ranges from Maine Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins through Massachusetts' senators, Democrat John Kerry and Republican Scott Brown, to New York Sen. Charles Schumer, and into the House, through Frank, Tierney and North Carolina Republican Walter Jones, a conservative Republican who represents the fishing industry along the Outer Banks.
Last week, Lubchenco especially drew Jones' ire with a letter that denied the catch-share system had any role in destroying jobs, claiming the catch share format was simply a "tool" for reforming the fisheries.
The letter implicitly challenged the premise of an emergency order request filed by Gov. Patrick and others with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, asking him to use his authority to lift catch limits within the conservation standard to relieve a government-made economic crisis.
Locke has acknowledged he has the authority to issue such an order, but has not indicated what he will do. His staff is reportedly still studying the documents filed by a team of government and academic scientists organized by Patrick showing that unemployment has been spiking in the industry in the first six months of fishing under catch shares in New England.
Food and Water Watch Friday described Lubchenco's letter to Jones as "a shocking statement ... particularly since NOAA has already admitted that getting boats off of the water is the point of catch shares."
At the same time, the consumer group released to the Times a study it made in October of the 10 previously organized catch-share fisheries.
The organization found that participation in the fishing industry dropped by two-thirds as an immediate result of catch share consolidation, with 6,599 participating boats and fishermen in the 10 fisheries before catch shares, but just 2,441 afterward.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.