By Richard Gaines
---- — A group of more than 60 state lawmakers, including many with districts far from the sea, asked Gov. Deval Patrick Thursday to appeal directly to President Obama, his personal friend from their Chicago days, to grant emergency relief from impending cutbacks in commercial fishery landings widely feared to render the commercial fishing industry “non-viable.”
The letter was drafted and circulated for supporting signatures by Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, both of Gloucester
The letter to Patrick asserted that the Magnuson-Stevens Act allows “interim actions” such as those proposed and emphasized that they “would still reduce catch and mortality rates but would not devastate the industry.”
The letter thanked Patrick for initiating the request for a formal declaration that the Northeast groundfishery, centered in Gloucester and New Bedford but extending from Maine to New York State, had failed.
Such a legal finding was made in writing in September by Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, but a $150 million disaster relief appropriation was killed in the House at the tail end of the lame duck session of the 112th Congress. The disaster declaration request from Patrick had been made 11 months earlier, and was followed by similar pleas from the governors of Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York.
The Massachusetts state senators and representatives said Thursday that presidential intervention is appropriate and required due to the vacancies at the top of the Commerce Department and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Commerce has not had a permanent secretary since June 2012 when John Bryson resigned, and NOAA has been without an administrator, a sub-cabinet position requiring Senate confirmation, since Jane Lubchenco’s departure at the end of February.
The letter to the governor follows by three days a letter by 24 lawmakers, including Senate President Therese Murray, to NOAA’s acting administrator for fisheries, Samuel D. Rauch III, urging him to delay the drastic cuts allocations of enough stocks within the groundfish complex — notably 77 percent in Gulf of Maine cod — to avoid immobilizing if not decimating the remaining participants in the Gloucester and Northeast fleet, now about 300 mostly small day boats.
“The path to avoid the complete collapse of the New England groundfishery and widespread socio-economic devastation is clear, and it comes in the form of an interim action to replace the drastic cuts in allowable catch planned for May 1,” Tarr said Thursday in an email to the Times. “The Magnuson Act authorizes it, the science justifies it, and the crisis we face demands it.”
President Obama has kept a stony silence in the face of the growing crisis once he appointed Lubchenco to administer the nation’s oceans and fisheries. And he failed to respond to requests for her dismissal from Reps. Barney Frank, John Tierney, Walter Jones and Sen. Scott Brown. Frank, now retired, and Tierney, whose district includes Gloucester, are Democrats. Jones, who represents the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and Brown, defeated last November by Democrat Elizabeth Warren, are Republicans.
The fisheries have, throughout the decades, generated bipartisan advocacy, dating to the Saltonstall-Kennedy Act of 1954, which created a dedicated revenue stream for fisheries marketing, research and development. But over the years, that money — about $100 million a year in recent times — has been diverted into NOAA’s operating budget. Massachusetts Sen. Leverett Saltonstall was a Republican; John F. Kennedy, the co-sponsor, would become president in 1961.
The letter to Gov. Patrick emphasized that, with both offices — commerce secretary and NOAA administrator — now empty, the advocates of the industry had little choice but to appeal to the White House.
“Moreover,” they wrote, “given the inconsistencies in NOAA’s data which has shown stocks being rebuilt and in collapse with fishing year and given our inability to have meaningful communications with the director of NOAA and the secretary of Commerce ... we are appealing to you to contact the president directly with this request:
‘To direct the acting secretary of Commerce to approve and implement the request for interim measures submitted by the New England Fishery Management Council to NOAA on Dec. 28, 2012 , as this is necessary to prevent the collapse of the Massachusetts groundsheet fishery and dependent communities such as Gloucester, New Bedford, the Massachusetts South Shore and Cape Cod.’”
The letter added that “presidents such as President Bill Clinton have used this executive authority before on behalf of the New England states to use the flexibility” in the Magnuson Act “to find balance between rebuilding fish stocks and preserving fishing communities when the agency failed to do so.”
Rauch authorized a one year interim catch limit on Gulf of Maine cod for the 2012 fishing cycle, which ends April 30, and instead of ending overfishing, reduced it, minimizing the reduction in the size of the in shore cod catch from the 77 percent level to 22 percent, but NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard refused to authorize a second year of interim action, describing his decision as legally correct and environmentally compelling.
However, since the council voted in January to institute the 77 percent cut in Gulf of Maine cod landings and 53 percent cuts in Gulf of Maine yellowtail — a stock widely reported in high concentrations filling trawl nets quickly in recent weeks —Bullard has not announced the draft catch limits to take effect May 1.
The letter to Gov. Patrick outlined what the writers described as a “compelling case” for interim action to save the fleet and the economy of Massachusetts as much as $2 billion and 80,000 jobs.
“The interim measure being sought would still reduce catch and mortality rates but would not devastate the industry,” the lawmakers wrote.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.