The U.S. House has voted to cut off funding for future catch share programs, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration policy that opens the door to commodities trading of fishermen's catch allocations — and a policy already steering control of the fishing industry to larger corporations while driving out smaller, independent boats.
The 259-159 vote early Saturday morning was largely un-lobbied by either fishing industry backers or the Obama administration and its environmental allies, notably the Environmental Defense Fund that developed and has pushed hard for catch share policies.
The vote marked the first time a House of Congress has weighed in on the management regimen, and it looms as a setback for the Obama administration, whose most visible advocate of catch shares is Jane Lubchenco, the embattled NOAA administrator who formerly served as a top board member with Environmental Defense.
While with EDF, she helped organize a disputed scientific justification for catch shares, implying that without them, all food fish would soon be taken. Those claims have since been disputed by many marine scientists, up to and including Steve Murawski, the recently retired chief NOAA scientist who asserted last month that U.S. conservation policies have already succeeded in effectively ending overfishing.
The bipartisan budget amendment tied to NOAA's proposed catch share funding was sponsored by Congressman Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican who represents the Outer Banks, and two Democrats — Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Frank Pallone of New Jersey.
"This is a shot in the arm for fishermen, and a shot across the bow of the National Marine Fisheries Service," Jones said in a prepared statement sent to the Times. "I am very grateful to Congressmen Frank and Pallone and to the broad coalition of commercial and recreational fishermen, boat builders and consumer groups who came together to make this happen."
The amendment sponsors were also among eight signers of a letter sent earlier this month to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Lubchenco's superior, urging him to halt implementation of catch shares against the fierce resistance of the industry.
In New England, where catch shares were imposed on the groundfishery last May, the effect has been typical — the number of boats has dramatically dropped and equity in the market shifted to the biggest businesses.
Lubchenco has proclaimed eliminating a "sizeable fraction" of the fleet to be her goal.
But Mayors Carolyn Kirk of Gloucester and Scott Lang of New Bedford, on behalf of their communities, have denounced the economic and social harm from the regimen, and NOAA's lack of concern in mitigating the economic impact.
"We are one step closer to overturning the federal government's attempt to drive the Gloucester, New Bedford, and New England fishermen out of business," Kirk said Sunday.
"We need to keep the pressure up, though," she continued. "Mayor Lang and I are planning a visit to Washington, D.C., to make personal appeals to U.S. senators to uphold the Jones amendment, and to thank those House Representatives who voted in favor."
Lang said he, too, believes the amendment vote "sends them a message" that the catch share policy does not have public support.
Kirk and Lang have committed their port cities to a broad-based federal lawsuit challenging the legality of Amendment 16, which includes the catch share regimen. The lawsuit is expected to be heard next month in U.S. District Court in Boston.
The future of the Jones amendment in the unfolding partisan budget skirmishes roiling the halls of Congress is unclear.
The 100-vote margin was a surprise even to Jones, according to sources close to the congressman, who has formed a tight alliance with New England colleagues on most fisheries issues.
Jones, Frank and Congressman John Tierney all called for Lubchenco's removal from office last summer in a stew of frustration over what they perceived to be her lack of interest in mitigating the impact of catch shares, and damaged caused to fishermen and businesses by vindictive law enforcement actions.
These were exposed by the Commerce Department inspector general after more than a decade of complaints from fishermen and other related waterfront businesses, primarily out of Gloucester. The Northeast Division of NOAA, headquartered in Gloucester's Blackburn Industrial Park, polices federal waters from Maine through the Carolinas.
The surprising House vote came shortly after 1 a.m. and capped a tumultuous week in the industry's and fishing communities' struggle against Obama administration fisheries policy, with another wild week all but certain.
A mass rally in St. Petersburg, Fla., is scheduled for Friday, and could outsize the historic "United We Fish" rally outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington last Feb. 24. There, about 5,000 fishermen and families gathered with more senators and representatives and rallied for modifications of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that would allow more catching while conservation targets stretched out under certain conditions.
The rally also pointedly attacked catch shares and what the industry sees as an undue environmental influence on the Obama administration, especially through Lubchenco. Jones, Frank, Tierney as well as federal lawmakers from Florida and New York spoke to the crowd.
The organizers of the St. Petersburg rally expect to have perhaps 10 times the size of the crowd in D.C., noting there are 1 million licensed fishermen living within 100 miles of St. Petersburg.
The surprising 100-vote margin for the Jones amendment was made up largely of Republicans, who split 208-28-4 in favor, while Democrats split 51-131-11.
The all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation broke 8-2 for the amendment, with the only "no" votes on the Jones amendment coming from Congressmen John Olver of Amherst and Edward Markey of Malden.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.