In Gloucester on a diplomatic mission, the lead administrator of federal fisheries has told hands-on commercial fishermen, port business leaders and government representatives that "the system is not broken."
But Eric Schwaab, who heads the National Marine Fisheries Service, is also promising he'll do his best to fix it — while also cautioning it won't be quick or easy.
One by one, the audience let him know in a meeting Friday they did not believe either statement, but are at least hopeful of the latter.
The New England Fishery Management Council — the legislative leg of the system — is rife with "conflict of interest," commented Capt. Joe Orlando, echoing the allegations in a federal lawsuit filed by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford for fishing interests spread over 1,000 miles of coastline.
Noting two separate problems — excessive law enforcement, as documented by a Department of Commerce Inspector General's report — and decisions by the council to issue unequal allocations of fish, away from the main body of commercial fishermen to the recreational sector and a dissident group on Cape Cod whose executive director is council chairman, Orlando told Schwaab, "People should be going to jail."
Others joined Orlando in commenting to make different points: One, that the industry has felt patronized, ignored, and lectured to, yet never sought for its knowledge, and that the system has weakened the port of Gloucester, despite the presence just off shore of fish stocks that are surging in size.
"We need to bring cooperation back to clean up the mess we're in, " said Vito Calomo, a former fishing captain, who now advises U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., on fishing issues. Calomo described a port that seems a skeleton of what, not too long ago, was a bustling center of marine industry.
"Something is wrong, Eric," Calomo said. "Jane is not listening to us," he added, referring to Jane Lubchenco, who heads of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Lubchenco, who named Schwaab to the top NMFS post in February 2010, is widely perceived in Gloucester and New Bedford as a hostile ideologue who has admitted she has a goal of consolidating the fleet, a missing that data already shows is driving owner-operated small-boat fishing businesses off the water and leaving the rebuilt stocks to a be divided among the few winners — in general, larger businesses of groups who have collaborated with the creators of the catch share system.
"You're holding the port hostage," said Paul Theriault, who fishes solo, and, due to regulatory restraints, he said, suffered his first-ever losing month of March when the haddock and cod come in shore.
The skepticism rained down after Schwaab introduced Preston Pate, a veteran fisheries regulator from North Carolina and the author an outsider's independent review of the three legged system — executive, legislative and scientific — that regulates and polices the waters from Maine to the Carolinas.
Pate spoke briefly, running through the high points of his report.
While avoiding general characterizations, Pate said damning things in his dignified drawl.
Issues, processes and paperwork are "overly complex," and at the same time, "things," the regulatory changes, "are moving so fast without the benefit of a strategic plan have created very different business decisions," Pate said.
"There seemed to be no accountability ... council meetings are too formal and deliberations unfathomable," he continued. Pate finished by saying he "found flaws across the board."
Schwaab and Pate were in Gloucester City Hall Friday on the last leg of a four-day trip to the region. And they spoke in public due to Mayor Carolyn Kirk's decision to open the meeting, which had initially been conceived as a private briefing of key industry and political figures. That had been the nature of the main meeting in New Bedford.
Kirk was encouraged to hold the forum in public by Andrew Winer, NOAA's director of external affairs.
Winer also spent four days in Massachusetts last week, meeting informally with industry leaders and the press, including the Times.
Schwaab received the harsh responses, with responded with answers beginning, "Sir." But while he did not back down from NOAA's stands, the meeting's back-and-forth had the feeling of a conversation — albeit it an unsettled one.
"We appreciate your coming, no matter what you came to say," said state Sen. Bruce Tarr, who also advised Scott Brown on fisheries issues. Sen. John Kerry and Rep. John Tierney also had fisheries advisors at the meeting, while the roughly 40 people attending included Molly Lutcavage, who heads the University of Massachusetts' Large Pelagic Research Center now based in Gloucester.
Tarr made the point that, before decisions are made, the fisheries service should seek out the advice of industry members who are not appointed members of the regional legislative council.
"You need to put more emphasis on socioeconomic data," he said. "The people who sit in this room have not been listened to."
Schwaab in January joined with Commerce Secretary Gary Locke in rejecting and refusing to take remedial action in response to a socio-economic report by state and UMass scientists showing the harm caused to communities by the consolidation of capacity into a small number of hands in the first year of Amendment 16.
A team from the Commerce Department is in town today and Tuesday to analyze the city's travails and develop programs to relieve the economic hardships.
"It's a big complicated system," Schwaab said, standing on the City Hall steps after the meeting. "But we're going in the right direction, and I commit to taking these findings to heart."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.