GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 13, 2011

Governor, state AG back fishing suit vs. feds

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts Thursday formally joined the hub fishing ports of Gloucester and New Bedford and a coalition of industry interests from Maine to North Carolina, challenging the Obama administration's groundfish regulatory regimen in federal district court.

The filings by state Attorney General Martha Coakley for Gov. Deval Patrick accuse the federal government of violating four national standards written into the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act and illegally hurting the economy of the industry and fishing communities.

The latest version of Magnuson simultaneously commanded an expeditious restoration of overfished stocks, while also directing the effort to involve the optimal sustainable yield to the fishing industry.

The filing by the attorney general for the governor also accused the federal government of violating Magnuson's required use of "best scientific information available," while minimizing "adverse economic impacts" on the fishing communities.

"We will not stand idly by while our fishing families in the Commonwealth pay the price for a regulatory change that was poorly thought through and poorly implemented," Patrick said Thursday in a prepared statement. "The court needs to understand that neither science nor fairness justifies the regulations now imposing great hardship on the many small fishing operations in Massachusetts that need relief now."

"The regulations are unjust and unsupported," Coakley added, "and we are seeking to have them recalculated in a scientific manner and with greater consideration for the economic impact on our fishing communities."

The widening protest against Obama administration fisheries policies began soon after the confirmation in March 2008 of environmental activist and academic scientist Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

She came to office pushing a catch share management system championed by the Environmental Defense Fund that essentially gives fishermen "shares" of a total allowable catch for each stock, while encouraging those shares be bought, sold or traded within the industry or to outside investors as in a commodities market. Lubchenco had been vice chairwoman of the EDF's board when she was nominated by the president to head NOAA.

The lawsuit, filed last year by fishing interests and the twin Massachusetts capitals of the fishing industry took on greater importance last week when U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke rejected a scientific and economic report from the governor that the rollout of the Amendment 16 catch share system had been done with improperly low catch limits, and sent the industry into a government-generated tailspin.

Locke refused to use powers he had acknowledged he had to make emergency adjustments in the work done by the New England Fishery Management Council and infuse the industry with more fish to catch and direct economic relief.

He said the request failed to present new scientific information.

But the motion for Judge Rya Zobel to allow the state to join the suit contained a critique of this point.

In it, assistant Attorney General Christine Bailey Thursday discounted the Secretary's thinking, adding that, if the scientific data in the governor's report had been available to Locke, he "apparently" disregarded it when approving what the plaintiffs insist are unnecessarily conservative catch limits on the groundfish stocks.

The 2006 Magnuson reauthorization, for the first time, required the government to add hard catch limits with penalties for violations to the tools in use to restore the stocks.

Although the effort is succeeding — most rebuilding efforts have borne fruit or are moving in the right direction — provisions in the 1996 reauthorization require the achievement of optimal mass of the stocks within a 10-year deadline.

The overlaying of those two mandates produced fierce debate on the right level of fish catch limits, and complaints from the industry that the additional transition into the new catch share system at the same time, last May 1, would produce radical consolidation of equity in the fishery, and the loss of countless jobs and small businesses tied to the working fleet.

Reports by the government have confirmed these developments. But to date, the Obama administration has refused to intervene to minimize the hardships to the ports — and has pushed back, arguing that the system is working effectively and has given no clear evidence of hardship.

The lawsuit is scheduled for a hearing in March in Judge Zobel's U.S. District Court in Boston.

Reps. Barney Frank for New Bedford and John Tierney for Gloucester have previously filed amicus briefs in support of the suit.

The Ocean and Fisheries Council of New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang, meanwhile, was scheduled to meet late Thursday to hear Frank and Rick Sullivan, the state's secretary of energy and environment, plot political and legal strategies.

In a parallel suit to the one before Judge Zobel, fishing interests on the Pacific Coast have challenged the legality of the catch share system for the West Coast groundfishery.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.