GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 7, 2012

NOAA pegs two finalists to lead local fishing office

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

A former mayor of New Bedford, John Bullard, and George LaPointe, who recently ended a lengthy run as director of marine resources in Maine, are the finalists for appointment to the Gloucester-based hot seat as next regional administrator for NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, sources told the Times on Friday.

The position became vacant last month with the retirement of Patricia Kurkul, who had been regional administrator since 1999. Kurkul had announced in July that she was leaving by the end of 2011.

Lapointe was the state of Maine's representative on the New England Fishery Management Council for 11 years through 2009 while he was heading Maine marine resources.

Bullard, who served as mayor of New Bedford from 1986 to 1992, is president of the Sea Education Association.

The selection process was opened for advice from stakeholders for the first time, a byproduct of the tumultuous times that accompanied the transformation of the New England groundfishery into a catch share management system and the uncovering in 2009 by a federal inspector general of a fisheries law enforcement system that victimized many fishermen and treated them often as criminals.

Sources at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said they expected an appointment to the administrator's post by March or April. Until Kurkul's successor is named, Dan Morris, the assistant regional administrator, is serving as acting administrator.

The short-term future for NOAA's Northeast region — which runs from Maine to the Carolinas and is regulated out of the agency's regional headquarters in Blackburn Industrial Park — is laden with crises, not the least of which is a pending final release of a Gulf of Maine cod assessment that is expected to show a precipitous decline in the size of the spawning cod.

If the finding is confirmed under the precepts of the Magnuson-Stevens Act's reauthorization in 2006, it would require an extreme reduction in the catch allocation for New England's fishermen.

The assessment and the start of the debate over possible options is expected during the late January meeting of the New England Regional Management Council.

The cod crisis overlaps and complicates a larger systemic failing of the commercial fishing industry, according to a filing with federal Secretary of Commerce John Bryson by Gov. Deval Patrick, who has asked for a declaration that emergency disaster has befallen the industry — and for economic relief and perhaps higher catch limits.

The unexpectedly dire cod assessment, however, contradicts findings just three years ago that showed New England's primary groundfish stock to be relatively well rebuilt. The study has drawn skepticism from fishermen who report finding no signs of any decline in numbers of cod they're finding.

The concern about the administration's fisheries policies has been bipartisan, but in Massachusetts, the leaders of the campaign for the fishing industry have been among President Obama's most important allies in Congress — notably Sen. John Kerry and Congressman Barney Frank — along with the Democratic Gov. Patrick, a friend of the president.

Meanwhile, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco announced a series of moves of top-level administrators into interim positions that, together, were said to marshal resources for the study of the cod crisis and the best approach through it.

The shifting began with boosting Eric Schwaab, Lubchenco's choice to head the National Marine Fisheries Service, one step up the row to be acting Undersecretary of Commerce for conservation and management.

"This allows (Schwaab) to be the point person on most pressing issues, notably Gulf of Maine cod," said a NOAA source who asked not to be identified.

As part of the shift, Sam Rauch moves up from his deputy administrator's role to fill in at Schwaab's old position, while Alan Risenhoover, the head of sustainable fisheries, temporarily moves up behind Rauch into his former seat.

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