By Richard Gaines
The congressional battle over NOAA's catch shares fishery management — which has raged nearly from the day the Senate confirmed Jane Lubchenco as NOAA administrator in early 2009 — has become frenzied.
Nineteen House members — 12 Republicans and seven Democrats, including Massachusetts Reps. John Tierney and Barney Frank — have sent a letter asking the House Appropriations Committee and the Subcommittee on Commerce and Science to amend a budget bill from the Senate with language barring the rollout of any new catch share programs in Atlantic waters in fiscal 2012, which began Oct. 1.
On the heels of the letter — drafted in the office of Republican Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina and sent on Tuesday — a bipartisan coalition of six senators, including Sen. John Kerry, and two representatives, all except Kerry from the West Coast or Alaska, wrote Thursday to Lubchenco asking for NOAA to help its regional fishery management councils decide whether catch shares are appropriate in fisheries.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Defense Fund — which reported spending $275,000 on lobbyists through September this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, to protect EDF's investment in virtual privatization — was zeroing in on House and Senate appropriations committees that can decide to bar the Jones amendment or give it life.
The spending bill that includes the NOAA budget which came out of the Senate this week did not include any mention of catch shares, so opponents must convince the House Appropriations Committee to add language barring new programs, then hope it survives conference reconciliation.
The lobbying flurry follows the so-called Jones amendment, which was approved by a 100-vote majority last January during debate over the Continuing Spending Resolution, then was watered down in the Senate.
In its final form, the amendment barred spending on new catch share rollouts in fiscal 2011. But since none were planned, the action mostly served to put the advocates of catch shares on notice that Congress questioned the administration's and EDF's push for the policy that's been cited as consolidating quota into the hands of larger businesses and investors, while driving out smaller, independent boats and businesses that don't have the capital to compete. Gloucester's fleet alone lost 21 of some 96 boats in 2010, according to NOAA's own figures.
In fiscal 2012, a ban on catch share rollouts would have impact, analysts say.
"The New England and South Atlantic fishery management councils are currently contemplating three new catch share programs," said NOAA spokeswoman Monica Allen. "The New England Fishery Management Council is considering alternative management measures for the monkfish and scallop fisheries. The South Atlantic Council is considering development of a limited access privilege program for the golden crab fishery."
So advocates and defenders of catch shares have spent much of this year preparing for a moment of truth.
EDF has used four different lobbying firms to shore up support.
The main investment — $150,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — has been in K & L Gates, a lobbying firm with a stable of former federal lawmakers including James Walsh, a former Republican representative from upstate New York who served on the House Appropriations Committee before his retirement two years ago.
A colleague of Walsh's at K & L Gates, Darrell Conner has been lobbying for the South Atlantic Fishermen's Association, an organization that has received funding from EDF, and is among the proxies for the nonprofit, which partners with Wall Street investors and proclaims the wisdom of allowing market forces to mitigate environmental problems.
So far this year, EDF has also used Jenkins Hill Consulting LLC, Thompson Smitch Consulting Group and O'Neill and Associates, a Boston-Washington lobbying firm. It has also retained Ocean Champions, a California company, but according to the federal lobbying report, the assignment there was to "secure support of and funding for the President's request for fisheries programs."
EDF did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
However, Lubchenco's press secretary Justin Kenney said, "America's fishermen today need more opportunities to succeed, not fewer."
"Fishermen want, and deserve, access to every available option to manage their business successfully," he said in an email. "Catch share programs are simply one tool in the toolbox of fisheries management, and when designed properly, have proven to be effective."
Tierney, Frank, Jones and other congressional lawmakers disagree.
"The last thing the American government should be doing in these economic times is spending millions of taxpayer dollars to expand programs that will put even more Americans out of work," they and their colleagues wrote to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, and Norman Dicks, the Washington Republican who chairs the Subcommittee on Commerce and Science.
They noted that, soon after the onset of Northeast catch share groundfishing, 353 of the 500 boats were sitting at the docks.
"The tragedy is that these job losses are totally unnecessary to protect fish stocks; when solid science shows that harvest reductions in a fishery are needed, There are far better options than catch shares for achieving these reductions," the lawmakers wrote. Among the other signers was Massachusetts Congressman William Keating, who represents the South Shore, Cape Cod and the islands.
Yet the South Atlantic Fishermen's Association, which has been funded by EDF, described Jones and his allies as trying to "airdrop" a ban into the spending bill and urged the House and Senate appropriations committees not to allow it.
"Catch share programs work," the association said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.