By Richard Gaines
Influential marine scientist Brian Rothschild has charged NOAA with adopting an "unnecessarily hard-line," wrong, wasteful and job-destroying interpretation of Congress' intent for managing America's fisheries.
Finding no accountability, "no master plan" or will to align policy more closely with what was intended and no hope for redress from the judiciary, Rothschild — who is based at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and is one of New England's most respected fishing advocates — proposed that Congress create an ad hoc commission to restructure fisheries management in the Northeast.
Rothschild issued his blunt judgments about the performance of the government and the courts in the aftermath of a June ruling by a federal judge in Boston that upheld the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's catch share policy management system, which data shows is bringing about a consolidation of the industry and forcing out small, independent boats and businesses.
Rothschild's full commentary is reprinted in full on Page 8 of today's Times; it was also published in the Wednesday Standard-Times of New Bedford, which is adjacent to Rothschild's Dartmouth base.
A venerable waterman, scientist and linchpin between the Massachusetts fishing industry, academia and the political system, Rothschild's words are read carefully across the country.
Rothschild, who turns 77 Sunday, was NOAA's senior scientist during the 1970s, when the Magnuson-Stevens Act was rolled out. He was also the much-preferred choice of the industry and many members of Congress to head the National Marine Fisheries Service, but Jane Lubchenco, President Obama's choice to lead NOAA in 2009, instead went for Maryland state wildlife official Eric Schwaab, never explaining her strange choice.
In his op-ed column, Rothschild absolved Judge Rya Zobel of much responsibility for affirming the government's groundfishery policies, writing that she was "working within the bounds of standards established in administrative law."
Rothschild wrote that the two cases handled by Zobel, brought by the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford and fishermen from every Atlantic coast state from Maine through North Carolina, showed that the judicial system does not always have the wherewithal to align the "executive's implementation of laws with congressional intent."
Certainly, Rothschild wrote, Congress did not intend NOAA to create a system that wastes 100,000 tons of fish a year worth $300 million at the dock, or $1.2 billion to the economy, while eliminating "hundreds if not thousands of jobs." And it did not intend to disregard the economic and social impacts, unfairly reward some groups at the expense of others and "ignore valid scientific findings and suppress discussion regarding the magnitude of fish stocks."
Congressman John Tierney and Barney Frank, both Democrats, and Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, agreed with Rothschild's view of NOAA, as did the consumer group, Food & Water Watch, which added that "Congress needs to step in and put an end to the agency's abuse of any discretion that it has ..."
NOAA did not respond to a request for comment.
"NOAA continues to send a clear message that it is unwilling to make the system fair for our fishermen," Tierney said in a prepared statement to the Times. "I agree with Mr. Rothschild, that 'protecting fishing jobs is a priority' and that Congress must take every available action to ensure that our fishing communities are not driven out of business by NOAA's inflexible interpretation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
"I am committed to working with my colleagues in Congress to protect our local fishing economy and push for a change in leadership at NOAA," added Tierney, whose district includes Gloucester, all of Cape Ann and much of the North Shore.
In a telephone interview, Frank, who represents New Bedford and seeks Rothschild's counsel on fisheries issues, said he believes Congress was moving closer to a bipartisan consensus to rein in NOAA by the limiting statutory changes to the Atlantic and Gulf regions, where grievances are greatest.
He pointed to the most recent bill filed to constrain NOAA, submitted by three Republicans representatives, Walter Jones of North Carolina, John Runyan of New Jersey and Ileana Ros-Leitenen of Florida.
A political skirmish earlier this year produced a titular limit to expansions of Obama fisheries philosophy in the Atlantic and Gulf through September — though none were scheduled . But a pitched battle is pending for the next spending cycle, when a number of new programs based on the same privatization and commodification principles are scheduled.
Allied with the Obama administration are the Environmental Defense Fund and its prime funding foundations, including the $1.5 billion Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the $1.5 billion Walton Family Foundations Inc., many environmental groups and some fishing groups that depend on EDF and other foundation funding.
In his op-ed, Rothschild said he did not believe that NOAA has the "internal capability" to bring its policies into alignment with congressional intent.
"The organic basis for fisheries management needs to be changed," he wrote. "Congress needs to create an ad hoc commission that reports to Congress to restructure fisheries management in the northeast. In addition, the decade-long deterioration of fisheries management, the perceived lack of accountability, the absence of checks and balances, and the need for innovation needs oversight by a new entity: a National Fisheries Management Board."
Such a panel, he said, would be funded out of existing appropriations and operate analogous to the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Our delegation obviously plays a powerful role in putting legislation on the table," Rothschild wrote, adding that it often is diluted to win approval.
"Protecting fishing jobs is a priority," he wrote. "This should be a central theme in forthcoming hearings."
Brown coordinated a June hearing of a subcommittee that met in Faneuil Hall but was constrained by the nature of the panel. Since the spring, Sen. John Kerry has also been promising to organize a Senate subcommittee fact finding hearing.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.