By Richard Gaines
Praised by Environmental Defense Fund and Conservation Law Foundation, the fishermen's letter defending stability and the status quo in the New England groundfishery drew a preponderance of its support from the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, whose policy director emailed it the U.S. Senate.
Though Cape Cod is a relatively minor faction of the industry, of the 107 fishermen who signed onto the letter, 46 work out of Cape Cod ports.
The Cape Cod Hook Fishermen's Association is a longtime ally and beneficiary of nonprofit groups and their corporate backers, including Wal-Mart, that have pushed for the catch share management system that's being blamed by many fishermen and lawmakers for driving jobs and small fishing businesses out of the industry.
No other port contributed more than 20 names to the letter, whose source remained unknown more than a week after the one-pager was sent out, timed to correspond to the beginning of three day meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council.
The council's decision last Wednesday to assign low priority to the festering question of making changes to Amendment 16 and its catch share management system, in effect in New England since May 2010, aligned with the pleas of the letter, which has inflamed feelings and set off rolling arguments on websites across the region.
The letter was viewed as a breakthrough in rationalism on the sites of nonprofit giants such as Environmental Defense Fund and the Conservation Law Foundation.
But respondents from among fishermen who see a master plan — written at EDF and later executed by Jane Lubchenco, the former EDF board member chosen by President Obama to head NOAA — to dispossess smaller, independent boats and clear the way for more corporatization of the oceans, have fought back on line.
Gloucester groundfisherman Russell Sherman, who signed the letter, said the draft he signed was a watered down redraft of an earlier version, described to him as a blunt endorsement of the catch share system being pushed by EDF.
Along with the 46 Cape Cod signers, there were 20 Gloucester fishermen's names, 14 from Maine, 10 from Rhode Island, eight from New Bedford and seven from Boston. Some names were signed more than once, and many associated with multiple boats, including from different ports.
Sherman said he believed Jackie Odell, executive director of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, watered down the original draft, enabling him and others deeply opposed to catch shares to sign the letter.
"It was all I could do to sign the letter," said Sherman. But he added that he felt "cornered" and, distrusting NOAA and the council process, did not want to see Congress repeal the entire system — a condition he said might allow an even quicker squashing of the remaining small boat businesses.
In the summer of 2010, Sherman authored an open letter to President Obama in the Vineyard Gazette while the president was vacationing on Martha's Vineyard.
"My business is only one of hundreds facing extinction," Sherman wrote at the time. "While there will be a small handful of 'winners' under these new rules, the vast majority of us will be losers. And when we 'losers' are forced out, jobs will be lost, coastal communities gutted, and crucial commercial fishing infrastructure gone forever."
A letter from Gov. Deval Patrick to Commerce Secretary John Bryson last week, seeking a "disaster" declaration and $21 million in emergency assistance, was sent together with two new socioeconomic studies of the groundfishery that told a very similar story.
EDF blogger Emile Litsinger, however, described last week's letter as "marking a major shift in the public debate over the groundfishery," and noted that the signers were saying that "a vocal minority in the industry has for too long dominated the debate over sector management."
Equally enthused about the letter was Peter Shelley, senior counsel for CLF.
"New England's groundfishermen — from Rhode Island to Maine and from day boat to trip boat — took back their fishery from the politicians," he wrote.
Like Litsinger, Shelley described the aspirations of the signers as "stability, profitability and flexibility" — although the phrase does not appear in the letter.
The precise text of Shelley's letter, however, was also emailed to the Times by Gloucester resident Jill Buchanan. Contacted by the Times, Buchanan, a member of the city's Clean Energy Commission, acknowledged the cut-and-paste job, which she did not attribute to having come from CLF or anywhere else.
According to the Alice C. Walker Foundation, EDF, CLF and the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association are in an alliance in support of catch shares.
"EDF staff continues to support managers and industry leaders in an increasingly broad and rapid transition to catch shares in many different New England fisheries," the Park Avenue, New York foundation notes on its website.
"We coordinate our policy change efforts with allies including the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman's Association, Oceana, Earth Justice, Conservation Law Foundation, the New England Aquarium, and The Nature Conservancy."
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3446, or at email@example.com.