By Richard Gaines
---- — By default and past experience, what slim hope remains to relieve the declared federal fisheries disaster before it consumes the surviving core of the groundfishing fleet in Gloucester and other New England ports has shifted from leadership at the Commerce Department to the White House.
The industry — as its participants related in meetings in Gloucester Tuesday and New Bedford Wednesday with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren — is running out of time to get relief from 77 percent cuts in the Gulf of Maine cod limits and other tight restrictions due to take effect May 1, and carry through the 2013 and 2014 fishing years.
Down from 570 boats in 2009 to 420 in 2011, the last year for which NOAA has published data, with most fishing businesses leveraged to the hilt, the squeeze is widely projected to deliver the coup de grace here in Gloucester, though New Bedford, the co-capital of Americans’ earliest continuous way of life, may hold on longer due to the lucrative but also increasingly constricted harvesting of scallops.
The draconian cuts in landings — 77 percent of inshore cod, 61 percent of cod from Georges Bank, enormous cuts in flatfish, too, and the shift of millions of dollars for what is now pegged as fishermen’s cost of NOAA’s on-board monitors — approaches just as the leadership at Commerce is disappearing.
The last Senate-confirmed Commerce Secretary, John Bryson, resigned last summer, having passed out behind the wheel of his car after careening through the streets of suburban Los Angeles. And with Acting Secretary Rebecca Blank still running Commerce, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco departs for academia next Thursday after four tumultuous years at the agency’s helm. Her resignation email to staff on Dec. 12 stated that “our notable progress includes ... ending over-fishing, rebuilding depleted stocks and returning fishing to prosperity” — despite the fact that Blank had declared the Northeast groundfishery a certified “economic disaster” just two months earlier.
Lubchenco’s claim was so far off the mark that Brian Rothschild, the esteemed marine scientist at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, wondered whether he was reading “purposeful propaganda” or the delusion of someone “out of touch with what was happening to the New England fishery.”
President Obama has remained notably mute as the fishing industry crisis builds like a thunderhead, and that’s now getting attention across the industry, which, despite a catch share system that’s steering more quota to larger boats and fishing corporations, remains largely built on small boats and family-run, independent business models.
”I have not heard one word about fisheries from the president,” said Paul “Sasquatch” Cohan, the Gloucester fisherman who announced at the Warren meeting in Gloucester that he had nothing left to fight with. “I wouldn’t give up, but now I have to give up,” said Cohan, who operated a gillnet day boat.
Former Gloucester Mayor John Bell, who helped create the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund and the Northeast Seafood Coalition said Wednesday the needs of the industry are so immediate, complex and expensive that the last resort is “inside the front door of the White House.”
Bell emphasized he was speaking as an individual — albeit a well-connected one — when he said that, with a vacuum of leadership at Commerce and NOAA, “This is a prefect time for an executive order from the president.”
But John Bullard, NOAA’s Northeast regional administrator based at Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park, scoffed at that idea.
”The White House has other priorities,” Bullard said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he was attending a semi-annual meeting of the eight federal fishery management councils. Those priorities, he said, include the impending automatic spending cuts known as sequestration that are projected to eliminate more than 450,000 jobs in the military.
Instead, Bullard said he is engaged in stubborn effort to find money to take back some of the burden for at sea monitors.
”We need help from Congress,” he said, which failed to approve $150 million in disaster assistance as part of the $60 billion relief package for victims of Superstorm Sandy.
Meanwhile, Rothschild and the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition counter that the disaster that threatens to consume the industry was predicted and preventable, and that NOAA has failed to live up to its obligation to address it.
The Gloucester-based coalition, the largest industry group in the region representing two thirds of the Northeast fishery boats, sent a letter Tuesday signed by 175 fishermen to the Senate and congressional delegations of the five coastal New England states and New York, driving home the same point. The coalition letter which was sent also to Bullard held him accountable for declaring “our day of reckoning” was at hand.
“We’ve done nothing wrong to reckon,” the coalition members asserted. “The problem was caused by the failure of government policies and programs to accept and adequately contemplate that current scientific capabilities are inadequate.”
”Balderdash,” insisted Bullard. “They played a significant role.”
But the coalition letter went further, insinuating that the factors threatening to squeeze the life out of the industry in the years since commodification were so clear that the intention to destroy the industry was hard to ignore.
“It’s difficult for many of us to belief this was a coincidence,” the fishermen wrote.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.