By Richard Gaines
Expressing "extraordinary frustration" with the U.S. Commerce Department, Gov. Deval Patrick Monday released a written plea to President Obama for his personal intervention "to set your agencies ... on a course of cooperation" with the commercial fishing industry.
In writing to his longtime friend and political ally from their earlier days together in Illinois, Patrick brought the political, social and economic crisis in the New England fishing industry to the desk of the president for the first time, and at the start of the two-year presidential election cycle.
The letter was dated last Friday, and the White House had no immediate response Monday.
The letter was released on the same day U.S. Sen. Scott Brown announced legislation to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act to put Commerce Department fisheries policies under independent evaluation.
Brown said he was filing the legislation because the Commerce Department and its fisheries agencies "refuse to acknowledge" that recent policies, including the conversion of the groundfishing industry into a commodities market that trades in "catch shares" are "strangling the fishing industry."
The separate actions by a Democratic governor and Republican senator reflect the bi-partisan coalition of elected officials in state and federal offices that has drawn together in defense of one of the nation's indigenous industries — commercial fishing — over the first two years of the Obama presidency.
Administration policies, cited by the governor for causing unemployment, have been defended by a cohort of environmental groups that have argued any loosening catch limits or deadlines for full recovery of overfished stocks will jeopardize ocean ecosystems.
New Bedford gathering
Patrick and Brown were both represented at a meeting earlier this month of New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang's Ocean and Fisheries Council at which Congressman Barney Frank said continued federal unresponsiveness to a fisheries failure brought on by unpopular Obama administration ocean policies threatened his relationship with the White House.
Patrick's representative at the meeting was Rick Sullivan, the new secretary of energy and environmental affairs.
"Certain fights are worth fighting," said Sullivan. "This is one of them."
Congressman John Tierney also responded by pledging to take the cause directly to the President.
Frank has been spearheading efforts to change regulatory policies that he and other industry supporters view as being unduly influenced by anti-fishing environmental groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund and the Pew Environment Group.
Tierney has been at the forefront of the resistance to federal fisheries law enforcement policies and actions that settled scores, took excessive fines and criminalized fishermen for minor and technical violations.
The letter to the president and the announcement of the effort to modify the Magnuson Act by Sen. Brown come 11 months after a national demonstration of resistance to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration drew up to 5,000 fishermen, families and allies — including 21 senators and representatives — at the side of the U.S. Capitol last February.
The lightning rod for the protest — in Washington and across the country — has been Obama's choice to head federal fisheries, the environmental activist and scientist Jane Lubchenco, who advocated for catch share markets throughout U.S. fisheries during her tenure as vice chair of the Environmental Defense Fund. She also is associated with hard line anti-fishing research.
One piece she helped write for EDF predicted that without catch shares, described as having restorative impact on fisheries, "jellyfish" would come to rule the seas.
'They didn't hear us'
"They didn't hear us last year," said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, which organized the demonstration. "We all fought collectively, we did the right thing, but we were ignored."
Donofrio said he hopes to organize a mass faxing campaign to flood congressional offices with demands for statutory reform of Magnuson to eliminate deadlines that were written into the law in 2006 and have been cited by regulators as responsible for their setting ultra low catch limits even on stocks that are reaching sustainable levels.
Restored stock status
The anniversary of the first great national fishermen's protest comes under a dramatically altered and more optimistic sense of the status of U.S. fisheries. Just weeks ago, Steve Murawaki, the longtime chief scientist for NOAA, gave a lengthy interview to the Associated Press that focused on United States leadership in fisheries sustainability.
"When you compare the United States with the European Union, with Asian countries, etc.," Murawski said, "we are the only industrialized fishing nation who actually has succeeded in ending overfishing."
The U.S. imports more than 80 percent of its seafood, according to Commerce Department statistics.
Commerce chief's stand
The appeal to the president traces to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke's Jan. 7 decision against a requested finding that policies including the re-engineering of the groundfishery into a catch share commodities market last May had created an "economic disaster."
In September, after research by Frank, Locke agreed he could override regulatory policies to obviate a fisheries failure.
But he rejected the report by a team at UMass-Dartmouth that the catch share program, initiated while the industry was facing hard catch limits for the first time, had brought about radical consolidation and rapid job loss.
The better capitalized businesses were gaining control of the bulk of the permits because "as much as two-thirds of the fishing permits were allocated 50 to 60 percent less than their 2007-2009 annual harvest," according to the report.
"The reduction in allocation (alone) represents lost revenue of $21 million for this portion of permit holders," wrote the scientists and researchers headed by Steve Cadrin, a fisheries scientist who also serves as the director of the science and statistical committee for the New England Fishery Management Council.
With the consolidation, the report found that 10 percent of the vessels was responsible for 64 percent of the catch revenue in the first five months of the new regimen.
But Locke said the study was not based on new scientific material; so, he said he was rendered unable legally to declare the failure that would allow overriding the policies including upping the catch limit.
"Our fishing communities face severe challenges, and we are currently suffering great hardship," Patrick wrote in his letter to the president, "as a result of well-intended but often ill-conceived and poorly executed efforts by federal regulators to constrain the fishing harvest and rebuild our fish stocks."
The groundfishing fleet has been cut in more than half in the past decade, he said.
"The small fisherman is in danger of disappearing altogether, and with him would go a way of life," he wrote.
To preserve it, Patrick asked Obama to "set your Department of Commerce and its agencies on a course of cooperation and consideration..."
Mayor hails efforts
"That the governor is redoubling his effort on behalf of our fishing communities gives us a glimmer of hope that something might change yet," said Mayor Carolyn Kirk — who also praised Brown's initiative.
"This legislation is consistent with everything Sen. Brown has stood for — jobs, government accountability, and good use of our tax dollars," Kirk said. "The call for frequent and neutral third party reviews on the regulations is exactly what is needed."
Brown, who won a special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in January 2010, faces re-election in 2012 — as does the president.
The essence of his legislative proposal is the requirement of an "independent fisheries impact statement "so that officials at NOAA and the Commerce Department cannot ignore the situation or tailor the results." Under the bill, according to a fact sheet released by Brown's office, the independent auditor would be selected by the General Accounting Office.
"I applaud our federal delegation's bipartisan efforts to assist our fishermen," said Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante. "I commend the spirit of Scott Brown's proposed legislation to bring much needed third party oversight and accountability to the rogue action's of NOAA.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.