By Richard Gaines
Expressing concern that the commodification of New England's groundfishery has accelerated economic inequality, Sen. John Kerry has urged the U.S. Commerce Department to acknowledge the policy has been a "disaster" — as alleged by elected federal and state officials.
With such a declaration, Kerry asked for "emergency economic assistance" to the fleet — a step that Commerce Secretary Gary Locke has repeatedly declined to take.
Kerry also complained that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's fisheries service had provided information that did not "accurately" reflect the status of the fishery while improperly withholding market reports and other data on the catch share regimen now nearing the end of its rollout year.
The state's senor senator issued his critique of Obama administration fisheries policy in parallel documents — the first a letter to Locke and NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, arising from a meeting he had with them last Thursday; the second, written testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee's fisheries subcommittee, which held a hearing Tuesday into the impact of the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Between Kerry's meeting last Thursday, and the release of the letter and written testimony Wednesday, the White House announced that President Obama is nominating Locke as the next ambassador to China, a move that will require vetting by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry chairs.
Kerry's office said Wednesday he would have no comment on how and whether the dispute with Locke on fisheries policy might influence the confirmation.
Sen. Scott Brown also declined to comment on the Locke nomination Wednesday, but in a statement to the Times, the Republican did say Locke's "departure represents a real opportunity for President Obama to begin to rebuild the relationship between his administration and our fishermen."
"If this administration is truly concerned about the needs of fishermen in Massachusetts and across the country," Brown said, "the president's next Commerce Secretary should be committed to advancing a management plan that promotes the economic vitality of our fishing communities, as well as a sustainable catch policy."
The unreleased market reports, according to Kerry's letter to Locke, would document the "distinct shift of revenues" within the groundfishery.
"Due to an allocation schematic that left many of the fishermen with woefully small allocations making them unable to fish or afford to lease quota that would enable them to fish," Kerry wrote to the subcommittee, "the bottom 90 percent of the fleet" was been weakened by while "the top 10 percent" has grown stronger.
"Many of the fishermen are struggling just to keep a roof over their heads and feed their families," Kerry wrote.
NOAA Fisheries in November briefly published a summary of catch share trading activity, which sparked a story by the Times and criticism of the free market dynamics in the New England catch share system.
The conservation group Oceana found evidence that a small group of fishermen on Cape Cod was profiteering by trading portions of a larger allocation granted by the New England Fishery Management Council, which is headed by John Pappalardo, CEO of the Cape Cod group.
The catch share trading figures — scrubbed from the NOAA Fisheries website — documented that a sector of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen's Association, given a preferable allocation from the mainstream commercial fleets in Gloucester, New Bedford, and elsewhere, had leased out nearly 2 million pounds of allocation.
The alleged profiteering by the Cape Cod fishermen's association is at the core of a federal lawsuit by commercial fishing interests and the cities of Gloucester and New Bedford, which is scheduled for a hearing next week in the Boston courtroom of a U.S. District Court judge.
NOAA spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus told the Times in November the posting was taken down after it was discovered to contain proprietary information. She also said that, after private information was redacted, the market report would be reposted.
Wednesday, she told the Times an edited and updated report would be reposted "soon."
In Tuesday testimony before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee subcommittee, Vito Giacalone, policy director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, described a common New England perception of an improper scheme involving government officials, recreational fishing interests and "the pro-catch share environmental community, and perhaps NOAA itself."
The thesis of his lengthy written testimony is that the conversion to catch shares was rigged and controlled by unnamed environmental forces to reward the Cape Cod fishermen, who've received more than $3 million in grant funding to advance the catch share program.
The lead government advocate for catch shares is NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco, who helped write the catch share manifesto while an officer of the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF has partnered with the Cape Cod group in catch share market strategizing, and how to use grant funding to acquire permits.
The Cape Cod hook fishermen are campaigning openly to have one of their staffers named to the New England council to hold the seat to be vacated in August by association CEO and longtime Chairman John Pappalardo, on whose watch the catch share regimen was written.
Kerry also reiterated in his letter to Locke his request and that of Gov. Deval Patrick and Reps. John Tierney and Barney Frank for the secretary to use his emergency powers to raise catch limits, cited by Giacalone and many others as the cause of the fisheries "collapse."
A research paper prepared for the governor by scientists as the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth proposed that the catch limits were unnecessarily too low due to hyperconservative uncertainty buffers in calculating limits.
Locke rejected the paper for failing to present new science; Kerry said the secretary used the wrong standard and only "best science," not new science was required.
Finally, Kerry urged Locke to remove restrictions on the appeal of fishermen from vindictive law enforcement actions which scandalized NOAA over the past two years following a decade of complaints and a series of reports from the Commerce Department inspector general.
Kerry also called for NOAA to upgrade fisheries science.
"Many of these requests have been made previously," he said, noting that the opportunity exists for the government to "repair a relationship ... that has been badly strained.
No immediate reaction to Kerry's letter and testimony was given by Locke or Lubchenco.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.