GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 19, 2011

Kerry urges NOAA chief to admit 'disaster'

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

U.S. Sen. John Kerry told NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco Wednesday he expects her to be sent the scientific proof she's requiring about the harmful impact of catch share management on the groundfishery — and he expects her to issue a "disaster declaration later this month."

The letter builds on Lubchenco's testimony, the often barbed questioning of her by members of the congressional delegation and testimony by fishermen, academic scientists and the state director of marine fisheries at a field hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee organized by Kerry at the State House in Boston on Oct. 3.

Kerry's Wednesday letter also raised a new issue — information that has come to his attention of a NOAA policy that encourages "overzealous enforcement and excessive fines" by linking career advancement to the volume of cases and size of penalties taken from fishermen.

With its implied deadline 11 days away, Kerry's demand to Lubchenco referred to efforts that have so far have been rebuffed by the Obama administration's top commerce and fisheries officials, and noted that Gov. Deval Patrick sought $21 million in direct economic relief from Lubchenco's policies.

Those policies — none more so than catch shares, with its commodification and job losses from hyper-consolidation across New England's groundfishing industry — have driven a deeper wedge between the administration and a bipartisan coalition in Congress.

The mayors of Gloucester and New Bedford, their congressional representatives, John Tierney and Barney Frank — each of them Democrats — and Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, have all but written off Lubchenco, a former officer with the Environmental Defense Fund, as a lost cause for dealing with federal fishing issues.

New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang emerged from the Oct. 3 hearing calling for President Obama to replace her or suffer the political consequences.

And a videotaped interview with an equally frustrated Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk after the Commerce hearing has been circulating the blogosphere and has cited by the Drudge Report and conservative media commentator Sean Hannity (See related story).

Kerry has remained hopeful and engaged with Lubchenco on fisheries issues. But his frustration was also clear; he said tensions between federal regulators and the fishing community "have reached a boiling point beyond anything I've ever witnessed" in 26 years in the Senate.

In all, Kerry's nearly 2,500-word letter discusses 10 specific issues and requests, including a public appeal for NOAA to rectify personal economic disasters suffered by two Massachusetts fishermen — Kevin Scola of Marshfield and Jim Keding of Plymouth — as a direct result of "bureaucratic mistakes."

Keding based a boat purchase on a grossly mistaken and inflated report on the catch share allocation to the boat's permit; Scola's timely swordfish permit renewal application was allowed to sit in the wrong office.

"For those of us who believe in government, but also believe in accountability," Kerry wrote, "it is only common sense that we ensure that when such mistakes are made, people are made whole — that's ultimately how we maintain people's faith in government. We simply have to help these two fishermen," he wrote.

There was no immediate response Wednesday from Lubchenco or her representatives at NOAA.

But state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, whose efforts sparked the state legislative leadership and then the congressional delegation to engaging the law enforcement abuses, said, "I applaud the followup effort (to the Commerce Committee hearing). Clearly, the senator feels the frustration the rest of us have been experiencing."

Among other requests, Kerry's letter also called on NOAA to:

Seek funding to conduct a comprehensive survey of fish stocks by December 2013.

Use $7.5 million in the 2012 budget to underwrite at-sea monitoring required by the catch share system.

Reopen for fishing long-closed areas in the western Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank.

Spend $1 million to examine the potential of using a form of ultrasound developed by Northeastern University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology for the U.S. Navy to supplement trawl surveys to determine the health of fish stocks.

Kerry also asked Lubchenco to reconsider her refusal to alter her interpretation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act's 1996 reauthorization, which introduced 10 year rebuilding deadlines for overfished stocks.

At the Commerce Committee hearing, under questioning by Frank, Lubchenco conceded that the 10-year deadline had no scientific basis, yet she refused to put her influence behind efforts to make Magnuson more flexible.

The flexibility issue was the glue uniting a mass fishing industry rally adjacent to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. in February 2010.

Kerry's challenge to Lubchenco to declare the policies in the groundfishery to be a disaster harkened back to an argument that began in November 2010.

Then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke — now the ambassador to China — seemed to signal his willingness to make a disaster declaration based on the submission of a detailed socio-economic report from the Massachusetts Fisheries Institute, an agency of the commonwealth.

Instead, Locke and Lubchenco's assistant administrator for fisheries, Eric Schwaab, rejected the submission from the office of Gov. Deval Patrick. And at the Oct. 3 hearing, Lubchenco said she had been waiting for Patrick to complete research and submit a report on the most adversely affected parts of the industry.

Kerry promised that "the commonwealth will be sending you a second report, based on your request, that will provide additional data to (issue) a disaster declaration later this month." He explicitly referred to a case study of a group of 32 fishermen working from small ports along the inside curve of Massachusetts Bay.

That study by Paul Diodati, director of marine fisheries, found that nearly half of the dayboat fishermen in the group, known as sector 10, failed to cover expenses with gross revenues in 2010.

But the study was incomplete at the time Diodati summarized it for the Commerce Committee. Diodati's office said Wednesday it was not yet ready for release.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 9780-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.