, Gloucester, MA

January 30, 2013

Editorial: NOAA regional chief cannot ignore lawmakers' call

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — First-year NOAA regional administrator John Bullard, who heads the regulation of fisheries from Maine through North Carolina from his perch in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration building in Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park, says he doesn’t believe the Magnuson-Stevens Act allows the flexibility to extend the current Gulf of Maine cod limits, which cut 22 percent from fishermen’s allowable catch a year ago, for another year.

Because of that, he said he will not take that step, and will instead allow new cuts of up to 86 percent take hold for the 2013 fishing year that begins May 1. Saying that the fishing industry simply has to face the reality of NOAA’s latest stock assessment data, he and the Department of Commerce may essentially set those limits today — limits that would absolutely devastate a Gloucester and New England groundfishery that Commerce has already declared an “economic disaster,” but has shamefully refused to push for any money that could ease it.

But a few other folks, it seems, see the Magnuson-Stevens Act a bit differently. Within hours of Bullard’s adamant statement being reported last week, Massachusetts senators John Kerry and Elizabeth Warren joined Congressmen John Tierney, William Keating and Edward Markey in penning a joint letter to Bullard, calling for him to reconsider — especially given that Congress intended the statute to “help prevent the collapse of fisheries.”

On Monday, New Hampshire U.S. Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kelly Ayotte also wrote to Bullard, urging him to back off his job-killing stance — noting again that Bullard’s interpretation goes against the grain of what Congress intended for the Magnuson legislation and its revisions. And all of the federal lawmakers’ calls come on the heels of a 16-1 New England Fishery Management Council vote to extend the current guidelines as well, backing a proposal initially launched by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition.

For his part, Bullard says his hands are tied; that the NOAA stock assessment mandates a day of reckoning for the industry, and that he sought legal advice on any extension, doing so through NOAA chief counsel Lois Schiffer. Yet NOAA’s stock assessments, like so many before this, once again failed to include any fishermen’s input in the type of cooperative research demanded by Sen. Kerry and others, and is also drawing credibility questions that must first be answered before the federal government kills off an entire faction of this historic industry.

And when it comes to credibility issues, let’s not forget that Schiffer’s own credibility lies somewhere below most basements; she and NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco both initially insisted two years ago that the agency go forward without addressing its law enforcement missteps of the past. Thankfully, then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke threw that sage Schiffer advice in the trash can, choosing instead to issue wronged fishermen a departmental apology and more than $600,000 in reparations for excessive fines and other penalties.

That is indeed what Bullard should do with Schiffer’s advice at the New England council meeting today.

Yes, he has the authority to almost single-handedly allow these devastating new limits to take effect. But he should recognize that, if he does, he will be showing the same disrespect for congressonal lawmakers as the polarizing Lubchenco, who mercifully steps down in the weeks ahead. And he will, perhaps once and for all, deliver a virtual death knell to an industry that his agency is supposed to be working with – not against.

Let’s hope he sees the light — and that these dire and overstated cuts, based on unsubstantiated data, never see the light of day.