, Gloucester, MA

February 14, 2012

Editorial: Fishermen, Congress cannot blindly accept new cod limits

If U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson, in cahoots with NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco and acting marine fisheries chief Sam Rauch, signs off on an interim cod catch limit of 6,700 tons, as Rauch signaled last week, there may well be some sense of relief even in some fishing circles that the reduction is not more severe.

There shouldn't be,

The fact is, that level of catch for the new fishing year, which begins May 1, is at the bottom rung of a range recommended by the New England Fishery Management Council. It would still represent a 22 percent drop from the figure for the current year. It will still bring significant new losses for fishermen, waterfront businesses and New England fishing communities such as Gloucester, New Bedford and so many others.

The reduction remains based on data that continues to draw a wide variety of serious questions concerning its credibility — from the trawling research crew's operation of its new boat The Bigelow, to its use of new collecting gear and the fact that, true to form, there were no true fishermen involved in collecting the data.

The simple fact remains: Given those variables, and given the sadly comic lack of credibility of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's "science" data that's been used to set regulations in the past, there is simply no reasonable way that Department of Commerce or NOAA can set any limits without a new assessment. And given the obstinate Lubcheno's refusal to do so, it's time for Congress to take emergency measures regarding the Magnuson-Stevens Act and to block any implementation of its "overfishing" triggers until the new data can be better verified through a new survey.

It is those triggers — initially geared toward a rebuilding the stock by 2014 — that have sent the industry into crisis mode. That's largely because, if the 2011 data is proven true, any hope of reaching those goals is already lost. That already means the industry could be facing a cut equivalent to a virtual economic guillotine in 2013.

While NOAA is, by most counts, ready to accept an "interim" limit for this year, it's important for everyone to get a grip on where this supposed "science" is coming from.

It's coming from the same job- and business-killing agency that, in 1999 and 2000, had to fess up that its trawling survey had grossly missed counting tens of thousands of fish because its nets were too wide — a fiasco now widely known as "Trawlgate."

It's coming from an agency that blindly accepted data so far off the mark that its own leaders had to boost the New England pollock catch by a mere 600 percent in 2010.

And it's coming from an agency that, while admittedly fouling up some fishermen's landings records used to allocate their catch shares, downright refused to fix the errors in timely fashion — threatening the fishermen's very ability to make a living if Lubchenco's job-killing catch share program didn't drive them into bankruptcy first.

Those are all reasons why elected officials from Gloucester's Mayor Carolyn Kirk and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante to U.S. Sen. John Kerry have demanded a new assessment.

And while Lubchenco has blatantly shown nothing but contempt for Congress, inspectors general and anyone else who doesn't gulp down her green Kool-Aid, she simply cannot be allowed to stand by this data and stonewall her way to industry-killing limits based on what could well prove to be another case of agenda-driven, marine science fiction.

It's time our federal lawmakers all stood up and put an emergency clamp on using Magnuson-Stevens to implement any new limits on the Gulf of Maine cod catch until a new study can affirm the findings at the root of this supposed "crisis."

There's no time to waste.