There were far more sighs than cheers last week when U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke confirmed he would grant a six-fold increase in the current year's total allowable catch for pollock in the New England fishery.
That's partly because, while Locke's belated action grants some relief regarding that one species, it may not mean much unless similar relief on other so-called "choke" species is extended as well.
Fishermen crossing the tight limits on any of these species could still bring a shutdown of the fishery. And lawmakers backing fishermen in this push noted that this relief, offered along with increases in skate limits, recognized that.
"Without corresponding increases in the remaining 'choke stocks' our fishermen may not be able to significantly increase fishing this season," Sen. John Kerry said — and he's right.
But there is a more subtle message here that should not go unnoticed — from the Gloucester waterfront to the halls of Congress and the White House.
Locke's announcement again confirms something fishermen have said from the start — that pollock is relatively plentiful, and the science used by NOAA Fisheries to set these limits is outdated and, in many cases, just plain wrong. And that's nothing to celebrate.
Seeing a window to raise the catch limit on pollock or any other fish stock by 600 percent — not 6, not 60, but 600 — isn't just a matter of finding a little "wiggle room" in credible scientific data. It's conceding that, once again, the fishermen were right — that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's trawl data and other "science" once again isn't worth the paper its written on.
Let's face it: When a government-commissioned trawl survey can't find large amounts of fish, it doesn't mean the stocks aren't there. It may well just mean that those running the trawl survey don't know how to catch them — as confirmed in the 1999-2000 "Trawlgate" fiasco. It may mean they don't know where or when to find them — as confirmed by a credible 2009 UMass-Dartmouth report on winter flounder. Or, worse, it may mean they don't want to find them, especially given the NOAA agenda under chief administrator Jane Lubchenco. the former Environmental Defense Fund vice chairwoman whose own "scientific" background includes anti-fishing studies that have lost credibility in their own right.
For years now, NOAA has cast aside fishermen's and industry complaints and challenges on some basic premises.
One, of course, is that NOAA has the science, so NOAA knows best. But the more insidious NOAA premise is that the fishermen can't be believed, can't be trusted, know nothing about ocean science, and regularly cheat to beat NOAA's necessary regulations and enforcement.
Those beliefs seem deep-seeded within the NOAA "culture," especially here in Gloucester and New England. Yet, when you include Locke's 600-percent pollock correction, this year's Inspector General's report and audit and other actions, there is now solid, documented evidence that:
When Gloucester fishermen and officials and the Gloucester Seafood Display Auction said they were being harassed, abused and excessively fined by NOAA's enforcement thugs, they were being truthful — and right.
When Gloucester, New Bedford and other fishing activists said the initial pollock limit — set 67 percent below the most recent figures for annual landings — was unjustified and propped up with bad science, they were right again.
When scallopers and other industry backers cried foul over tight limits on that species — limits that were about to cost New England scallopers more than $40 million this year — they were right again. In that case, even the New England Fishery Management Council reluctantly raised the limits itself in January.
So the next time you see NOAA Fisheries try to justify limits that seem overly tight, the next time they dare to ask whether we trust "science" of the fishermen — the next time NOAA dares suggest the fishermen are the criminals in this social and economic drama, we should all know whom to believe. It sure isn't Lubchenco's NOAA.
That should tell everyone from the president on down the depth of reform that's needed for this downright corrupt federal oceans agency.
A few isolated catch increases can no longer turn the tide. NOAA needs a full cleanup and fumigation — from the top down.