By Richard Gaines
---- — New Bedford’s John Bullard, a recreational sailor with government experience from mayor to the Clinton administration, Monday takes the helm of a shaky ship when he becomes regional administrator for NOAA Fisheries Northeast offices here.
But Bullard arrives with a reputation as a reasonable, personable, political creature.
The industry that’s regulated, administered and governed out of Gloucester stretches from Maine to North Carolina, and is stuck in a spiral of consolidation — spurred by a highly disputed catch share commodification imposed on the groundfishery in 2010 under the gaze of NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who remains at the agency’s national helm.
Bullard was appointed by Lubchenco on July 2, but she who gave him “no marching orders” whatsoever, Bullard said in an interview Wednesday after meeting with the some 200 members of his regional team who work out of the $13 million Blackburn Industrial Park edifice built for the agency and opened three years ago.
“Nobody told me, ‘Here’s what you’ve got to do,’” he said, adding that Lubchenco and Eric Schwaab, her top assistant, made it clear “they were committed to change.”
The selection of Bullard, a former New Bedford mayor, was applauded by leaders of the New Bedford fishing community and Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk, who got to know him while they were both members of the state Ocean Advisory Commission and found Bullard “politically astute and very practical.”
Bullard said he would first go on a listening tour of the vast region to ask stakeholders two key questions: “What are your one or two most important issues? And, what would success look like?”
He said he expected many answers.
“ I’m very well aware how little I know of these very, very complicated issues,” he added. The problems to be wrestled are “technical, complicated and with very high stakes,” Bullard said.
But he said he was braced by the quality of the team he inherits and the good working relationship he has developed with William Karp, the new director of the Northeast Science Center.
Bullard, to be paid $165,000 a year, succeeds Patricia Kurkul, who retired last December after a decade of fractious, often bitter leadership that the fishing industry found decidedly patronizing and biased in favor of environmental stakeholders.
The Commerce Department’s inspector general, at the request of Congressman John Tierney, who represents Cape Ann, and Barney Frank, whose district includes New Bedford, is in the midst of an investigation into improper influences on the catch rules crafted by NOAA’s Northeast regional offices, including the New England Regional Fishery Management Council.
Also casting a shadow on the Northeast offices of NOAA are two lightning-rod issues —the unreleased set of more than 60 case studies into law enforcement excesses which victimized industry members from Massachusetts, and the failure of Lubchenco and the Department of Commerce to respond to a filing by Gov. Deval Patrick aimed at getting an economic emergency declaration for Massachusetts fishing businesses under Lubchenco’s catch share management policies. The governor, together with the state’s congressional delegation, is seeking $21 million to ease the socio-economic hardships.
A third potential lightning rod is a widely co-sponsored suit by the cities of New Bedford and Gloucester alleging that Amendment 16, the catch share program, was created illegally in the decision not to put the radical transformation of the industry to a referendum, as the 2006 re authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act required of limited access privilege programs.
Oral arguments before the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston were scheduled for Sept. 5, attorneys were notified Wednesday.
Yet amid those signs of conflict there is hope among fishing industry backers for a new era under Bullard.
“We are looking forward to John being a breath of fresh air,” said Brian Rothschild, a professor of marine science at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. “Key issues involve a comprehensive review of stock assessments, reporting on progress in addressing issues raised in the Touchstone Report (which highlighted dysfunctional aspects of the regional council system) and catching up on significant requests made to NOAA that have not been addressed.”
“I think he’s going to be fine for the job,” added Jim Kendall, president of New Bedford Seafood Consulting, and a retired scalloper.
Kendall recalled that Bullard’s term as New Bedford’s mayor in 1986 began with a “fishermen’s strike.” His elected political career ended when he approved a sewer treatment plant before the election of 1991 and was sent packing by 300 votes out of about 25,000 cast.
From 1993 through 1998, Bullard worked in the Clinton administration heading NOAA’s first Office of Sustainable Development and Intergovernmental Affairs, which bought up the excess of fishing boats that resulted from a misguided government effort to replace the big factory trawlers of foreign nations barred from the 200-mile exclusive economic zone first created by the 1976 enactment of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
“It is my hope that Mr. Bullard’s long history of working with the fishing community, both as Mayor of New Bedford and previously at NOAA, will facilitate a positive dialogue between the industry and NOAA,” Congressman John Tierney in an email.
”It is imperative not only that the economic viability of the industry remain a priority for NOAA, but that every effort continues to be made to ensure that fishermen have a seat at the table,” Tierney said.
John Bullard’s strong leadership, understanding of this region and longstanding experience in fisheries is highlighted through his former positions with NOAA and as Mayor of New Bedford,” said Johanna Thomas, regional director of Environmental Defense Fund, who supported Bullard’s candidacy. “He’s a good communicator with an understanding of the challenges fishermen face. His knowledge and leadership will be an asset at this critical time.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.