By Richard Gaines
---- — With the regulated industry facing a virtual implosion based on a disputed legal ruling, an online petition campaign has been initiated to pressure Congress to close NOAA’s nearly new headquarters for the Northeast region in Blackburn Industrial Park and use the annual agency’s regional payroll — pegged at about $15 million a year — to provide relief for a recognized “economic disaster” in the groundfishery.
Found at the web site, http://fishermen.wufoo.com/forms/close-the-nmfs-northeast-regional-office/, the anonymous petition writer invites signers by hoisting the Gloucester-based center for fisheries regulation from Maine to North Carolina on the petard of chief regional administrator John Bullard.
The petition pulls from an Associated Press story statements by Bullard at the Jan. 26 meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council to the effect that “fishery managers are ultimately to blame for weak stocks that haven’t rebounded.
”We set the rules and clearly the rules have failed, There’s no other conclusion,” Bullard was quoted as saying during the tense day.”
”We commend Mr. Bullard for his honest, direct and accurate description of the current reality,” the petition said. The writer opined, however, that “we believe that just as there are consequences for failures in business, so, too, should there be consequences for failures in government.”
The petition asks the Senate Appropriations Committee to begin the process of closing the Northeast regional office, which was built to specifications for NOAA and opened at a cost of more than $13 million in in 2009 for about 200 managers and staff, and redirecting the expenses of operating it to the disaster relief of the groundfishery.
Resentment over the plight of the fishing industry climaxed with the New England Fishery Management Council’s vote to collapse Gulf of Maine cod landings by 77 percent and cut Georges Bank cod limits by 61 percent in the fishing cycle beginning May 1. Both votes were made grudgingly — and only after Bullard wrote to the council two days earlier announcing his decision that, based on “advice by NOAA General Counsel (Lois Schiffer),” NOAA would not authorize a second year of “interim” catch limits like the one for 2012 that offered the industry a lifeline by holding the cutback to 22 percent.
The 77 and 61 percent cuts for in and off shore cod are expected to cause many if not most active fishermen off the water, according to emotional testimony at the council meeting in Portsmouth and in Gloucester and New Bedford last week before new U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
The New York Times quoted New Bedford’s Carlos Raphael, who operates the largest ground fishing business in the region as commenting that “I’m leaving here in a coffin. With all these cuts, I won’t be able to keep half of my fleet working. I’ll have to cut down from 20 groundfish boats to maybe five or six.”
Most of the groundfishery rooted in Gloucester is comprised of mom-and-pop boat businesses, which don’t have the luxury of stacking permits to stay in business.
Bullard’s refusal to authorize a second year of interim action flies in the face of legal readings of the Magnuson-Stevens Act by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group with about two thirds of the active boats as dues paying members, the council itself which is an arm of NOAA, and then Sen. John Kerry (now the secretary of state), Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the members of the congressional delegation with fishing ports, including Congressman John Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann.
The three groups all concluded that a second year of interim cuts, 22 percent for inshore cod, were allowable and could be legally defended.
Bullard’s letter with legal reference to Schiffer came less than three months after the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an industry challenge to the catch share regimen imposed in 2010 based on the legal principle that administrative law affords enormous latitude to agencies to interpret the intent of Congress.
Warren and her colleagues, as well as Kerry, now in the Obama administration, urged NOAA to grant the industry the second year of interim action, but as yet none of them have appealed to Schiffer’s superior, Cameron Kerry, John’s brother, who is general counsel at the Department of Commerce, to reverse Bullard’s opinion and Schiffer’s advice.
Promoting the petition is Stonington, Conn., groundfisherman Dick Grachek. He sent an email blast, saying, “This fishery is a disaster due to inadequate surveys and ambivalent assessments, plus the fact that many fishermen were put out of business by cockeyed catch share allocations and the consequent fleet consolidation imposed by NOAA’s EDF Jane Lubchenco and sustained by lawsuit threats from such enviro-luminaries as Conservation Law Foundation, Pew, Oceana, Center for Biological Diversity, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, to name a few.”
Lubchenco who steps down from heading NOAA on Thursday, helped sell President Obama on converting the groundfishery into a commodity market trading in catch shares during her stay as vice chairwoman of Environmental Defense Fund. The policy paper Oceans of Abundance that she co-authored for Obama’s consumption following the 2008 Presidential election held catch shares out as a panacea that would restore the ecosystem and make the industry profitable.
Months after the industry was declared a disaster in September by the acting commerce secretary, Lubchenco emailed her decision to return to academia at the end of February by declaring that she had succeeded. Schiffer and Bullard were appointed by Lubchenco.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.