GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

April 23, 2013

AG urges easing of fish limits

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

---- — Gov. Deval Patrick has been urged by Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley to request that President Obama “ask” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to institute lesser catch reductions than are expected on Gulf of Maine cod and other stocks for the fishing year that begins May 1.

The catch restrictions expected from the Obama administration within days are “essentially a death sentence to the 80,000 jobs created by the industry and a loss of $2 billion to the commonwealth,” Coakley wrote to Patrick on April 10.

State officials said the governor was preparing a definitive response.

“This remains an important issue for the Commonwealth and the Patrick-Murray Administration will continue to vigorously advocate for the fishing industry which is important to the character and economic vitality of Massachusetts,” Reginald Zimmerman, a spokesman for the governor, said in an email.

Paul Diodati, the state director of marine fisheries, and Richard Sullivan, secretary of energy and environmental affairs, have met separately with industry groups in recent days to analyze the best approach for the governor to take with the President; longtime friends, Patrick was a co-chairman of the Obama reelection campaign, and initiated the long delayed request that the Northeast groundfishery be granted disaster status.

His filing was in November 2011, and was quickly followed by similar requests by the governors of the other coastal New England states and New York. But the Commerce Department’s declaration of an “economic disaster” was not granted until 11 months later, and has remained without any tangible assistance or financial aid to the nation’s oldest continuous industry.

Coakley’s letter to Patrick contained the same request made days earlier by a group of more than 60 state lawmakers; it calls for the president to use the authority of his office to have NOAA institute “interim” catch limits for the Northeast groundfishery that was finally declared a disaster by the acting commerce secretary last September.

But because of her elected office, as the top attorney for the people, Coakley’s voice adds legal weight to the argument that the president can direct a different interpretation of the Magnuson Act than NOAA had settled on.

Last fall, the First U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston threw out an industry challenge to the catch share regimen, based on the finding that the agency must be granted great discretion to interpret the law when it is unclear.

A smaller group of lawmakers made a an initial request for interim relief in a letter April 1 to the acting assistant administrator for fisheries, Samuel D. Rauch III.

Three days later, the larger cohort of legislators’ letter — drafted by Gloucester’s delegation, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr and state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante — featured a detailed legal rebuttal to the position taken by NOAA’s General Counsel Lois Schiffer that a second year of interim and lesser cuts in Gulf of Maine cod and other relief from extreme restrictions on landings of many groundfish stocks were not allowed by the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Rauch set a precedent by granting the industry a one year of interim cuts — down 22 percent, a level that reduced but did not end “overfishing” as Magnuson requires, for the 2012 fishing year. Without another year of interim relief, the industry is facing 77 percent cuts in Gulf of Maine cod and harsh cutbacks in many other key stocks.

The legal memo by NOAA’s general counsel, Lois Schiffer, to Bullard has been withheld from the public on a claim of attorney-client privilege.

But Bullard said Monday in a telephone interview that he was bound by her legal position and also convinced of the wisdom of not giving in to the calls for another year of lesser cod cuts lest the stock be weakened further and its revival delayed in the same way Canadian cod has rebuilt so slowly after the stock was decimated by factory trawlers — including Canadian and foreign boats.

Bullard said he also intended to cut Georges Bank yellowtail landings by 62 percent even though the New England Fishery Management Council voted in January to allow landings of 1,150 metric tons, a 12 percent cut. He also said that, while he believed the many fishermen who have reported a surprisingly high concentration of yellowtail flounder , the stock assessment on which he is basing his final rule, now in final drafting, requires more extreme protection for the stock, which has higher value as bycatch to scallops than it does for its own flesh.

Any excessive presence of a stock with small catch limits becomes a “choker” for all fishing due to the rule for the catch share regimen that requires that all fishing must stop when a full allocation for any one of the 20 stocks is reached.

Addressing Gov. Patrick, Coakley wrote, “I ask that you join in the effort to engage the president to take immediate action ... to prevent the devastating reduction of catch shares on the commonwealth’s fishing industry.”

Later, she wrote that “the president of the United States has the authority to ask for interim measures that would provide a better balance between the need to rebuild fishing stocks and the devastation that will occur to a major economic engine for Massachusetts.

“We ask that you discuss this important proposal with President Obama,” Coakley wrote to Patrick.

Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertimes.com.