, Gloucester, MA

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April 13, 2012

Cities' fishing suit says NOAA ignoring law

Fishing industry plaintiffs have formally urged the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston to overturn last June's lower court and invalidate the two-year-old catch share system used to manage the New England groundfishery.

In searing language, the 31-page "reply brief" — filed with the court late Wednesday — will be the final written word before oral arguments later this year, projected as soon as June, but if not, by next fall.

"In the defendants' world," wrote the plaintiffs' New Bedford-based legal team — representing that city, Gloucester, and fishermen and organizations along more than 1,000 miles of coastline — "the rule of law is whatever the government says next." It is an approach that treats the law as a "moving target," plaintiffs said.

Not all Northeast fishing interests wanted to fight the government and overturn the system. More than 100 fishermen last fall urged stability over reform last fall in a letter crafted at least in part by leaders of the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region's largest industry group.

Litigants, however, read the letter as the act of a minority of winners in an industry hemorrhaging jobs and consolidating since before the catch share system was imposed — without giving affected permit holders the opportunity to vote in the radical regimen.

Whether NOAA was obligated to win a two-thirds vote among fishery stakeholders before converting to the catch share system and its leasing, buying and selling of quota is a central point of dispute.

Congress put language in the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the foundational fisheries conservation and management law, that decreed any kind of "new" limited access allocation program for a fishery in the Northeast region could not be imposed without the approval of two thirds of the participants.

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