By Richard Gaines
---- — With fishermen in Gloucester and elsewhere in New England staring at extreme and nearly across-the-board federally mandated cuts in landings of groundfish, the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, is leading a major rally for the industry Monday on the Boston Fish Pier beginning at 11 a.m.
The rally will feature U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Attorney General Martha Coakley and Congressman John Tierney among the speakers, all of whom are Democrats, but have failed, like their fellow partisans, to reach President Obama to change administration policy.
The industry has been dramatically reduced in size since 1996 when changes in the Magnuson-Stevens Act began to erect regulatory protection for many of the stocks in the Northeast groundfishery — notably cod, flounder and haddock. From more than 750 active boats, the industry has been cut to half that size with losses in shore-side businesses — ice, fuel, dry-docking, netting and processors for example.
But the cuts in catch limits projected but not legally posted in the Federal Register as of Friday to take effect next Wednesday — May 1, the first day of the 2013 fishing year — present the industry with an unprecedented limited access to its essential resource, and source of commerce and income.
John Bullard, the regional administrator for the fisheries for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has repeatedly said in writing and orally that he cannot legally grant the industry a reprieve from the cuts — and if he could, he added, he wouldn’t anyway because of his expressed belief that the stocks primarily Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank cod and yellowtail flounder have not been rebuilding to the theoretical maximum biomass quickly enough.
Cuts in landings that are expected to go into effect on Wednesday range from 77 percent for Gulf of Maine cod, to 19 percent for haddock in the western sector of Georges Bank. Most of the cuts are in the 40-50 percent level.
“The rally shows frustration,” said Jackie Odell, the executive director of the Gloucester-bases Seafood Coalition. “The industry is but a fraction of what it once was, the system is broken and we want to let people know that, and let them know how much these businesses need help.”
With the pending cuts in mind, and given figures showing the negative economic effect of NOAA’s catch share management system, which has driven many smaller, independent boats to the sidelines, the acting Commerce secretary last September declared the Northeast groundfishery — covering ports and boats from Maine to New York — to be an “economic disaster” under the definition for a failed fishery in the federal Magnuson-Stevens Act.
But the declaration was delayed for many months after the initial request and filing by Gov. Deval Patrick in November 2011, and no disaster assistance has been provided. President Obama also has not included any disaster assistance in his $8.6 billion budget proposal for the Commerce Department, which includes NOAA, for 2014.
“The disaster has been declared,” Odell continued, “ but there’s been no help. What went wrong?”
Former Gloucester Mayor John Bell, founder and chairman of the board of the coalition, said he sees the rally as a sign that the industry “will not give up.”
“We will bring people together who can influence change,” Bell said, “and together we can stand up and applaud a great profession.”
The rally will be the fourth major East Coast fishermen’s gathering since the start of the Obama administration, but the first that is being organized or ardently supported by the coalition, whose membership ranges from Maine to New Jersey and includes about two thirds of the fishing boat businesses in the region. More than 500 fishing permits are owned by members of the coalition, according to its website.
Until now, the coalition has been a bastion of the establishment, and in November 2011 Odell helped write a letter that was signed by 109 fishermen which urged Congress and NOAA to stabilize rather than change Magnuson and the catch share system, as other elements of the industry had urged in the earlier rallies.
In materials released Friday to explain and publicize the rally, the coalition said the industry had been battered by a “perfect storm” of circumstances. Those include changes to the ecosystem — most dramatically the rise in water temperatures in the Northwest Atlantic — requirements written into the last re-authorization of the Magunson Act, which require depleted stocks to be rebuilt in 10 years, and reduced landings that put pressure on small boat businesses to borrow to maintain their infrastructure of boats, nets and gear.
“The wreckage of the storm,” the coalition statement notes, includes “loss of diversity, loss of investment in the fishery, reduced harvesting capacity and loss of market share.”
Tne U.S. now imports more than 90 percent of its seafood, the bulk from China.
The coalition expects groundfish fishermen, shore-side business representatives and friends of the groundfish industry to attend the Boston rally. Due to extremely limited parking on the Boston Fish Pier, parking will be available at 22 Fid Kennedy Avenue, which is a short distance from the Pier. NSC will provide a shuttle service from the parking lot to the Pier.
Participants are being asked to park no later than 10:15 a.m. For more information, visit http://northeastseafoodcoalition.org/Industry_Rally.html.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.