By Richard Gaines
---- — BOSTON — At the northeast corner of the Boston Fish Pier, not far from an unloading boat, Massachusetts’ elected leaders from the U.S. Senate and House and lawmakers from the State House came together Monday in an 11th hour rally aimed at convincing the White House or the outgoing acting Secretary of Commerce to overrule the leaders of NOAA and grant a regulatory reprieve to the Northeast groundfishery.
Barring the extraordinary, draconian cuts in landings for the 2013 fishing season will take effect tomorrow — May 1, the start of the new fishing year. Cuts in landings of Gulf of Maine Cod, the lifeblood for the inshore fleet based in Gloucester, would be 77 percent of this year’s allocation. Landings of cod and yellowtail in offshore Georges Bank would be cut by more than 60 percent, paralyzing the fleet from New Bedford.
It was Attorney General Martha Coakley, a leading advocate for the fishing industry along with Gov. Deval Patrick who put it directly to NOAA’s Gloucester-based Northeast regional administrator while addressing the roughly 300 fishermen present as well.
“I hope, Mr. Bullard,” she said, speaking beneath a big canvas tent, “that you can take the ‘no’ out of NOAA.”
John Bullard, who stood in the audience that numbered about 250 people, told the Times moments later he has heard nothing from higher authorities, so “the course hasn’t changed.” NOAA, however, has still not posted on the Federal Register the catch limits for groundfish for the 2013 fishing year.
The rally was organized last week by the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region’s largest industry group, with the hope of convincing the White House to overrule NOAA General Counsel Lois Schiffer and Bullard and grant the industry certain reprieves from the dire cuts in landings — reprieves that Schiffer contends are illegal in an unreleased legal memorandum to Bullard.
“Just put it on hold,” said Coakley, who wrote the governor last week indicating that NOAA could legally grant a second year of interim relief to the industry. Gov. Patrick wrote to Coakley last Friday that he had taken the case to Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to and close friend of President Obama.
Patrick did not attend, but representing him was Rick Sullivan, the executive secretary of energy and environmental affairs, who gave no indication the Jarrett had signaled a response to the governor’s briefing and plea for relief.
The event came off under the high anxiety for an industry facing desolation even as reports continue to come up that the fish, were returning in encouraging numbers.
Richie Canastra, treasurer of the seafood coalition and co-owner of the region’s largest fish auction, said he has heard from a number of fishermen on Georges Bank even this morning that concentrations of yellowtail flounder was plentiful. Canastra also told the Times before the rally that “the constant interruption of the supply chain” by government management decisions has driven buyers away from New England and to Canadian, Icelandic and Scandinavian suppliers.
“We’re into our second full year of unfavorable conditions,” said Vito Giacalone, who is an official of the Gloucester Fishing Community Preservation Fund and the coalition, “and if history repeats itself, like it almost always does, catch rates will begin to tick up very soon and we will be climbing to a period of high catch rates but the quotas will have been set at record lows.”
Most speakers plucked at NOAA with improvisational zeal.
“We are totally frustrated with NOAA for its not willing to work with us,” said Congressman John Tierney.
“It’s time to prove the power of democracy is stronger than the power of bureaucracy,” added state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester. “The Magnuson Act was not created to create an aquarium in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”
State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante turned back on Bullard his own memorable phrase — that fishermen need to face “day of reckoning” — from the January meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council.
“Today is a day of reckoning? Why?” Ferrante asked. “My father risked his life as a young man fishing so that I could go to college and law school and make something of myself. “
She referred to the former director of law enforcement at NOAA, Dale Jones, who was linked to the abuse of authority in many facets of a scandal-filled 10 year stretch unveiled by the inspector general of the commerce department in 2010, but was never punished or made to account for his actions. Instead, Jones was shifted to another job at virtually the same salary, more than $150,000 a year.
“Nobody gave Dale Jones a day of reckoning,” Ferrante said.
Mayor Carolyn Kirk took a different tact. She announced that, in the days to come, she would introduce a set of proposals that will secure the groundfishing industry for years to come, and in a telephone interview she said the innovations include transitioning from a high-volume, low-margin business model to one that is defined by a lower-volume, high-quality, value-added approach.
But she also said the industry deserved transition assistance.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren and William “Mo” Cowan also spoke.
“I’m deeply, deeply concerned about being two days away from a decision that could put the industry into dire straights,” said Cowan, the acting senator appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick to temporarily take the seat vacated when John Kerry was named Secretary of State.
“I’m proud to be here today,” said Warren, “to stand shoulder to shoulder to fight for a way of life we believe in.”
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.