GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

February 2, 2011

Bill demands reviews of fish policy

Sen. Brown's proposal would check regulatory impact on communities

By Richard Gaines
Staff Writer

U.S. Sen. Scott Brown's legislative proposal targeting changes in the Magnuson-Stevens Act would subject federal fisheries policy actions to systematic, independent economic analysis on an annual basis.

And his bill was applauded across the industry Wednesday as a needed lever to compel bureaucratic compliance with the Magnuson Act, which governs the regulation of America's fisheries,

In Gloucester, the Northeast Seafood Coalition, the region's largest industry group, said the National Marine Fisheries Service's failure to balance community well-being and industry harvest with conservation efforts made it necessary for independent evaluation of the impacts of regulatory actions.

Industry attorney Stephen Ouellette made much the same point, but went further, ascribing to fisheries' officials actions "to weaken the industry in advancing "a political conservationist agenda."

"One has to wonder whether NMFS has been stretching the truth and misleading the industry, the general public and Congress," the Gloucester-based attorney added.

Ouellette proposed a "complete retrospective analysis" of faulty projections of landings by regulators, which he has calculated has cost the New England economy as much as $500 million beyond the social costs in moving working fishermen into the ranks of the unemployed.

"The Commerce Department must be forced to comply with an independent fisheries impact statement, so that officials at NOAA and the Commerce Department cannot ignore the situation or tailor the results of the statement to their own purposes," Brown said in a prepared statement.

The seafood coalition and Ouellette together represent a sizeable fraction of the surviving descendants of the nation's original industry, which here in the 17th century.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk also lauded Brown's proposal as well conceived.

"Frequent and neutral third party reviews," she said, are "exactly what is needed," Kirk said.

"The concept of periodic, independent outside review of NMFS actions is long overdue," Ouellette told the Times in an e-mail response to questions seeking reaction to Brown's proposal. The Massachusetts Republican senator outlined his legislation at the start of the week as part of a larger package focused on economic revitalization and job creation or protection.

In his announcement, Brown charged that the "catch share regulations" which are at the core of Amendment 16 — the radical restructuring of the groundfishery into a commodities market based on buying, selling or trading fishermen's shares of a total allowable catch — was "strangling the fishing industry."

Among the industry's longstanding complaints is that officials manipulate data to hold down landings and also fail to consider economic impacts of conservation policies as Magnuson requires.

Disputes are endemic over the status of stocks and the impact of conservation measures between industry and government officials allied with ENGOs or environmental non-government organizations, which have embedded themselves in the regulatory process.

Brown's office said the legislation, termed the FISH Act (for Fishery Impact Statement Honesty), would amend Magnuson by adding language to "require fishery impact statements to be independent and updated on an annual basis" — and twice annually in the first year of a new regimen.

Analyses of the impacts since the regimen went into effect have been wildly disparate, with industry and independent reviews finding clear economic hardships while Eric Schwaab, who heads the National Marine Fisheries Service, has asserting that the regimen has been a revitalizing force.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke last month rejected a request from Gov. Deval Patrick to declare a fisheries failure and increase fishermen's catch limits.

In reaction, Patrick wrote to President Obama last week pleading with him "to set your agencies ... on a course of cooperation" with industry.

A complaint about catch shares is its seemingly universal dynamic to eliminate marginal businesses while shifting equity to the wealthiest.

In Gloucester and New Bedford, where heavy job losses have already been reported in the first eight months under the new system, Mayor Kirk and New Bedford Mayor Scott Lang have condemned the system for privatizing gains and socializing losses.

As proposed, Brown's legislation would require the General Accountability Office, which is an arm of Congress, rather than the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is an executive agency, to choose the "outside, neutral third party" to make the assessment of the impacts of fisheries policy.

Brown's proposed legislation is the latest direct challenge to what fishing advocates say is a government-created economic crisis.

Ouellette is also the co-lead counsel, along with attorney Pamela Lafreniere of New Bedford, in a landmark federal lawsuit of fishing ports and businesses challenging Amendment 16, on constitutional and statutory grounds.

A pivotal element in the case is the allegation that large-scale environmental lobbyist groups have employed a hidden hand and gained undue government influence to forge anti-fishing policies.

The move by Brown to amend the Magnuson Act seems to have energized a movement that drew inspiration a year ago this month when as many as 5,000 fishing industry members and advocates — including 21 members of Congress — met in a rally at the side of the Capitol.

The expressed primary goal of the rally was to push forward with legislation to amend Magnuson and allow regulators some latitude in deadlines for restoring overfished stocks.

But the movement gained little traction against an intense green pushback, and there is yet to be a new airing of Magnuson in either the Senate or House.

Last month, Steve Murawski, the recently retired longtime chief fisheries scientist at NOAA, gave the industry claims further credibility when in an interview with the Associated Press in which he emphasized that U.S. efforts at creating sustainable fisheries were the most advanced in the world, and that overfishing had effectively been eliminated.

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