Cape Ann lawmakers Bruce Tarr and Ann-Margaret Ferrante walked a thin line last week when they sat down and penned a letter to state Attorney General Maura Healey on the issue of at-sea monitoring.

The state Senate minority leader and state representative, respectively, wanted to enlist Healey's support in the legal campaign to block NOAA Fisheries' plan to shift the cost of mandated at-sea monitoring (ASM) to groundfish permit holders on March 1 and they knew they were racing the clock.

They also didn't want to overplay their hand by pressuring Healey to follow a specific course of remedy, such as having Massachusetts become an intervening plaintiff in the ongoing federal lawsuit filed by New Hampshire fisherman David Goethel seeking to block NOAA Fisheries' plan to transfer the responsibility of funding ASM to the fishermen as of Tuesday.

"We didn't want to pre-suppose any method of support," Tarr said. "We just believe that this plan represents such an injustice that it would be a serious mistake not to look at every option and we wanted to make sure the commercial fishing industry is represented."

So, Tarr and Ferrante carefully worded their letter, asking the state's senior law enforcement official to explore any available legal avenue for supporting the industry effort that Goethel's lawsuit has emerged to most poignantly represent.

"We request that your office explore all appropriate legal means to support our fishing families and ports through vehicles such as the current pending case," they wrote, referring to the Goethel lawsuit that was filed in U.S. District Court in Concord, New Hampshire. "We are interested in Mr. Goethel's plight because his situation is comparable to that of fishermen in Gloucester and the statewide fishing industry."

Detrimental economic impact 

Ferrante said the lawmakers have not met formally with Healey or her staff to discuss the possibility of supporting the Goethel case, but each said they'd had general discussions with the attorney general about the overarching issue of ASM and the potential detrimental economic impact on the Gloucester fishing community should fishermen have to foot the bill for observer coverage.

"I just wanted to stress with her the importance of the issue and the hope that her office will continue the work Martha Coakley did as attorney general in watching out for the fishing industry," Ferrante said.

A spokeswoman for the the attorney general's office on Saturday said the office is aware of the Goethel lawsuit and evaluating any potential involvement. She also said the office had not yet received the Tarr-Ferrante letter and would review it upon arrival.

"Really, we just gave them a head's up," Tarr said. "I understand they already were looking at it in a general way."

Goethel, who fishes out of Hampton, New Hampshire, and the South Dartmouth-based Northeast Fishing Sector 13, filed the lawsuit last December against the U.S. Department of Commerce, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and officials with both of those federal agencies.

He and other fishermen are represented in the case by attorneys from the Washington, D.C.-based government watchdog organization, Cause For Action.

Call for more ASM

While the fishermen's lawsuit has drawn the most attention, there is another that could prove equally as troubling to NOAA and the fishing industry: maritime environmental group Oceana's lawsuit challenging NOAA Fisheries' bycatch rule.

Filed last July, Oceana's lawsuit claims NOAA's bycatch rule violates the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act and the Administrative Procedure Act. It labeled the ASM program as underfunded and uniformly insufficient for providing accurate and statistically reliable data and said the agency needs to institute much higher levels of observer coverage in the Northeast multi-species groundfish fishery.

Oceana's lawsuit charges the current bycatch rule leaves "loopholes that would guarantee that observer coverage will never meet its performance standards, ultimately failing to fix current insufficient low levels of monitoring in the region."

The issue of monitoring burst back into the public arena on Friday, when federal agents — including those from NOAA Law Enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service — raided the operations of Carlos Seafood on the New Bedford waterfront and arrested fishing mogul Carlos Rafael and his bookkeeper Debra Messier on charges of conspiracy and falsifying records.

The criminal complaint alleges Rafael, in conjunction with Messier, routinely circumvented regulatory inspectors, observers and the established system of fishing quotas by lying about the quantity and species of fish he landed and then selling the unreported fish in backroom deals with seafood buyers in New York City.

The arrests prompted a quick response from environmental groups seeking expanded monitor coverage for the groundfish fishery.

“While the arrest in New Bedford today is an extreme case, it underscores the need for greater accountability of vessels out at sea, and potentially on the dock," Joshua Wiersma, northeast fisheries manager for the Environmental Defense Fund said Friday in a statement. "Currently, we do not know what fishermen are catching and selling because the current system of monitoring and reporting has clear holes in it that are being exploited to the detriment of honest fishermen across New England."

Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.

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