When touring the North Shore a year and a half ago, then-candidate for attorney general Maura Healey made it a point to mention her family ties to Gloucester, Newburyport and the region’s fishing industry. The implication was that, if elected, fishermen would have a powerful ally on Beacon Hill, or at the very least someone who understood the unique difficulties facing the industry.
Now, Healey is well into her second year as attorney general, and it is time to make good on her promise to protect the industry from federal overreach.
We are talking specifically about the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s at-sea monitoring program, which places observers on fishing vessels to record details of their catch and make sure the federal government’s byzantine regulations are strictly followed.
The most galling aspect of the program, however, is the requirement that fishermen pay for their overseers. By some estimates, the cost could run as high as $710 a trip. Fishermen are already on a razor’s edge; forcing them to pay out and extra several hundred dollars a trip will undoubtedly kill off many of these small businesses for good.
Last week, state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and state Sen. Bruce Tarr reached out to Healey, asking for her help.
“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 in a letter to Healey, referring to a lawsuit filed by fisherman David Goethel in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire aimed at stopping the mandatory monitoring. “We are interested in Mr. Goethel’s plight because his situation is comparable to that of fishermen and Gloucester and the statewide fishing industry.”
Healey doesn’t have to support the lawsuit, the lawmakers said. But her help is needed.
“We didn’t want to pre-suppose any method of support,” Tarr told reporter Sean Horgan. “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 fishing industry is represented.”
A spokesman for the attorney general said the office is reviewing the lawmakers’ letter.
Healey’s level-headedness is especially needed now, after the federal raid on Carlos Seafood in New Bedford by NOAA Law Enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service. In a criminal complaint, the federal government alleges owner Carlos Rafael and his bookkeeper, Debra Messier, routinely lied about the quantity and species of fish he landed, then selling the unreported fish under the table to seafood buyers in New York City.
If the allegations are true, Rafael should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But Rafael is not the entire industry, a fact that seems to be lost on the Environmental Defense Fund.
“While the arrest in New Bedford today is an extreme case, it underscores the need for greater accountability of vessels out at sea,” Joshua Wiersman, the EDF’s northeast fisheries manager, said Friday. “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.”
The biggest hole? The government doesn’t want to pay for the monitoring program, and lets slide insinuations that the profession is rife with lawbreakers. The combination is patently unfair to those working in a centuries-old industry. No one in the business expects the elimination of monitoring. But they do expect -- and deserve -- a fair shake.
This is where Healey’s influence and sense of justice are needed most. The industry doesn’t need blind allegiance. It needs someone who will ensure their voices are heard. The attorney general has not been shy about making herself heard on issues ranging from casino gambling to the opioid abuse crisis, where she has been a true leader.
In endorsing her candidacy in 2014, we said, “As a North Shore native with deep roots in the fishing community, Healey also seeks to focus attention on the plight of the region’s fishing industry. It’s crucial to have someone in a bully pulpit get through to the tin ears that abound in the federal bureaucracy, and Healey has the knowledge and passion to be a strong advocate for our ailing fishing fleets.”
It is time to man the pulpit.