At the Museum: Northeast Fisheries Summit

The  Northeast Fisheries Summit was  held this past Monday, March the 8th, at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. It was intended to restore a foundation of trust between NOAA and the fishing community through a serious and thoughtful dialogue that sets a strategic path moving forward for the promulgation of sound fisheries management plans.

Steve Urbon, senior correspondent of The Standard-Times:

NEW BEDFORD — The Northeast Fisheries Summit drew almost 300 people to the city Monday, a veritable “Who’s Who” of the fishing industry, giving the new NOAA fisheries director an earful about what they view as the coming crisis in the Northeast fishing industry.

Eric Schwaab, just three weeks into his job as the assistant administrator for fisheries at NOAA, sat in the front row of the whaling museum’s packed auditorium and heard one speaker after another assail his agency for its policies, its attitude and its law enforcement.

Representatives of all kinds of players in the fishing industry were encouraged to put their cards on the table, and they did, in 10-minute presentations that were sometimes angry, sometimes emotional.

It was an outpouring of frustration at a federal agency many believe is trying to put them out of business when it isn’t treating them like children or criminals. The summit, organized by UMass and the mayor’s office, followed on the heels of a Capitol Hill “United We Fish” protest in late February, an inspector general’s report blasting fisheries law enforcement, and sworn congressional hearings in which it was revealed that NOAA’s top law enforcement official shredded documents while under investigation.

The summit was intended to clarify issues and show where everyone stands, said Mayor Scott W. Lang, who opened the conference. He enlisted former Mayor John K. Bullard as moderator, UMass School of Marine Science and Technology dean emeritus Dr. Brian Rothschild as organizer and lead scientific and policy adviser, and a wide-ranging cast of state lawmakers, boat owners, attorneys, fishing regulators, environmentalists, and fishing families as panelists and participants.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration became the prime target.

State Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, D-Gloucester, drew applause when she announced, “I want to see the day when the agency respects the fishing industry.”

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., criticized NOAA and the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which he and many others believe needs amendment for being too rigid. “The problem is that the basic law is wrong,” he said. Regulators today are sticking with current law the way people in Medieval times believed the sun revolved around the Earth. Evidence mounted that the theory was wrong, but they kept making pained explanations, “but it was hard to maintain the theory. People don’t like to give up on their theories.”

But with Magnuson, “the fundamental basis is flawed,” Frank said. “People have tried to put certainty where it doesn’t belong.”

Later, Gov. Deval Patrick, who hadn’t heard the earlier comments, likewise assailed NOAA for ignoring this region’s request in spring of 2009 that the science behind the fishing regulations be re-examined.

Maine fisherman Jimmy Odlin, a member of the New England Fishery Management Council, joined those who accused NOAA of being “arrogant” by making policy based on flawed science and in doing so harming fishing families and communities. He drew applause when he said that he is angry at the idea that unsound science should be used to get people out of the business.”

Bud Walsh, who actually helped write the original Magnuson Act, defended the idea that “sectors” management is necessary to the health of the industry, but he expressed surprise that the rules have become so complex. “I have never seen such Byzantine regulations,” he said. He suggested that the fishing industry adopt a corporate model to organize itself around the sectors and compete in the global market. But his suggestion was rejected by one participant who objected that such a move would remove all local control.

Again and again, participants returned to the concept of “catch shares” — pieces of the overall catch that they will be allowed to land, based on their previous fishing experience. As they have said in other places, the catch shares are believed to be unreasonably small, don’t provide for the “optimum yield” for fisheries, and threaten to stop fishing entirely as soon as the quota is reached for the most restricted fish.

When that happens, boats will go idle and if they stay in business their catch shares for the next year will shrink because they are based on the current year’s suboptimal take.

It is all in pursuit of what many called an impossible goal: to bring all fish species to their maximum level in a 10-year span. Vito Giacolone of the New England Seafood Coalition said, “the law demands at face value what we all know is unachievable.” Setting deadlines for fish population growth is “absolutely not attainable” he said. But the industry has no choice but to play along, he said, “because all resources are going clearly toward sector management,” and away from “days at sea.”

New Bedford boat owner Carlos Rafael bluntly told fellow fishermen that unless catch shares are postponed this spring, “50 percent of you will be out of business by August.” He suggested, to enthusiastic applause, that the National Marine Fisheries service be cut in half when that happens, and the $150 million in savings be used to start a boat buyback program.

See the original article here.

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