Feds relent on fishing restrictions

By Steve Urbon

U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on Thursday wrote to U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and offered the following to the Northeast fishing industry:
— A reassessment of the catch limits imposed this year with an eye toward using his executive authority under law to amend them as soon as possible under economic emergency conditions.
— $15 million for groundfish assessments nationwide, to be carried out in conjunction with scientists outside of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and with fishermen themselves.
— Support for changes in the law to let the trans-boundary agreement with Canada supersede the Magnuson-Stevens Act along the border, probably resulting in higher catch limits for yellowtail flounder, and by extension, cod and scallops.

New Bedford — U.S. Commerce Secretary Gary Locke on Thursday gave the Northeast fishing industry almost everything it asked for in its yearlong battle with NOAA and its director, Dr. Jane Lubchenco.

U.S. Rep. Barney Frank convened a press conference at the whaling museum that was also attended by U.S. Sen. John Kerry, Mayor Scott W. Lang and Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk. Gov. Deval Patrick got stuck in traffic and couldn’t make the event, according to an aide.

The event was almost as big a meeting as the one 10 months ago in which local fishermen confronted regulators about the impending catch shares and catch limits that came in the spring.

This time, the mood was festive as the news of Locke’s letter to Frank was unfurled by the congressman to the upbeat crowd.

After balking for weeks, Locke agreed with the legislative delegation that he does have the authority under the Magnuson-Stevens Act to make emergency revisions to regulations if they are justified and can be supported by science.

That means that any possible increases in catch limits for such things as yellowtail flounder will have to wait for the available science to be gathered from all sources — not just the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this time — and then be used to calculate changes.

Frank said that since a court challenge is almost certain, “We want to make sure we’re going to win.”

Patrick, who wrote Locke two weeks ago with four urgent requests including this one, said in a conference call that he thinks the process could be accomplished in a matter of weeks, not months.

Locke also threw his support behind legislation filed by Frank and U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, that would relax the governance of catch along the border with Canadian waters. No longer would the U.S. Canada Trans-boundary Resources Understanding be overruled by Magnuson, but be governed on its own as any treaty.

Since the change will likely permit more fishing for yellowtail, it will thus open up the availability of more cod, yellowtail and scallops in that area, said Frank, not to mention making a point about the abundance of fish.

In his letter, Patrick asked Locke to find $2.1 million to support additional groundfish assessments in partnership with the state and with the fishing industry itself. Locke said he intends to take $15 million that is part of the Census surplus (his agency also performs the U.S. Census) and apply it to groundfish assessments nationwide.

“Don’t make too big a deal about that,” Patrick joked.

Locke said a national fishing science summit will convene in January to review the methods of gathering and applying data that NOAA is using.

As Frank summarized the saga of the Northeast fishing industry in 2010 and went down the list of what Locke was offering, he likened it to 1995 when then-Commerce Secretary William Daley stepped in and sided with UMass scientists in their documentation of a huge scallop population. That decision 15 years ago turned New Bedford into the nation’s No. 1 dollar value fishing port.

Frank was heaped with praise by everyone who spoke for his work on the issue. Kerry praised his “tireless and relentless” approach, while crediting those in the gathering for helping push to the point where the commerce secretary not only would step in but step in on the side of the industry against his own agency.

“For 25 years, we didn’t get anywhere with the science,” Kerry said. “Now a door has been opened and we have to walk through it.”

Kerry said he didn’t think the $15 million for research would be enough, and said Congress needs to address something that Locke left out: immediate economic assistance to the communities and the families affected by the new restrictions.

Speaking of all the help he and the rest of Congress have funneled toward supporting farmers, Kerry said, “This is no different. Fishermen are the farmers of the ocean, and they deserve that assistance on a national basis.” His words raised loud applause from the room.

Gloucester Mayor Kirk evoked the meeting 10 months ago in which fishermen and their advocates demanded to be treated with respect by federal regulators. “Now they’re beginning to get the respect they deserve,” she said.

October 15, 2010 12:00 AM

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