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US denies increase in fishing quotas

Says state failed to provide new data

By Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / January 8, 2011

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Commercial fishing advocates and Bay State politicians assailed a federal official’s decision yesterday to deny the governor’s request for an emergency increase to catch limits for groundfishing vessels in the Northeast.

In a letter to Governor Deval Patrick dated yesterday, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said he could not raise limits because the state failed to provide new scientific or economic data to justify the move. Locke also denied the Patrick administration’s request for $21 million in emergency aid for the state’s fishing industry, writing, “The data provided are insufficient to warrant either a fishery disaster or a commercial fishery failure’’ under federal law.

Angela Sanfilippo, president of the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, ripped Locke’s decision in a telephone interview and predicted that at least 20 percent of the city’s fishing industry would go out of business this year as a result of the ruling.

“Some people are going to get hurt,’’ she said. “It’s a disappointment for a lot of people.’’

Sanfilippo said reports of fishermen earning more in the current catch season, which ends in April, are inaccurate. She said only a small number of wealthier fishermen, who can purchase allocations from competitors to bring in a higher catch, have done well financially.

“The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer,’’ she said. “That’s the bottom line.’’

Patrick was one of several officials who expressed disappointment with the ruling.

“I am deeply disappointed in the secretary’s decision not to raise catch limits within conservation limits or provide economic assistance to fishermen in need,’’ Patrick said in a statement. “Our agencies supplied him with more than sufficient evidence of economic distress and dislocation resulting from a poorly planned and executed transition to catch shares and evidence based on the best available science that catch limits could be raised without undermining our conservation commitments.’’

In a letter to Locke dated Nov. 5, Patrick said at least a 30 percent increase in the limit for most species would be justified, according to a report prepared by a state agency, the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute, and other collaborators. He said the report identifies $19 million in “foregone economic opportunities’’ in the state, due to limits that were set “at the lowest end of allowable ranges.’’

In addition to Locke, Eric C. Schwaab, a top fisheries official at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also said an increase to the limits was unwarranted.

In a letter to Patrick dated yesterday, Schwaab said the report indicates 51 percent of active vessels in the state earned more than $100,000 in the first five months of the current fishing year, a 7 percent increase from last year, among other positive trends.

Schwaab said there could be “a number of reasons’’ why fewer vessels are fishing in the state at present, including the possibility that some owners “have been fishing in other fisheries.’’

In addition to Patrick, a slew of state and federal lawmakers released public statements opposing the ruling, including US Senators John F. Kerry and Scott Brown, US Representative Barney Frank, state Senate President Therese Murray, and state House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo.

“I am deeply troubled by Secretary Locke’s refusal to raise catch limits, despite clear evidence that it is both economically and scientifically sound,’’ Brown said.

Kerry said, “Fishermen are going out of business, and many more are pushed to the brink, and we need to find a way to increase stock levels and provide emergency assistance.’’

Officials vowed to continue to press for an increase.

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com.