The federal government today rejected an emergency request by Governor Deval Patrick and the Massachusetts congressional delegation to raise the catch limits on key fish in New England waters, a blow to an already staggered fishing industry.
The governor, working with Representative Barney Frank, had made the appeal in the fall, arguing that a new regimen of catch standards were too strict and cumbersome and created an "economic disaster" for fishermen in the state.
In November, they submitted a study by the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth that urged regulators to alter how they estimate the maximum catch of a particular fish. The report estimated the new rules had already cost the industry $40 million in direct losses.
US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, however, said he could only change the limits if new scientific research suggested more fish could be caught without endangering their overall stocks. The UMass study, Locke said, did not provide a compelling scientific argument.
"The report does not present new scientific data that would justify increasing the catch limits,'' he wrote in letters to Frank and Patrick. "Rather, it presents alternative methods for evaluating the scientific data used to determine the current catch limits. These alternative methods were previously considered and rejected."
Bay State lawmakers criticized the decision.
"Our fishermen are struggling to keep their jobs and make a living. They deserve fair treatment from the federal government, instead of job-killing regulations that prevent them from putting food on the table for all of us.'' said Republican Senator Scott Brown. "This blatant disregard for our fishing industry must stop immediately."
"This is not over,'' said Brown's counterpart, Senator John F. Kerry. "I was successful in obtaining direct assistance for our fishermen in the appropriations process last year that was unfortunately blocked by the Republicans. I will continue to find appropriate solutions to develop a sustainable fishery while helping our fishing industry get up off the mat and thrive again."
Both Frank and Patrick took issue with Locke's criticism of the study.
"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,'' Patrick said in a statement. "I believe [Secretary Locke] has squandered an opportunity to relieve the economic hardship currently suffered by many fishing families and restore a sense of trust and good will toward the federal agencies who regulate their livelihood.''
"The refusal by the Commerce Department to use its authority represents a misinterpretation of the scientific data, which provides no evidence for the overly-restrictive catch limits that have been set.'' said Frank, whose district includes New Bedford, one of the nationís premier fishing ports.
The fishing industry's most immediate troubles stem mostly from the rules put in place in May. The government changed how the quotas for some waning stocks of fish are counted. New rules now encourage fishermen to organize into sectors that will be allocated a share of the annual quota for each imperiled species of fish. Once a group exceeds its limit on a particular kind of fish, all members must cease all fishing.
Some fishermen complained the new rules are drastic and unworkable. They have also complained about arbitrary and onerous enforcement of regulations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Locke vowed he would reconsider his decision if presented new facts. "I stand ready to increase catch limits whenever new scientific data are available that meet the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act," he wrote in his letters.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.