The federal government's key agency overseeing fishing in New England is aligned against fishermen and federal officials have callously and carelessly ignored an industry in crisis, Representative Barney Frank wrote today in a blistering opinion article against the Obama administration's Commerce Department.
The article, published on the New Bedford Standard-Times' website, follows Commerce Secretary Gary Locke's decision last week to reject an emergency request to raise catch limits of certain fish. Governor Deval Patrick and members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation had made the request to aid the decimated fishing industry and followed up the request with a report from the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, that provided ways to raise the limits without endangering fishing stocks.
Locke said the report did not provide enough new scientific evidence that showed such a change in policy was warranted.
"The Obama administration violated assurances that it was prepared to work constructively with the fishing industry in New England,'' Frank wrote. "... It is now clear that the secretary is unwilling to exercise independent judgment and that an anti-fishing attitude prevails in the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"This is unacceptable."
Frank had a warning for the administration. "I have worked with the Obama administration on a number of important issues since the president came to office ... But the president must understand that if the administration persists in such a serious assault on the livelihood of the working men and women of the fishing industry, it will make it difficult for me and others to maintain this degree of cooperation."
The Democrat from Newton has been one of the most vociferous opponents of new fishing rules established in May that changed how catch limits are defined. Fishermen are now encouraged to organize into groups that are allocated a share of an annual quota. Once that quota is reached, all members of the group must cease all fishing.
The rules have forced many fishermen off the water. The Dartmouth report in November said the rules cost the industry $40 million in direct losses in just a few months.
Frank said he was encouraged that President Obama's new chief of staff, William Daley, has demonstrated an ability to help the fishing industry. When he served as commerce secretary under President Clinton, Daley backed an effort to boost quotas for scallops, a key resource for New Bedford, which is part of Frank's district.
"I strongly urge the president to take special note of Daley's previous experience with catch limits and to allow him to bring to bear his previous experience on our present situation,'' Frank wrote.
The congressman vowed to amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which establishes ocean fisheries zones and sets out the rules to manage those zones. He said regulators, and members of regional fisheries councils, should be allowed to more freely consider the economic harm caused by catch limits.
Peter Baker of the Pew Environment Group says Frank has legitimate concerns about some smaller-scale fishermen suffering this year, but raising the overall catch limits will only exacerbate the situation. The overall yields this year for New England’s ground-fishing fleet are up 17 percent, Baker contends, but most of those gains are going to a small number of big operators.
“The biggest gains are in New Bedford and Gloucester, where we hear the most concerns” about the new rules, Baker said.
To remedy the discrepancy of catch yields, officials should be discussing how they allocate fish according to vessel size and how the rights to those shares are assigned instead of raising the limits across the board, he said.
The efforts by Frank and his Bay State colleagues in the US House and the State House are misguided, Baker said. “It’s really a matter of politicians trying to force their agendas outside of the law,’’ he said.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.