Attorney General Coakley files lawsuit against federal agencies over fishing cuts

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley has filed a lawsuit against federal regulators, alleging that new rules reducing the number of ground-feeding fish that can be caught for the rest of the year will be a “death sentence’’ for the industry.

Effective May 1, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ordered fisherman to reduce by 77 percent their catches of certain species of fish, including haddock, cod, and flounder. The suit, filed today in US District Court in Boston, aims to block the regulations, claiming NOAA based them on questionable science and did not take into account the potentially disastrous economic impacts they would have on fisherman.


The US government, Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, and the National Marine Fisheries Service are also defendants in the case.

“The federal government has shown a callous disregard for the well-being of Massachusetts fishing families,’’ Coakley said in a statement. “The fishing industry has been part of our Commonwealth’s proud past, and we will continue to fight to ensure that is part of our vibrant future.’’

NOAA has sought for decades to contain overfishing of certain species in New England by implementing catch quotas on the fishing industry.

Throughout that time, Massachusetts fisherman have clashed with the agency over the quotas, which they perceive to be too low, and the subsequent penalties the agency hands down when fisherman exceed them, which fisherman believe are too harsh.

In 2006, Massachusetts brought a suit against the Department of Commerce and successfully blocked modifications to ground-feeding fish quotas.

The fight boiled to a head in 2009, when a group of state legislators sent a letter to NOAA, asking the agency to investigate allegations of disproportionate fines imposed on New England fisherman, according to the suit.

The letter prompted a review of NOAA by the US Department of Commerce’s inspector general. A 2010 report on the investigation said that NOAA’s northeast regional offices had indeed assessed fines on fisherman that were “inconsistent’’ with other regions.


Coakley’s suit alleges that it was “against this backdrop of dysfunction and distrust between NOAA and the fishermen it regulates’’ that the agency implemented its new regulations, basing the findings on out-of-date scientific methods and making no effort to mitigate the economic impact on the fishing industry.

A host of state and federal politicians, including Governor Deval Patrick, US Senators Elizabeth Warren and William “Mo’’ Cowan, and US Representative Edward J. Markey, came out in favor of the lawsuit.

“I thank the attorney general for taking action to protect our fishing industry and the lives that depend on it, and I regret that it has come to this,’’ Patrick said in a statement. “Federal law is supposed to strike a balance, based on sound science, between commercial and environmental interests.’’

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