Coakley suit seeks halt to fishing reductions

Calls regulations ‘death penalty’ for industry

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

CALLING DEEP REDUCTIONS in allowable fish catch limits a “death penalty” to the Massachusetts fishing industry, Attorney General Martha Coakley on Thursday filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a temporary halt to the reductions and a more workable rule to protect the livelihoods of fishermen while still allowing fish populations to replenish.

Coakley filed the lawsuit in US District Court out of “frustration” after she said pleas from the Patrick administration and the state’s Congressional delegation to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Commerce Department, and President Barack Obama to intervene went unanswered.

“NOAA’s new regulations are essentially a death penalty on the fishing industry in Massachusetts as we know it,” Coakley said at a press conference held on the Fish Pier in South Boston.

The lawsuit contends that the NOAA violated the Magnuson-Stevens Act by failing to allow fishermen to collect an “optimum yield,” not using the best scientific information available on fish populations, and failing to consider the economic impacts of a major reduction in fish catch allotments.

Coakley said she intended to seek an injunction to immediately halt enforcement of the new catch limits, but was prepared to take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“NOAA’s failure to do its job right is costing the jobs of our fishing families across Massachusetts,” Coakley said.

In an attempt to guard against overfishing and allow populations of haddock, cod and yellowtail flounder to replenish, the federal agency on May 1 put in place new restrictions reducing the amounts of fish that boats from around New England can catch by as much as 78 percent.

The agency took steps to mitigate the impact on fishermen by increasing the catch limits for healthy populations of redfish, pollock and white hake, whose quota was increased by 15 percent. 

“We know that the quota cuts this year for groundfish fishermen for several key stocks, including cod, are severe. However, given the poor condition of these stocks and the phased approach we took to reducing fishing effort to help ease the economic impacts on fishermen in 2012, the cuts are necessary,” John Bullard, the Northeast region administrator for NOAA Fisheries, said in a statement.

“We need to focus our energies on identifying constructive solutions for helping fishermen such as refocusing effort on healthy, abundant groundfish and other species.  It is time for us to look forward, not backward, if we are going to be able to help fishermen through this difficult transition,” said Bullard, a former mayor of New Bedford.

Coakley was joined on the pier by U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard Sullivan, Gloucester legislators Sen. Bruce Tarr and Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante, and Gloucester fishermen Joe Orlando and Vito Giacalone.

The Conservation Law Foundation ridiculed the attorney general for her action, calling the health of the coastal fishery “grim.”

“The Attorney General is wrong on the law and she is wrong on the facts,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel with the environmental law foundation. “Political interference like this action by Attorney General Coakley has been a leading cause of the destruction of these fisheries over the past twenty years, harassing fishery managers to ignore the best science available.”

Coakley and other political leaders, however, suggested NOAA relied on questionable science when calculating the new catch limits, and said with a smaller 40 percent reduction fishermen could adapt to stay in business while still allowing fish populations to grow.

Lynch, a South Boston Democrat, said the state’s Congressional delegation understands the need to responsibly manage the fish stock, but called the regulations put forth by NOAA “one-sided, arrogant and almost a self-righteous approach.”

Ferrante, the daughter of a Gloucester fishermen, went further suggesting the regulations were retribution against Massachusetts fishermen for exposing the agency’s excessive enforcement of regulations and fines to pad what she described as a “slush fund” that was investigated by the inspector general of U.S. Department of Commerce.

“The dirty little secret is that this isn’t about fish. This is about a vindictive agency,” Ferrante said.

The head of NOAA in 2010 travelled to Gloucester to personally apologize to the fishing community, and the agency repaid some of the fines deemed excessive for a variety of violations.

“I can’t dispute those,” Coakley said of Ferrante’s theory, adding, “I gave up wondering what their motivation is.”

Orlando, who owns a 65-foot fishing vessel he operates with his son Mario catching haddock, cod and flounder, said fishermen have cooperated with federal regulators for decades to rebuild the stock, believing that by 2014 the populations would have returned.

Once able to catch up to 100,000 pounds of Gulf Maine cod a season, Orlando said he has cut down on his trips to sea because he is restricted to just 16,000 pounds, jeopardizing his ability to pay for the work needed to maintain his boat.

“We work hard to put food on the tables of American families . . . Conservation can be achieved without putting me out of business,” Orlando said.

Coakley in 2006 successfully brought a lawsuit against the U.S. Commerce Department arguing that the fisheries management plan didn’t adequately take into account the interests of the fishing industry and was able to secure some modifications.

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Matt Murphy

State House News Service
After NOAA last year intervened to stop a more severe reduction in catch limits with a one-year measure, the agency and Coakley’s office have disagreed over whether federal law allows for another temporary regulation to manage the fishery. State officials have argued that more time is needed to deploy the latest technology and research methods for accurately counting fish populations.

The University of Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries have estimated that $2 billion in economic activity and many as 80,000 jobs tied to the fishing industry could be in jeopardy because of the new quota system.