John Bullard, the Northeast administrator for NOAA Fisheries, shut down cod fishing in the region for at least six months. It’s not making him any friends.
You served three terms as mayor of New Bedford, which made you one of the chief advocates for one of the biggest fishing ports in the country. Now, with the cod fishing ban that you ordered, you’re being called the guy who’s killing the fishing industry. When I left City Hall, I was actually hired by the fishing industry. I worked for New Bedford Seafood Co-op for six months, and my job was to organize fishermen to lobby the federal government. When I took my current job, I saw the mission as doing what we can to preserve working waterfronts. If you look at groundfish, we have, over many decades, gotten ourselves in a position where there’s very few fish and very few fishermen, so there’s very little margin for error. One way to look at it is as a balancing act between fish and fishermen. Another way to look at it is as a balancing act between today and tomorrow. Can people think about tomorrow when they have needs today?
Some criticism has come in the form of claims that boats are landing huge amounts of cod. Is there a parallel to climate change debates where people talk about cold spells as proof that global warming is nonsense? Scientists say there aren’t any cod. Fishermen say there are a lot. How can they both be right? The reason is when cod stocks plummet, cod congregate. And fishermen are smart. They know where the cod are concentrating, and that’s where they go to fish.
Charlie Baker, whose empathy for fishermen gained some notoriety in the recent campaign, is among those who have questioned your ruling and pointed to the large cod hauls. Have you talked to him? No. He hasn’t called.
Do you have any doubt that these drastic steps were necessary if there’s any chance of saving cod? There’s always doubt in science. The Magnuson Act [passed by Congress in 1976], which is the law we work under, says you must use the best available science. It doesn’t say use perfect science — there is no such thing. Nothing is easy in fishing. Fishery management is like Winston Churchill’s definition of democracy: It’s the worst form of government there is except for everything else.
Photograph by Frank Curran