Power players in the capital are making waves over wind farms and fishing limits

Whether over wind farms or fishing restrictions, the waters off the Massachusetts coast are roiling with controversy. But the real waves are made in Washington, DC, where these and other ocean-related issues will be decided by a cast of characters with few ties to the Bay State. Among the players to watch: former House majority leader Dick Armey, a conservative Texan who now works for one of the largest lobbying firms in the capital; Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican and new chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee; and Tom Allen, a Democratic congressman from Maine.

Stevens is expected to introduce legislation to reauthorize the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law governing fisheries management in federal waters. Armey will be lobbying on behalf of Cape Wind Associates, the company seeking to build a wind farm in Nantucket Sound. And Allen, co-chairman of the House Ocean Caucus, has introduced a sweeping, if sketchy, bill that could affect everything from fishing regulations to offshore developments such as the proposed wind farm.

“Ocean policy is too uncoordinated and confused,” says Allen. “There are too many agencies and, frankly, too many congressional committees that all have a piece of the oceans.”

Backing Allen in this assessment is a report issued in September by the US Commission on Ocean Policy, established by Congress in 2000 and appointed by President George W. Bush. The commission sharply criticized the states’ and the federal government’s oversight of the oceans, and it called for wide-ranging regulatory reform under the aegis of a National Ocean Council. There’s a lot at stake. Ocean-related businesses contribute more than $115 billion to the US economy and support more than 2 million jobs, but they are now seriously threatened. According to the commission’s report, more than 25 percent of the world’s major fish stocks are “overexploited.” The ocean commission wants to improve the governance of federal waters (waters within three miles of the coast are under state control) to cover the siting of offshore enterprises such as wind farms and aquaculture facilities. To that end, the National Ocean Council would appoint a lead federal agency to oversee such projects – likely the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Both sides of the wind-farm debate say existing rules come up short.

Whether this arrangement would thwart or encourage projects such as Cape Wind’s is unclear. Both proponents and opponents of the wind farm claim that the commission report favors their cause. Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers notes that the commission urges a speedier regulatory process, rather than the moratorium on offshore projects sought by wind-farm opponents. The commission said “there was too much ambiguity in the current system that could slow down commercial interests and development offshore,” says Rodgers. “They called for a streamlined approach, which we strongly support.”

But Andrew Rosenberg, a professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire and a member of the commission, says that the commission agreed with wind farm opponents that the existing regulatory system is not designed for such projects. Currently, the Army Corps of Engineers is the lead federal agency responsible for passing judgment on the wind farm plan. In November, the corps released a draft environmental impact statement indicating that the project would reduce energy costs in Massachusetts without significant damage to the environment. The public comment period on the lengthy document has been extended to February 24.

The corps’ authority over the Cape Wind application stems from the 1899 Rivers and Harbors Act, which was intended to prevent obstacles to navigation. But with this first-in-the-nation offshore wind farm, “there are a lot of other things to think about” in addition to keeping shipping lanes clear, says Rosenberg. These include the aesthetics of the project and the requirements that should be placed on a company for use of a public resource – such as fees, conditions of use, and length of lease, all issues in which the Army engineers have no expertise. “The current law is not adequate,” Rosenberg says.

Whether or not it’s because the law is inadequate, the Cape Wind debate has been conducted, at least in part, in the corridors and cloakrooms of Congress. The principal opponent of the project, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, has hired a team of lobbyists including O’Neill & Associates, the firm run by former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s son Thomas O’Neill III; former Texas Republican congressman Thomas Loeffler; and Guy Martin, a former Interior Department official and lawyer with the firm Perkins Coie. Cape Wind has followed suit by retaining Armey, now with Piper Rudnick, and a team of top-tier advocates.

The behind-the-scenes battle has occasionally spilled out into the open. In October, Sen. Edward Kennedy – who would be able to see the proposed windmills from his family compound in Hyannisport – was joined in his opposition to the wind farm by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, a Virginia Republican. Warner, who has vacationed on the Cape for years, tried to slip an amendment halting the project into a Defense Department spending bill. But Armey helped convince House Republicans to scuttle the provision.

Susan Nickerson, executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, says she thinks the wind-farm issue will be back before Congress this year. “Our point is that Nantucket Sound is a proving ground, and national energy policy is starting here,” she says. “It needs to be done right, and it needs to be addressed at the national level.”

nother point of contention in the waters off Massachusetts has to do with fishing, the regulation of which the ocean commission called inadequate as well. The existing framework is governed by the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which has been stringent enough that talk of its “inadequacy” makes fishermen nervous. Where Stevens will come down in reauthorizing the law that bears his name is an open question. In Alaska, regulation of fisheries has been less contentious than in Massachusetts, where commercial trawlers have fought bitterly with small-boat fishermen and environmentalists.

The commission had some praise for the regional fishery councils established under Magnuson-Stevens and administered by the National Marine Fisheries Service, but it also charged that the councils have “allowed overexploitation of many fish stocks.” The report recommends giving the scientific boards that advise the regional fishery councils more authority to set fishing limits; it also suggests reducing the representation of the fishing industry on regional councils.

Those proposals sound good to environmentalists. Currently, “the fox is guarding the chicken house,” says Ted Morton, federal policy director for the environmental group Oceana. He says that fishing interests, through their representation on the fishery councils, “are making science and conservation decisions when they have an inherent conflict of interest.”

But commercial fishermen say that the fishing limits imposed last year by the councils show how little influence their industry has now. David Frulla, a Washington, DC, attorney who represents the Trawlers Survival Fund (a coalition of groundfishermen out of New Bedford) and the Portland-based Associated Fisheries of Maine, argues that the ocean commission’s recommendations would further damage already-hurting Massachusetts fishermen. Rather than create a new regulatory structure, he says, “Sometimes it’s better to tune up what you have.”

In Frulla’s view, fishing regulation would be improved by giving fishery councils more authority over the pace of recovery for damaged fish stocks. In Massachusetts, he says, stocks were already bouncing back last year when a federal court ruled that the Magnuson-Stevens Act required substantial recovery within 10 years, a ruling that forced the council to put in place harsh new restrictions.

“To say that stocks have to recover in 10 years, that’s an arbitrary number,” says Frulla. “It has no grounding in biology.”

Also caught in the debate are small fishermen, such as those represented by the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. They’re not too small to have a Washington lobbyist, however: Jeffrey Pike, a longtime aide to former congressman Gerry Studds and also a former commercial fisherman out of Chatham. Pike says that his clients have an interest in the strongest possible resurgence of their favored catch before full-scale harvesting is resumed, and he argues that the status quo is just fine.

“The small guys are the first to feel the pinch,” he says. “They rely heavily on cod. They don’t have the luxury of chasing other fish [species] or traveling wide areas to search for fish…. They want to make sure that the conservation ethic of Magnuson is retained.”

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Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
Allen’s bill is intended to respond to the full range of ocean regulation issues raised by the commission, commercial fishing and offshore development projects alike. But as of now, his “Oceans Conservation, Education, and National Strategy for the 21st Century Act” is short on details. “The whole goal of introducing this legislation was to put something out there and get a reaction because you can’t write legislation in a vacuum,” says the Maine congressman, who plans to file a more detailed proposal later this year.

In the meantime, various interests with a stake in maritime management will attempt to use the swirling political waters to their advantage. “There is a convergence going on around the need for better ocean management,” says wind-farm opponent Nickerson. “The Cape Wind project undermines that.”