EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 3, 2013

Bay State's 'Sacred Cod' has become NOAA's sacred cow


The Eagle-Tribune

---- — With strict new limits on Gulf of Maine cod, “there’s not enough to sustain the fishery. The game is over.”

Those words frrom Gloucester’s Vito Giacalone, chief policy advocate for the Northeast Seafood Coalition, marked an all-too realistic assessment of the New England fishery’s 2013 prospects after the New England Fishery Management Council shamefully gave its vote of approval to new Gulf of Maine cod cuts that will limit fishermen to landing just 23 percent of this year’s quota. And there’s real irony to that.

For it was Giacalone and the coalition, more than anyone else out of Gloucester, who have tried to work with NOAA and its job-killing catch share and sector system — often with sharp criticism even within the industry. And it was Giacalone who, when the catch share system was first coming down the pike four years ago, encouraged others to work with the agency as well.

“This (system) is coming,” Giaclone told a packed rally at City Hall that summer. “We can act like victims or rise up and figure out how to drive this thing. If you can’t stop the bus, try to drive it.”

Now, he and his coalition fishermen are indeed victims. Thanks to the NOAA regional chief John Bullard’s stand against extending current guidelines, and the council’s devastating blessing of this travesty, Giacalone and all New England groundfishermen have been thrown under the proverbial bus Giacalone was talking about. An entire industry of hard-working fishing families has been devastated as NOAA and our federal Department of Commerce leadership carry out a clearly marked agenda of not only consolidating the industry for hostile, corporate takeover, but killing off the industry New England has known for centuries.

Yes, NOAA can show “scientific” data suggesting that these dire cuts — up to 77 percent for the Gulf of Maine cod catch — may be necessary. Yet, NOAA also had 2008 survey data that showed many of the cod stocks were already rebuilt. And NOAA’s latest data is off an assessment model that did not include any input from fishermen, meaning it’s no more credible than the admittedly bogus data used in the “Trawlgate” fiasco of 1999-2000, when NOAA conceded its statistics were hopelessly flawed, yet still used them to set stock limits.

In reality, the limits set last Wednesday and the manner in which they’ve come about remind us all once again how utterly dysfunctional administrator Jane Lubchenco’s NOAA and the Department of Commerce have become. We now have a Department of Commerce signing off on regulations for a private U.S. industry that are guaranteed to drive the nation’s seafood trade deficit higher than ever, with buyers certain to look overseas, where fishermen can actually still fish.

The “Sacred Cod” that has hung at the Massachusetts Statehouse since 1784 as a symbol of the fishery’s importance to the state’s welfare has become NOAA’s sacred cow — virtually untouchalble.

On another level, we have Bullard insisting that his “hands are tied” through an interpretation of the Magnuson-Stevens Act that even a battery of lawmakers responsible for its content say is a bunch of balderdash.

Indeed, Bullard added insult to injury when he noted that those fishermen who are able to ply their trade at all in the 2013 fishing year, which begins May 1, will also have to pick up a share of the cost of the federal on-board monitors. NOAA, it seems, didn’t sufficiently budget for the monitors, Bullard reasons, so the fishermen will have to cover the cost difference.

Well, that’s not how it should work — and our federal lawmakers, from U.S. Rep. John Tierney to Sens. Elizabeth Warren and, yes, the newly seated William “Mo” Cowan should take note. If NOAA’s budget can’t cover the cost of the monitors, then the monitoring system is no more. And if Commerce doesn’t come through with aid to address the “economic disaster” its own acting secretary declared last September, then NOAA’s and an appropriate portion of Commerce’s budget is either frozen or dropped altogether.

Bullard’s and NOAA’s hard truth is that, based on questionable data, New England’s groundfishermen will have to shelve their boats and gear for the entirety of the coming fishing year, a downright offensive order from this renegade arm of our own federal government. But it’s time our lawmakers delivered some hard truths to NOAA and the Department of Commerce as well:

Taxpayers cannot be expected to supply their hard-earned money to a department and agency committed to destroying so many small businesses and killing so many jobs in an industry that — wthout NOAA’s help — has lasted nearly 400 years.