February 28, 2013 12:00 AM
In recent weeks, with utter destruction facing the New England groundfish fleet, newly appointed NOAA Regional Administrator John Bullard, whom it was hoped by many would be a responsive voice of reason in the midst of governmental and scientific uncertainty and chaos, has instead used it to further demean and dismantle this nation’s hardworking families. At a time of crisis such as this, the leadership role he possesses could be used to avert disaster and preserve our community. But what we have seen is not only an indifference to the stark reality for fishing families but also to the federal fisheries law designed to protect them.
Regarding a talk at New Bedford’s Ocean Explorium a week or so ago, designed to discuss the state of challenges facing Northeast fisheries and fishermen, Mr. Bullard “jokingly told the Standard-Times” he hoped to face a bunch of third-graders rather than fishing families. Why? Does he think it is a joke that we have lost hundreds of boats in the last three years due to mismanagement by his agency? Does he think it’s a joke that fishermen and their families are losing their businesses? Does he think it’s a joke that they are losing their homes? Does he think it’s a joke that they are losing their retirement and life savings? Does he think it’s a joke that there have been documented cases of suicide attempts, divorces, and families and relationships collapsing because of the pressure of these regulations? Is it a joke to him that there have been documented cases of suicide attempts, divorces, and families and relationships collapsing because of the pressure of these regulations? Is it a joke to him that fishermen in New Bedford are still eligible for state unemployment while working full time on groundfish boats due to the fact that their paychecks are now so low? Is this a joke to him? It isn’t to the hundreds and thousands of people he is supposed to be representing in management.
In response to the newest cuts, which signal the end for New Bedford’s groundfishing fleet — which will essentially allow each boat to work for only a couple or few days next year — Mr. Bullard stated, “A plant shuts down. A person who’s worked there for 30 years all of a sudden goes to the factory door and it’s closed. You learn a new trade and you adapt.” I am dumbstruck by the indifference of this statement to our fishermen. Basically, it is “too bad.” But too bad for Mr. Bullard and his agency that the federal law protects fishermen and fishing communities in a way that factories do not. Maybe he has forgotten that.
The federal law governing our fisheries, The Magnuson-Stevens Act, states in Section 301(a)(8) that, “Conservation and management measures [which the newest cuts purport to be] shall “¦ take into account the importance of fishery resources to fishing communities by utilizing economic and social data “¦ in order to (A) provide for the sustained participation of such communities and (B) to the extent practicable, minimize adverse economic impacts on such communities.” The federal law demands that economic impacts be minimized on our fishing families, and make sure that they can continue to participate in the fishery. No factory I know of has such overt federal legal protection. Mr. Bullard and his agency seem to forget and disregard this part of the law — the law, not a suggestion — that binds their actions. To cut groundfish quotas by such draconian levels, based on science that continues to be debated as to accuracy and reliability, without any provision for the socio-economic impact and continued fishing opportunities for fishing families is, quite frankly, illegal.
Section 303(a)(9) of the same law states that “any” fishery management plan must “include a fishery impact statement for the plan or amendment … which shall assess, specify, and analyze the likely effects, including the cumulative … economic, and social impacts, of the conservation and management measures on, and possible mitigation measures for (A) participants in the fisheries and fishing communities affected by the plan or amendment.” I have seen no such statement, analysis, or mitigation measures put forward by Mr. Bullard or his agency. But they still plan to essentially annihilate the groundfish fleet by their so-called “conservation” measures. To ignore one side of the law while pretending to adhere to another side of the same law is just not good enough. It is not good enough for our fishing families. It is not good enough for the Port of New Bedford.
What is good enough is an emergency action, also provided by the law, to address the brink of disaster. Section 305(c)(1) gives the Secretary of Commerce the ability to issue emergency regulations and interim measures to address an emergency in the fishery. This is an emergency. If Mr. Bullard used his position, based on the above considerations, to request such emergency measures, perhaps fishing families could have a chance to survive the coming fishing year. And perhaps he would be more respected.