Matthew J. Thomas: New England Fishermen Out Of The Loop

01:00 AM EDT on Monday, September 19, 2005


AS WE have watched this lethal hurricane season, another storm is brewing for fishing families along the coast of New England. Last Thursday, the eye of that storm was the Biltmore hotel, in Providence, at a meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council.

The council is one of eight regional fishery-management councils in the United States. It was created by Congress about 30 years ago, to develop and oversee regional fishery-management plans intended to protect our fisheries from the foreign factory ships that were ravaging our fishing resource, and to balance the economic interests of the fishing industry and the communities that support them, amid the reality that fish are a finite but renewable resource.

The fishery-management plans are also intended to protect human life on the sea, and are to be based on the best available science. Once a plan is crafted by the council, it is submitted to the U.S. secretary of commerce, for review and approval. There is also a public process, to ensure that all interests and views are considered.

But what seemed like a rational, well-thought-out regulatory scheme has unfortunately become a case of form over substance. Further, the concept of best available science has been replaced with "advocacy science" that elevates conservation above all other factors and is based on questionable data and ease of enforcement. Perhaps worst of all, the process and regulations now lack common sense.

A prime example occurred last year, when six crew members of a New Bedford scalloper, the Northern Edge, lost their lives in raging seas. For generations, families along the New England coast have watched loved ones set out to sea and anxiously searched the horizon for their return; they have relied on the experience and skill of the captain and crew to ensure a safe return. However, a provision in the fishing regulations actually penalized captains and crews who "broke a trip" because of bad weather.

Through the advocacy of New Bedford Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr., this broken-trip provision was removed from the regulations, and captains and crews could once more seek a safe harbor in a storm. The change makes sense and protects lives -- but it took a tragedy to achieve it. That's not right.

Today, the threat to the livelihood of our fishing families does not come from nature but, rather, from the seemingly insurmountable force of bureaucracy. The Magnuson-Stevens Sustainable Fisheries Act, governing commercial fishing in the United States, requires that all decisions regarding creation of a fishery-management plan be conducted in public. But the real decisions regarding the amount of fish that may be caught by New England fishermen are made in private meetings, in Nova Scotia, by a joint U.S.-Canadian group called the Transboundary Management Guidance Committee (TMGC).

The TMGC allocates a share of the fish to Canadian fishermen and a share to American fishermen. Although another U.S. law, the Data Quality Act, seeks to ensure the integrity, objectivity and usefulness of data used in governmental decision making, and provides a mechanism for people affected by those data to review and seek correction of the data, it does not apparently apply to the data used by the TMGC.

Further, since the decisions are made in private, it is impossible to know how the data are used in making findings.

And so the livelihoods of American fishermen and their families, and the economies of many New England communities, are affected by a process in which they have no voice.

Perhaps just as bad is that although Congress anticipated the need for such international fishing agreements, and provided that such agreements be negotiated by the secretary of state and approved by Congress, the TMGC Sharing Agreement was not negotiated by the secretary of state or presented to Congress for approval. Nevertheless, its "recommendations" are adopted wholesale by the New England Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service, and become the law of the land.

Last week, the findings of the TMGC and its proposed catch levels for 2006 were adopted by the New England Fishery Management Council, at its meeting in Providence.

Our fishermen are an incredibly resilient, adaptive and resourceful group of people. In many respects they are more of an American original than the cowboys who once roamed the Plains. They go to sea under conditions that would carry many of us away. They harvest the bounty of the sea, which is then delivered to the dinner plates of families across America as a healthful source of protein.

As New Bedford Mayor Kalisz has repeatedly stated, "It's time to bring common sense and fairness back to fishing regulation." Think about that the next time you sit down to a nice plate of fresh New England seafood.

Matthew J. Thomas is city solicitor of New Bedford.

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