On the surface, the creation of eight regional fishery management councils under the Magnuson Stevens Act — including the one for New England that is based in Newburyport and carries out policy hearings and helps set catch guidelines and limits — is a good idea.
The council, which held its three-day December meetings last week at the DoubleTree Hotel in Danvers, is designed to bring fishermen, government representatives and environmental groups to the same table to discuss and consider regulatory policies. And, to a large extent, it does that — with members appointed by state’s governors, theoretically outside the reach of the long arm of NOAA.
But the council system has a fatal flaw, one that took center stage more than once last week.
Despite all the input, all the debate and, yes, even emphatic votes by the council’s members — including John Bullard, who serves as NOAA Northeast regional administrators and heads up fishery regulation from Maine to the Carolinas from his office in Gloucester’s Blackburn Industrial Park — if Bullard and NOAA decree that a council-approved policy will not go forward, it’s dead in the water.
That’s a far cry from the open and supposedly cooperative ideals upon which the council format was founded. And it’s an insult to council members, fishermen and anyone else who should have reason to believe that the input presented to and through the council can actually sway votes and maybe — just maybe — steer federal policy regarding an industry that continues to confront an “economic disaster.”
The dictatorial role of a NOAA administrator when it comes to fishery council actions most famously surfaced in 2009, when then-Northeast chief Pat Kurkul proved to be the only dissenting vote on a 16-1 New England council regarding the pending imposition of a lopsided anti-fishing interim rule. Lo and behold, despite that council vote in opposition, Kurkul still imposed the rule within weeks — one of the first steps, we can see now, toward the economic calamity the Northeast groundfishery has become.