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.
Yet, Bullard used his own executive privilege, so to speak, last spring by slashing New England’s Gulf of Maine cod landing limits by 78 percent and cutting limits for other stocks in the face of intense council opposition and a vote to endorse keeping the 2012 fishing year limits in place.
And NOAA last week disregarded an overwhelming 2012 vote by the New England council that would have reopened five areas in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank to commercial fishermen, decreeing instead that the areas remain closed.
To that end, Maggie Raymond of the Associated Fisheries of Maine rightfully called out — and called on — the council last week to stand up for what the council should represent.
“We were going to say we were disappointed, but we’re actually outraged,” Raymond told the council in a fairly blistering five minutes of testimony. “(NOAA) has taken you and us completely out of the process. Your vote was ignored, and you should be as outraged as we are,” she added, calling NOAA’s decision not only wrong, but “terrible and mean-spirited.”
She’s right, of course. And none of this will change until council members join fishermen and industry backers in making clear to our federal lawmakers that enough is enough.
For all the reforms needed to Magnuson — new wording emphasizing the need to recognize regulations’ economic impact, a realistic timetable for rebuilding of stocks, and new mandates regarding verification of NOAA’s heavily flawed science and assessment studies — this may be the most important, yet most basic:
Any reauthorized Magnuson Stevens Act must include language that limits NOAA administrators of the power to overrule, ignore or simply scoff at decisions rendered by councils that are supposed to have meaningful input into the regulatory process.
Anything short of that will only perpetuate the cruel joke these councils have sadly become.