, Salem, MA

June 3, 2013

Our view: Attorney general's suit hits at core of NOAA's wrongdoing

The Salem News

---- — When state Attorney General Martha Coakley filed a federal court lawsuit last week seeking to block the enforcement and implementation of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s job- and industry-killing new fishing limits, she struck what should be an important blow for all of New England’s fisheries.

She also rightfully cast a fresh spotlight on the root of the problems that have plagued the industry for at least the last three-plus years under NOAA’s catch-share management system.

That’s the blatant disregard NOAA’s leadership has consistently shown for the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the law that governs America’s fisheries and lays out a suite of rules and guidelines that NOAA is charged with enforcing. Instead, the agency has been running roughshod over it, ignoring provisions that leaders like former administrator Jane Lubchenco and now general counsel Lois Schiffer simply don’t seem to like.

Coakley’s legal action, filed in U.S. District Court, first seeks an injunction that would block implementation and enforcement of the dire cod limit cuts of up to 78 percent thrust on the Northeast groundfishery at the start of this month by NOAA Northeast regional administrator John Bullard.

In the suit, Coakley argues that the new cuts — imposed despite the claims of Coakley and many others, including NOAA’s own New England Fishery Management Council, that Bullard and NOAA had an option to extend far lesser cuts into a second year — show “callous disregard for the well-being of New England fishermen,” and that the agency “used flawed science to over-restrict the Massachusetts fishing industry.” She’s right.

Coakley notes NOAA has — now and when putting Lubchenco’s job-killing catch share management system in place — wrongfully and we would argue willfully ignored key provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act itself by:

Failing to allow fishermen to catch an “optimum” yield;

Failing to use the best scientific information available;

Failing to consider the economic impacts of major reductions in allotment, not only on the industry, but on fishing communities like Gloucester, New Bedford and so many others up and down the New England coast.

It was interesting to note that Coakley and others who spoke on behalf of the suit Thursday, including Congressman Stephen Lynch and state lawmakers Ann-Margaret Ferrante and Bruce Tarr, noted that this legal challenge comes as essentially a last-ditch push not only for fishing reforms, but for long-lost justice in fishery regulations and enforcement.

Indeed, it comes after state officials up to and including Gov. Deval Patrick, and federal lawmakers like Congressman John Tierney, have sent letters and emails, made phone calls and tried all sorts of pursuits to get the attention of the Obama administration regarding the damage inflicted by its own rogue agency that’s responsible for a federally declared but still unfunded “economic disaster” in the Northeast groundfishery.

All have essentially been ignored — just as Lubchenco and other NOAA officials ignored similar calls in the past, and just as Bullard has defiantly refused to follow the recommendations of his own regional council while sticking to the dire limit cuts, saying the fishing industry must face its “day of reckoning.”

Only time will tell, of course, how a judge will rule on Coakley’s challenge to NOAA’s lack of accountability regarding its own enforcement wrongdoing, or whether the industry will get the injunctive relief it deserves from quota cuts that are based on shaky science, yet are being allowed to threaten an entire industry.

Yet we’d like to think that any judge will recognize that, as Coakley alleges, this federal agency must at least abide by provisions of its own guiding Magnuson-Stevens Act — and that NOAA officials are indeed not above the law.

Let’s hope the U.S. District Court puts this lawsuit on a fast track.