SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 17, 2013

Our view: State budget steps are vital toward credible fish science


The Salem News

---- — The provisions within the House and Senate state budget documents now working their way through conference committee on Beacon Hill may not solve all — or even most — of the problems confronting New England’s fishermen this year.

But they may deliver just what the doctor ordered to resolve the perpetual core disputes between fishermen and their federal overseers when it comes to carrying out credible, scientific stock assessments on which to base NOAA’s catch limits and other policy needs. Now, it’s up to either a federal judge, our federal lawmakers or perhaps both to confirm that the patient — the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration itself — is failing badly and needs the outside help it’s thus far refused to allow on board.

The budget provisions, thankfully included and pushed by state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante and state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, most notably call for funding for an effort to identify and sequence the genetic code of groundfish such as cod — and an experimental program in the use of sonar technology to provide real-time supplemental data on the size and location of fish stocks off our shores.

Both of those should be welcomed, of course, by NOAA officials. But the truth is, the agency has shown no interest whatsoever in changing the way it carries out the assessments — with outdated and sometimes embarrassingly ineffective trawl surveys, and with computer models that project an overall biomass based on what NOAA’s researchers do or do not catch. And all of those trawl surveys are still carried out without any input from rank-and-file fishermen, who know where the fish are and recognize cyclical changes that can produce what studies showed to be a temporary downtick in the cod population leading to the current limits threatening the industry.

The fishery science budget items also go hand-in-hand with the lawsuit filed late last month by Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose bid to put the clamps on NOAA’s industry-killing catch limits emphasize that NOAA came to its half-baked conclusions by failing to use the “best-available science.” But don’t tell that to people like Jud Crawford, who worked on the stock assessments currently in use.

“The fishermen are in trouble because there aren’t enough fish... ,” Crawford pontificated in an interview with the State House News Service. Yet, anecdotal findings of fishermen who are out on the water show that’s clearly not the case — and NOAA’s scientific history, with a 600 percent catch limit increase needed to “correct” the science wing’s erstwhile data on pollock three years ago, has all too often failed to hold water.

How, you might ask, did Crawford land a role in evaluating fish stocks when NOAA continues to shut out New England’s own fishermen? Well, he’s a fishing science and policy leader for the Pew Charitable Trusts Environmental Initiatives, part of other “Big Green” coalitions — big, for the most part on environmental concerns, but also big on donated corporate green dollar bills.

And that cuts to the core problem: His presence provides even more evidence that NOAA’s “science” is agenda-driven, with inside roles played by organizations who have shown time and time again they may be committed to fish but have no interest in fishermen or fishing communities. And that, as Coakley’s lawsuit also cites, is a consideration mandated by the Magnuson-Stevens Act — one that NOAA and its parent Department of Commerce have consistently ignored.

If the state budget provisions for fisheries survive the current reconciliation fight — and they should — they will show that the state Legislature is indeed serious about taking on the kind of meaningful reforms that have been needed in fishery science for years. And our state attorney general has shown she’s serious about seeking justice through her suit that cites clear fishery management wrongs on the part of our own federal government.

Now, when will NOAA get serious and recognize its need for change? Or, failing that, when will Congress force this wayward agency’s hand?

Time, and this year’s fishermen’s catch limits, are already running out.