, Salem, MA

May 3, 2013

Our view: NOAA shows it's answerable to no one

The Salem News

---- — A lot of industry and political leaders said all the right things Monday when the Gloucester-based Northeast Seafood Coalition hosted a rally at Boston’s Fish Pier.

State Attorney General Martha Coakley pleaded with NOAA Northeast Administrator John Bullard to take the “no” out of NOAA and essentially let New England’s fishermen at least be able to fish to make a living in the new fishing year that began Wednesday.

And state Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante of Gloucester, flouting Bullard’s own regrettable January suggestion that fishermen must face a “day of reckoning” through a series of limit cuts that threaten the industry’s very core, rightfully pointed out that Dale Jones, the NOAA endorsement chief who blatantly allowed the abuse of funds, levied excessive penalties on fishermen and led good ol’ Nixonian-style document-shredding party, according to findings by Commerce’s own inspector general’s office, never faced any “reckoning” at all. In fact, he’s still on the NOAA payroll, sucking up $150,000-plus in taxpayer dollars annually.

But in the end, it was state Sen. Bruce Tarr who made perhaps the most telling statement, saying, “It’s time to prove the power of democracy is stronger than the power of bureaucracy.”

Why is that basic statement so telling? Because Bullard and Commerce officials proved Tuesday that Tarr was dead-wrong. That’s right, folks. All the actions, all of the pleas from officials ranging from Gov. Deval Patrick and Coakley to Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Congressman John Tierney, have achieved nothing.

When it comes to NOAA’s and Commerce’s handling of fisheries, bureaucracy has indeed won the day. And that’s a frightening precedent for any arm of our government to set, especially when it is killing American fishing and waterfront jobs and doing to the family fishing boat what agribusiness has done to America’s family farm.

There is, in fact, no legal reason for Bullard to stand by his and NOAA general counsel Lois Schiffer’s initial assertion that NOAA was barred under the Magnuson Act from extending the 2012 interim limits — already a 22 percent cut — for a second year. That much was confirmed by Coakley, who has backed the sentiment not only of industry leaders like Gloucester’s Northeast Seafood Coalition, but also of federal lawmakers like Tierney and Cape Cod Congressman William Keating, who helped craft the Magnuson-Stevens Act and put the mandates in place.

The most offensive aspect of NOAA’s stand amid all of this is the fact that Bullard and Schiffer refuse to release her “legal memorandum” purportedly saying the agency has no choice. Not far behind rests the insulting tone taken by the Department of Commerce and the rest of the Obama administration by recognizing the Northeast fishery as the “economic disaster” it is — the economic disaster they’ve created — without extending a single red cent in aid to fix it.

This may indeed prove fishing’s “day of reckoning.” But it’s now more important than ever for Congress to step up and recognize this blatant slap at democracy by bringing NOAA and Commerce to a “day of reckoning” of their own.

That means freezing all Commerce and NOAA spending and budget allocations for catch shares or other fishery projects until these issues are resolved. It means compelling NOAA and its New England Council to clamp interim accumulation caps and trip limits on inshore fishing to at least free grounds for small, independent boats to compete.

And it means taking a long, hard look at just how an agency of our own federal government can stray so rogue as to set in place a set of mandates that can control and virtually kill an entire industry without any accountability to our Congress, or to America’s working families and taxpayers.

Sorry, Sen. Tarr, it’s now clear that there is no “democracy” or accountability when it comes to NOAA and America’s fisheries.

John Bullard and the Obama administration proved that Tuesday.

It’s up to Congress not to let them get away with it.