Fishermen may turn to Congress

Still hope to alter catch limits rules

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / July 25, 2011

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Fishing industry advocates who filled a Boston courtroom in March, hoping to persuade a federal judge to strike down new rules that set catch limits, got a blunt message from an opposing lawyer: If they really want change, they’re in the wrong building, he said.

“They need to take that up with Congress,’’ Department of Justice lawyer James Maysonett told US District Judge Rya Zobel.

Last month, Zobel ruled against the industry, leaving it little choice but to follow Maysonett’s advice and try to change fishery law though legislation in Washington.

It won’t come easy. Amending the Magnuson-Stevens Act will be a massive undertaking with uncertain prospects. Fishermen have recent legislative wins and backing from high-profile lawmakers from Massachusetts, Representative Barney Frank and Senators John F. Kerry and Scott Brown. But that political pull is diluted by a legislative process requiring support from inland-states lawmakers little influenced by the fishing industry.

New Hampshire fisherman Erik Anderson is aware of the long odds, but he’s banking on help from lawmakers.

“It’s the only bit of hope that we have that they can come in and make some sense out of this,’’ said Anderson, head of New Hampshire Commercial Fishermen’s Association, a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit.

A system took effect in New England in May 2010 that gives fishermen shares of each fish species. They pool the shares together in groups called “sectors’’ and can sell or lease them to other fishing groups.

Plaintiffs argued that federal rule makers so badly misinterpreted the congressional intent of the act that the new “catch share’’ management system was flawed and needed an overhaul. A key argument was that Congress never wanted rule-makers to try to ensure the individual health of each of the 20 species of New England groundfish they regulate, such as cod, haddock or pollock. Instead, they said, rule-makers at the National Marine Fisheries Service were supposed to consider the combined health of the entire group.

By individually protecting weak species, regulators also inadvertently stop fishermen from catching the abundant species that swim among them, such as haddock, advocates say.

If rule-makers interpreted the law correctly, fishermen argued, fishermen would be allowed to catch more of the abundant species if the resulting higher catch of weak stocks didn’t endanger the overall fishery.

But Zobel ruled against the fishermen on every count. If she’s not overturned on appeal, fishing industry advocates’ only option is to change the law on which the fishing rules are based.

It’s not unprecedented. The law was amended last December when Congress changed the classification of a fish-sharing agreement with Canada so US fishermen could catch more yellowtail flounder in waters the countries share. But such amendments are rare, said Michael Conathan, a former staffer on the Senate’s Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard subcommittee who helped oversee the reauthorization of the Magnuson act.

“To change the law for a single issue is extremely daunting, and legislative process is glacial,’’ said Conathan, now director of ocean policy at the Center for American Progress.