U.S. secretary denies fish catch limit hike

Posted Jan. 09, 2011, at 8:40 p.m.

BOSTON — The U.S. commerce secretary has denied a request by the governor of Massachusetts for emergency increases in fish catch limits, saying there’s no new science to justify them.

Secretary Gary Locke had said in October he was open to ordering increases, but needed evidence to support it.

Gov. Deval Patrick responded in November, sending a letter and scientific report to Locke that said unnecessarily low catch limits were creating an “economic disaster” for local fishermen. The report estimated a $40 million hit in direct losses and forgone catch.

But last week Locke said the state report offered no new science to justify raising catch limits, but simply offered an analysis of old data that already had been rejected by regional regulators at the New England Fishery Management Council.

“I need scientific data not previously considered by the council because the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act [the nation’s fisheries law] does not permit me to overrule council decisions on the basis of a disagreement over scientific judgment,” Locke wrote in letter to Patrick, dated Jan. 7.

Locke added, “I stand ready to increase catch limits whenever new scientific data are available that meet the requirements of the Magnuson-Stevens Act.”

Patrick said Friday that state agencies had given Locke “more than sufficient evidence” that an increase in catch limits was justified and badly needed.

“I believe he has squandered an opportunity to relieve the economic hardship currently suffered by many fishing families and restore a sense of trust and good will toward the federal agencies who regulate their livelihood,” Patrick said in a statement.

Since May, New England fishermen have been under a new management system that gives fishermen working in groups called “sectors” an allotment of various groundfish species — such as cod, haddock and flounder — to divide among themselves. But if fishermen exceed their limit on one species, they must stop fishing on all species.

Fishermen argue that federal regulators set limits so low on some protected species that their fishing will be shut down prematurely.

The report sent by Patrick said regulators were far too conservative when they built buffers into catch limits to make sure fishermen didn’t take too much of a given species. Patrick said regulators could safely decrease the buffer so more fish could be caught, and argued catch limits on most species could be raised by at least 30 percent without threatening conservation.

The governor asked for “immediate action” in his letter, and lawmakers became perturbed as weeks passed without word from Locke. In December, Massachusetts Democratic Rep. John Tierney said it was “unacceptable” Locke hadn’t acted, and sent a letter signed by four other lawmakers urging congressional leaders not fund the fishery management system until Locke raised catch limits.

The New Bedford Harbor Development Commission started a “Still Waiting” ad on the Saving Seafood website with a count of the number of “Days Waiting for Secretary Locke” since Patrick had sent the letter to Locke without action.

On Friday, Tierney said he was “deeply disappointed” in Locke’s decision.

“The fact remains that the lack of action by the secretary will result in more hardship for our fishing communities,” he said in a statement.

But Peter Baker of the Pew Environment Group said Locke had showed “great determination” in standing up to political pressure and backing the lengthy public process that set the catch at a level Baker believes is best to ensure the fishery’s future health.

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