BOSTON — Carlos Rafael, who owns a fleet of boats that trawl New England waters for scallops and fish, offers a terse assessment of how Barney Frank’s coming retirement will hit local fishermen.
“It’s a disaster,” he said.
Frank is known nationally as Congress’ first openly gay lawmaker, co-author of a massive bill to regulate Wall Street or bane of conservatives. But to the region’s battered fishing fleet, the Massachusetts Democrat has been a steady and uncommonly effective ally who can’t be quickly replaced.
“We’re very, very disheartened,” said Pamela Lafreniere, a New Bedford fisheries attorney. “He’s been a tireless advocate.”
In his work for fishermen, the legendarily liberal Frank has often sided with conservative Republicans and defied environmentalists. This year, after a series of Obama administration decisions that Frank called an assault on fishermen, he warned the president in an editorial that their working relationship was in jeopardy.
Even those on the opposite side of key fishing issues acknowledge Frank is an effective industry advocate, and they cite the same reasons as his allies: accessibility, knowledge and tenacity.
“It’s a lot easier when he’s on your side,” said Peter Shelley of the Conservation Law Foundation, which has disagreed with Frank on management of the region’s scallopers and bottom-dwelling groundfish.
When Frank announced Monday he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2012, he already had lost direct representation of the fishing industry. Redistricting in Massachusetts this year shifted the port of New Bedford out of his district, as of the 2012 election, and that was one reason Frank cited when explaining why he wouldn’t run for a 17th term.
“None of the fishing industry areas would be in the district that I would be running in,” Frank said.
It was a redistricting two decades ago that initially moved New Bedford and nearby fishing towns into Frank’s district in 1992, 12 years after he was elected to Congress. In an interview this week, Frank said that at the time he knew “nothing” about the fishing industry.
An education was coming. Around then, New Bedford scallopers began to face broad closures of fishing waters due to overfishing. But as years passed, scientists gathered information showing scallops were rebounding more quickly than regulators projected.
Frank took the information to then-Commerce Secretary William Daley, and Daley moved to open scallop grounds despite opposition from environmental groups. The scallop catch has since made New Bedford the nation’s top revenue port for a decade running.
More recently, Frank pushed for a federal investigation that last year found mismanagement in the federal office that enforces fishery law and led to the return to fishermen of hundreds of thousands of dollars of unjust fines.
He also teamed with Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine to change fishery law in 2010 so U.S. fishermen could catch more yellowtail flounder in a shared area with Canada.
Frank has worked with other Republicans on fishing issues, including North Carolina Rep. Walter Jones, a social conservative who opposes gay marriage and would seem to be an unlikely partner for Frank. But his district along the state’s northern and central coast also has a heavy fishing industry presence.
“You can find common ground for the good of the people. And in this case, our working relationship developed on trying to help our fishermen,” Jones said of Frank. “At times, I wish we could see more of that up here, quite frankly.”
But Frank’s advocacy for fishermen has pitted him at times against traditional allies in the environmental community.
Shelley said he agrees with Frank on most environmental issues, but fisheries are “a blind spot.” Frank seems wrongly committed to a faulty view of fishermen as victims of a faceless bureaucracy and large environmental organizations out to crush them just “to have the fish out there dying of old age,” he said.
He said that outrages Frank and keeps him focused on the past rather than tomorrow, including the possibilities of a new management system that Frank and some fishermen oppose, but which Shelley said actually offers the industry a better future.
Frank’s replacement may not share his misconceptions, Shelley said.
“It gives us a good opportunity to work with the delegation … on how to move the fishery forward,” he said.
Frank said it’s environmental groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation who have lost their way, by failing to see fishermen as small business people who are providing healthy food, but getting squeezed out by larger businesses and flawed regulations. Those are the same people liberals traditionally champion, he said.
“They’re really good people and I just feel a great affinity for them and I also think they’ve been treated badly and unfairly,” he said.
Frank said he appreciates that some will miss him. But the 71-year-old joked he can’t stay in office until he’s 107 and downplayed the actual effect of his exit.
“I understand, but you know, the boat sinks and there’s a little turmoil in the water and a couple days later it’s smoothed over,” he said. “Nothing is forever.”