The Baker administration’s dramatic reshaping of a state fisheries board by removing seven of its nine members has roiled the industry, stirring worries among recreational fishermen that policies could tilt in favor of the commercial sector.
State environmental officials quietly replaced the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission members last Friday, after a disagreement last year over who should serve as the division’s director. The board blocked Governor Charlie Baker’s choice for the job, later choosing longtime division official David Pierce as director.
The housecleaning also prompted longtime insiders to question Baker’s intentions for one of the state’s iconic industries.
Former division director Philip G. Coates, who retired in 2000 after serving since the 1970s, called the move “a purge that’s going to have an irreparable impact on the marine fisheries.”
Another former director, Paul Diodati, who helmed the agency from Coates’s departure until last year, said he had never seen that magnitude of sudden turnover. The division, he said, had been designed to stand “somewhat immune to State House or administrative oversight.”
“Changes like this are somewhat ominous for the public, because it seems to disturb the underpinning of how these institutions were thought of and created by our forefathers,” Diodati said.
Tensions between the commercial and recreational sectors have long shaped state fishing policy debates. Friday’s turnover, first reported by the Gloucester Times, left the recreational sector with a net loss, with only two of the nine viewed as recreational-oriented, said several people familiar with the board.
“It seems that the Gloucester commercial dragging industry has convinced the governor that a change was needed,” said Chuck Casella, one of the ousted board members.
“We lost four recreational representatives, and there’s only been two put back on. I think the balance is not there,” added Casella, a former president of the Massachusetts Striped Bass Association.
The new board members’ expertise leans toward federal fishery regulations, industry experts said, which lie outside the board’s jurisdiction.
“We are extremely concerned for the lack of state fisheries represented, especially where lobster is the state’s most valuable resource,” said Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association.
The Baker administration did not issue a press release on the personnel moves, and longtime fishing boat captains and several industry activists said they were unaware of the changes until contacted this week by the Globe.
Daniel Sieger, assistant secretary for the environment, said the administration was motivated by a desire to bring in new blood and said there were no concrete policy goals associated with the move.
“There’s people that have provided their viewpoint on that board for a long time, and we thought it was a good time to provide some additional perspective,” he said. All of the commissioners who were dismissed were serving past the length of their terms.
And he disputed Coates’s analysis, saying, “We don’t see it as having any irreparable damage to the industry.”
Representatives of the commercial sector, too, said they were concerned with the overhaul.
Ed Barrett, skipper of the fishing vessel Sirius and president of the Massachusetts Fishermen’s Partnership, called the changes “a shock.”
Barrett said he was concerned about fisheries where species like fluke, scup, and sea bass are caught, and said the commission deserves a measure of continuity.
“I think that some of those guys that they appointed don’t have much experience in those fisheries,” he said, noting that he was not speaking in his capacity as the partnership’s president.
“The people that are coming in have a philosophy that’s more of a federal approach, and that’s not what the commission has historically been concerned with,” Casella agreed.
Several people familiar with the board said they thought the administration had been angered last year when, to replace Diodati as director, Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton had pushed former federal fisheries official Douglas Christel.
Christel, while at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had authored a controversial rule governing groundfish catch limits and some board members were skeptical of his experience with state fisheries, which require other regulations.
The board blocked the appointment, but Christel was later hired by the state as a special assistant to George Peterson, a former state representative who now oversees the division as fish and game commissioner.
It was Peterson who apprised the board members they had been ousted. Dominic Santoro, a Chatham commercial fisherman and seafood dealer, said Peterson left him a voice-mail. They talked Monday, he said.
“He told me it wasn’t his decision” and indicated the choice was Beaton’s, Santoro said.
“I thought maybe I would get canned right after we took the vote” to block Christel, Santoro said, adding, “Looking back on it, I think we probably ruffled a few feathers at that point.”
Peterson said the decision on the appointments had been a joint effort involving himself, Beaton, and Baker.
“I think it was a combination of the governor and Beaton, and we had some input to it as well,” he said, adding, “Ultimately, the appointment comes from the governor.”
But in an interview Friday afternoon, after the board members had been removed, Baker said he was unaware of the changes.
“I literally don’t know anything about this,” Baker said.
Asked about the discrepancy, Baker adviser Tim Buckley said, “The governor provides guidance on appointments — i.e., he does advise secretaries who advise agency heads on the direction and qualifications of appointments. And, in this case, these appointees all have extensive experience in the fishing industry.”