Foes, friends praise retiring NOAA official’s approach
He’s been called a Neanderthal and the most reviled man in the region’s fishing community.
At a public meeting broadcast on national TV, a fisherman once accused him to his face of lying for a living.
As the regional fisheries administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, John Bullard has drawn ire from all sides — fishermen, environmentalists, and politicians alike. His decisions have been routinely controversial, and he has rarely minced words in defending them.
Yet he has also earned widespread respect during his tenure as the region’s top fishing regulator, the rare public official willing to say what he thinks, no matter how unpopular. Earlier this year, he even publicly criticized his bosses, an offense that nearly got him fired.
As he prepares to retire from one of New England’s most influential — and thankless — government positions, Bullard, 70, has few regrets.
“This job involves decisions that make some people angry,” he acknowledged in a recent interview. “That’s just the nature of fisheries management.”
In the five years he has held the job, Bullard has been accused of everything from destroying the livelihoods of the region’s groundfishermen (through quota cuts) to being too cozy with the seafood industry (for adopting their plan to protect harbor porpoises, rather than one favored by environmental advocates).
Yet many of those who have denounced Bullard, a gregarious former mayor of New Bedford known for his sometimes windy, history-infused speeches, say they can’t help but like the man.
Joe Orlando, who has spent more than 40 years fishing off Gloucester, recalls a protest at the Boston Fish Pier in 2013 over Bullard’s decision to cut cod quotas by 77 percent. Public officials, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, joined hundreds of livid fishermen in opposition.
As angry as he was, Orlando couldn’t believe it when he saw Bullard at the protest. At 6-foot-4, he doesn’t hide or blend in easily.
“Any other administrator would have probably hid in the building with armed guards,” Orlando said. “But not John. Everyone was asking, ‘What the hell is he doing here?’ Funny part is, he stole the show. All the reporters went to talk to him.”
No matter how much fishermen criticized him, Bullard would still return their calls and meet with them to hear their concerns.
“We have disagreed with John . . . in many cases strongly disagreed with him,” said Jackie Odell, executive director of the Northeast Seafood Coalition, an advocacy group for fishermen in Gloucester. “But in the end, I can honestly say we have always found John to be willing to listen, very accessible, and interested to work with others to solve problems.”
Bullard is one of five regional fisheries administrators for NOAA, overseeing 42 marine species from Cape Hatteras, N.C., to Lubec, Maine.
It’s a notoriously taxing job that requires significant diplomatic skills, a keen understanding of often-recondite fisheries science, and a skin thick enough to absorb criticism from competing, sometimes vitriolic interest groups. Above all, Bullard has had to strike a delicate balance between ecological and economic concerns.
Many of the problems he encountered when he started the job remain, including overfishing, a lingering mistrust of regulators, and the growing impact of climate change, which has caused some fisheries to move or collapse as the region’s waters warm and become more acidic.
Bullard sits on regional fishery management councils often dominated by commercial interests and fields calls from governors, senators, and other politicians who tend to lobby on their behalf. On the other side, environmental advocates rarely hesitate to take him to court when they disagree with him.
When Bullard became regional administrator in 2012, fishermen and environmentalists had reason to be both wary and optimistic.
He had never before been on a commercial fishing boat but had spent years working for fishermen at the New Bedford Seafood Cooperative and helping provide economic assistance to fishing communities as a member of the Clinton administration.
Environmentalists knew that the Harvard and MIT graduate spent most of his career trying to revitalize New Bedford, his hometown, where he served as mayor for six years before being voted out of office in 1992 after insisting on building a controversial sewage treatment plant to clean Buzzards Bay.
Soon after taking over, Bullard faced a significant test.
Agency surveys found that cod — the region’s iconic species — had fallen to a historic low, making up as little as 3 percent of what scientists considered to be a sustainable population.
Two years later, Bullard imposed a moratorium on fishing cod, sparking widespread anger.
But Bullard never second-guessed that decision.
“It’s a travesty that we allowed what happened to this fishery,” he said. “Someone had to do something, and I did it. I still wonder whether it’s too little, too late.”
More recently, he had to decide how to respond to the massive fraud perpetrated by Carlos Rafael, the New Bedford fishing mogul known as “The Codfather.”
Last month, with little warning, Bullard announced he was prohibiting 60 permit holders affiliated with Rafael from returning to sea until at least the start of the new fishing season next May. Many fishermen protested, but Bullard was intent on sending a message.
“That’s something the sector should have thought about when they were failing to do their job,” Bullard said.
Other decisions have inspired wrath from within the agency. Several months ago, Bullard wrote an essay for The Boston Globe contrasting President Trump with John F. Kennedy, who he noted “appealed to our better angels” and used science to “inspire people to action.”
“Boy, could we use a president like that now,” he wrote. “One who understands the science behind the large storms and floods that now threaten our nation.”
The White House promptly expressed its displeasure to Bullard’s bosses at the US Commerce Department, which oversees NOAA, who threatened to fire him.
This summer, when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross rejected a conservation plan backed by a commission that oversees fishing issues along the East Coast, Bullard called it an “unfortunate precedent” that went against “long-standing protocol.”
He now wishes he had taken a stronger stand against Ross’s decision, which Bullard worries could have long-term consequences by allowing political considerations to undermine fishery decisions.
“I should have raised a stink,” he said. “Gone down swinging.”
Not everyone is sad to see Bullard go.
“John’s legacy is that less fishermen are engaged in actively fishing than at any time in history,” said David Goethel, a cod fisherman from New Hampshire. “That’s why I plan to go fishing the day he retires, because I will have outlasted the job-killing measures he approved.”
But at NOAA’s offices in Gloucester, Bullard will be missed.
At a retirement dinner in Danvers last month, after roasting Bullard for his penchant for speechifying, John Quinn, chairman of the New England Fishery Management Council, invoked Teddy Roosevelt, who once said that it wasn’t the critic who counted but “the man who was actually in the arena.”
“In this era of political expediency,” he said, Bullard “is one of the rare people who calls them as he sees them, and sticks to his guns.”