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Editorial

Between fishing and government, an ocean of misunderstanding

A CONGRESSIONAL hearing in Boston last month did little to clear up an ocean of mistrust between New England fishermen and their federal regulators. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose officers were once overly aggressive in fining fishermen and seizing their assets, has much to do to rebuild its credibility.

Massachusetts Senators Scott Brown and John Kerry, along with the House delegation led by Barney Frank and John Tierney, who have coastal districts, have been strong voices for federal accountability. They need to work closely with both the fishing industry and federal regulators to resolve disputes about both the extent of fishing limits and federal enforcement. But a bill filed by Brown and New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte would go too far toward striking down an evolving “catch share’’ program of administering the ground-fishing limits. Despite some problems in its implementation, catch share promises to be the fairest way to enforce limits that won’t disappear under any scenario.

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Everyone agrees that there were too many regulations in the past, and they were over-enforced. But fishermen note that no one publicly paid the price for a system that rewarded regulators for aggressive enforcement by allowing their agency to keep seized assets. More than $600,000 in fines were returned to fishermen, but NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco says privacy rules prevent her from revealing any disciplinary actions. Meanwhile, the asset forfeiture program remains in place, though the rules governing it have changed.

Some fishermen have redirected their anger toward catch share, the new system that divides them into sectors, based on their location or equipment, and sets overall catch limits within each of the sectors for different ground-fish types. This promises to eliminate such egregious problems as individual fishing boats dumping excess catch overboard, just to stay within regulations.

Lubchenco, testifying in Boston, said the system is working reasonably well: Limits for 18 of 20 groundfish have been met and stocks are replenishing quickly enough that the government was able to increase catch levels for 12 of them. Some fishermen, however, say “catch share’’ is working better for large boats and driving smaller ones out of business. If that pattern continues, Lubchenco must make adjustments.

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Brown, for his part, has been so dissatisfied with NOAA’s response that he and Ayotte filed a bill that would kill New England’s catch share program if the number of eligible fishermen drops by at least 15 percent. Any replacement would require the approval of two-thirds of fishermen. But killing the catch share system would be premature. Even if it needs adjustments, it remains a promising, cooperative method of enforcing limits.

Lubchenco, who is now facing calls for her resignation from Brown and others, is not primarily responsible either for past excesses in enforcement or for today’s limits, which are set by the New England Fishery Management Council, which includes fishermen, and approved by NOAA. An award-winning marine ecologist with a bureaucratic manner, Lubchenco must take greater responsibility for rebuilding trust. Working within privacy rules, she should at least confirm the extent to which enforcement officers have been punished. And the forfeiture program should be changed to ensure that seized assets do not go back to the agency.

No one wants to see fishing families out of business. But the long-term health of the industry depends on the health of the fishing stock. That requires limits and enforcement, and the industry, regulators, and the local congressional delegation have to start working together on a long-term plan for both.

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