A staggering loss to U.S. fishermen and U.S. seafood consumers.

Nils E.Stolpe  FishNet USA/June 26, 2013

 It was back in June of 2008 that I first became aware of Richard Gaines’ work in the Gloucester Times in a three part series exploring the interplay between fishermen, feds, ENGOs and the mega-foundations that funded them in a controversial move to close Stellwagen Bank to fishing (see http://tinyurl.com/n8m3voh for the first installment). A letter about the series I wrote to Times Editor Ray Lamont started “kudos to Richard Gaines for reporting what is going on behind the smoke and mirrors obscuring the struggle to maintain the historical fisheries that have thrived on Stellwagan Bank for generations. He couldn’t be more on-target when writing ‘Pew is associated with public information campaigns against fishing and fish consumption.’”

This started a friendship between Richard and me that, I was amazed to discover, had lasted for less than five years. I know it enriched my life. I can only hope it enriched my writing as well.

Returning from a business trip on Sunday, June 9, Nancy Gaines found her husband Richard dead of an apparent heart attack at their home just outside of Gloucester.

Richard was a journalist’s journalist. Unlike the average “reporter” covering fisheries/ocean issues today, he gave press releases – and the contacts they provide – the minimal initial credence that they generally deserve. He was always looking for the story behind the press release and with a combination of integrity, skill and tenacity he usually found it. In five years he developed a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of what has become a cumbersomely complex federal fisheries management process – and of the political machinations behind it. Whether it was about the multi-billion dollar foundations behind the environmental activist organizations that have become so adept at making life miserable for fishermen, or a federal fisheries enforcement establishment that was allowed to enrich itself with tens of millions of dollars coerced from the fishing industry, Richard was covering it, covering it thoroughly and covering it well.

It’s going to be harder on all of us because he’s no longer there to do it.

Richard was memorialized fittingly by Ray Lamont in Community, industry mourn loss of a champion at http://preview.tinyurl.com/mmjbuae, North Carolina Congressman Walter Jones honored him with a statement to the U.S. House of Representatives available in the Congressional Record (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?r113:E12JN3-0009:/ and I can’t add much to what they and dozens of other folks have written in the last week other than offering his wife Nancy, his family and coworkers my deepest sympathy. And I’d suggest that after reading this you spend a few minutes watching an interview of Richard done by Good Morning Gloucester at http://preview.tinyurl.com/lg8ohll. If you weren’t lucky enough to know him this will tell you much of what you should know about him and his work.

And while on the subject of press releases….

“The Attorney General is wrong on the law and she is wrong on the facts,” said Peter Shelley, senior counsel with CLF, who has been actively engaged in fisheries management for more than 20 years. “Political interference like this action by Attorney General Coakley has been a leading cause of the destruction of these fisheries over the past twenty years, harassing fishery managers to ignore the best science available….We need responsible management which includes habitat protection and a suspension of directed commercial and recreational fishing for cod. We also need some serious leadership from our elected officials. Going to court or getting up on a political soapbox will not magically create more fish.” (from a Conservation Law Foundation press release on May 31.”

It’s kind of hard to believe that just about immediately after this press release went out the  Conservation Law Foundation – along with the Pew spawned Earthjustice (recipient of some $20 million from the Pew Charitable Trusts) – filed suit in federal court to prevent NOAA from cutting the groundfish fishermen the tiniest bit of slack, perhaps allowing more of them to survive a largely management manufactured slump. It seems that in the release Mr. Shelley must have meant other people going to court or getting up on a political soapbox will not magically create more fish. However if  it’s me or my foundation funded buds going to court, watch out ‘cause those fish will shortly be on the way.”

I usually stay away from New England issues because my colleagues up there are more than capable – in spite of the gross inequities resulting from the mega-foundation mega-buck funding of organizations like the Conservation Law Foundation and Earthjustice – of representing their own interests. However I couldn’t sit back and not comment on the CLF position voiced by Peter Shelley in an article, Conservation group sues NOAA to block openings, byRichard Gaines on June 6.

Explaining how the CLF/Earthjustice position wasn’t hypocritical, Mr. Shelley explained “the distinction for me is that I have seen time and time again when politicians — in this case the attorney general — hasn’t participated in the (fisheries management) process, and then comes in to try to influence the process in litigation. They’re not taking a legal position, there’s not much there except politics.”(http://preview.tinyurl.com/mnzgsnu).

To suggest that this is a more than slightly puzzling statement for an attorney to make would be an understatement. Mr. Shelley must believe – or must want other people to believe – that Attorney General Coakley was acting on her own when filing the suit. Apparently he believes – or wants us to believe – that because she has never personally participated in the fishery management process her suit has no merit. He is and has been, it would seem, in attendance at many meetings in New England at which fish are discussed and it appears as if in his view this makes his suit de facto righteous and hers nothing more than political posturing.

Massachusetts  Attorney General hasn’t participated in fisheries management?

Let’s examine his contention that the Massachusetts Attorney General hasn’t participated in the (fisheries management) process in a little more depth. First off, I doubt very much that Attorney General Coakley  brought the suit on her own behalf. In fact, I’d bet dollars to donuts that she brought it on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Even Mr. Shelley must know that the Commonwealth, via a succession of capable and effective representatives, has for at least the last forty or so years participated heavily in federal fisheries management via the Magnuson Fisheries Conservation and Management Act. Either Paul Diodati, Director of the Commonwealth’s Division of Marine Fisheries, or David Pierce, the Deputy Director, are at every meeting of the New England Fishery Management Council and Dr. Pierce is a member of that Council’s Groundfish Committee (as well as its Herring, Sea Scallop and ad hoc Sturgeon Committees and the Mid-Atlantic council’s Dogfish and Herring Committees). Mr. Diodati is also the Chairman of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the Co-Director of the Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Institute. They aren’t on these bodies on their own behalf either. They are there representing the Commonwealth as well. And before they were there, their predecessors were, and they were just as deeply involved.

This commitment to and participation in the fisheries management process by the various representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began long before Mr. Shelley, the CLF and the Pew Trusts discovered each other. The Commonwealth, as represented in the current suit by the Attorney General whose participation Mr. Shelley seems so intent in marginalizing, established its bona fides in fisheries management at least a century ago (and will hopefully remain involved far beyond the point when Mr. Shelley, the CLF and Pew move on to “greener” pastures).

In fact the groundfish management measures that Mr.Shelley’s justifiable (in his estimation) suit is aimed at were a work product of the New England Fisheries Management Council, an institution which was established by the Magnuson Act in 1976 that has been in continuous operation – with overlapping changes in membership and administration –  since then. And in spite of Mr. Shelley’s so apparent disagreement with this fact, the Council is mandated by the Act to manage for the benefit of the fish, the fishermen and the fishing communities. The Council members voted by an over 75% majority (13 to 3) to support the measures that Mr. Shelley et al are now going to court – of course in a non-political fashion – to prevent. As opposed to Mr. Shelley’s “more than twenty years” trumpeted in the CLF press release,how many hundreds of years of collective fisheries science and management experience do the Council members and staff possess? How many collective years of management experience do the Council members whose votes Mr. Shelley and his pals are going to court to nullify have.

Evidently it isn’t fisheries management experience that Mr. Shelley finds so valuable. It’s whose management experience that matters.

These are the people, the agencies, the institutions, the experience and the actions behind the Commonwealth’s lawsuit – the one that Mr. Shelley wants us to believe is based on nothing more than “political posturing.”

And what of the constituencies being represented? Attorney General Coakley’s constituency is made up in large part of Massachusetts fishermen, all of those people, families and businesses that depend on them, all of the Commonwealth’s consumers who, apparently unlike Mr. Shelley et al, realize that a seafood dinner should involve something more satisfying and wholesome than a several-times-frozen lump of imported shrimp, tilapia or swai, and all of them, and us, who seriously appreciate fishing traditions going back to colonial times.

On the other hand, from what I’ve been able to discover (see http://www.fishtruth.net), Mr. Shelley’s, CLF’s and Earthjustice’s “constituents” are a handful of mega-foundations and well-to-do-donors, and I’d imagine a lot of internet “click here if you don’t like fishermen or fishing” residents of anywhere (but I’ll again bet those same dollars to those same donuts that very few of them are in coastal Massachusetts).

So few groundfish?

Then Mr.Shelley brings up what he wants us to consider the “fact” that there are so few groundfish available to the fishermen that they are no longer filling their annual quotas. To the uninformed (those “click here” constituents, for example) this probably seems a compelling argument for shutting down the fisheries, Mr. Shelley’s often stated goal. It must make sense to many people who are unfamiliar with our modern fisheries “management” regime as it has been distorted by lobbying by environmental activist organizations like CLF. In fact, however, there are other and much more believable causes of uncaught quota than not enough fish.

The first of these would be the existence of so-called “choke” species. Much more valuable fisheries can be shut down because of unavoidable bycatch of other species with much lower quotas. Take the situation in which two species – the targeted species and the “choke” species – are inextricably mixed during part of the fishing year. Fishermen, tending to be rational even when dealing with an irrational system such as the one that Mr. Shelley and his cronies have built, will avoid the target species in spite of its abundance because they know full well that when the catch limit for the “choke” species is reached both  fisheries will be shut down. In essence they are leaving the uncaught quota “in the bank” for later harvest. Needless to say, that later harvest isn’t guaranteed and it’s easy to imagine that in many instances it remains uncaught.

Then there are the meager trip limits for some stocks. Catch shares or not, in instances it just isn’t worth it for some fishermen to run their boats offshore for a few hundreds of pounds – or less – of fish. They’ll remain tied to the dock or will target other species with quotas that will allow them more income.

And we can’t forget low prices at the dock. Fish markets have adjusted to the recent vast swings in supply of some of the traditional species (a testament to the lack of effectiveness of our fisheries management system) by switching to alternative products. With the most productive fishing grounds in the world in our EEZ it’s hard to imagine that tilapia is the most heavily consumed finfish in the U.S., but it is. Compensating for these often low prices is a large part of the reason for the development of alternative markets for our domestic fisheries, but it’s somewhere between extremely difficult and impossible to move large quantities of fish in small lots.

Then there’s the impact of changing environmental conditions on the traditional availability of species, Said most simply, fish aren’t necessarily where they have been found by fishermen for generations. Though Mr. Shelley apparently want you to think that means they’re not there at all, that’s not necessarily so. Fish stocks are dependent on water temperatures, as are the critters they feed on, and water temperatures have been changing significantly in recent years. Some areas that used to reliably produce a particular species of fish at a particular time of the year no longer do so. With the meager quotas and the continually increasing costs of running a boat a fisherman isn’t as likely to search for where the water temperature changes have driven the fish. Economics won’t allow it.

Additionally, fish surveys are operated as if our U.S. coastal waters exist in a steady state; that conditions today  are as they were when the survey was started. The same spots are sampled at the same time every year, and when a particular species is no longer  taken in the sample or is taken in reduced numbers, the automatic assumption is that fishing is the cause of “the problem” and that reducing or curtailing (ala Mr. Shelley) fishing is the solution. Compounding the real problem, the reduced availability of research funds, the probability of extending the scope of the surveys is pretty low.

In a follow-up article on June 10, Shelley elaborated that the suit filed by Attorney General Coakley was “political ‘soapbox’ posturing” while“our suits are not political… they’re strictly based on the facts, and we do it as a last resort”(http://preview.tinyurl.com/mysrlbz).

Attorney General Coakley, Governor Patrick et al, please keep on keeping on. Effective fisheries management should involve much more than happy fish and happy ENGOs. When Congress passed the Magnuson Act in 1976 the Members realized this and it’s about time that the pendulum gets pushed back in the direction that it was intended to swing in. Fish count, but so do fishermen, fishing communities and seafood consumers. If the U.S. fishing industry is to survive, the initial balance that was amended out of the Act by intensive lobbying by foundation funded activists claiming to represent the public must be restored.

For more information on Shelley’s/the Conservation Law Foundation/Earthjustice lawsuit see Conservation Law Foundation & Earthjustice Make Unfounded Claims in Lawsuit Filing   at http://preview.tinyurl.com/pwaaabu.


For those of you who were interested in the FishNet piece (available at http://www.fishnet-usa.com/Bluefin tuna and Pew.pdf ) on the ongoing attempts by the Pew Trusts, one of Mr. Shelley’s benefactors, to steer the Bluefin tuna management meeting this week in Montreal, the critique of the claims of the Pew people attempting the steering are available on the Saving Seafood website at http://preview.tinyurl.com/nc59z3q. I’d suggest that you take the time to read it and the Saving Seafood special report on Bluefin tuna at http://preview.tinyurl.com/ojo5jne.