Baker slams federal fishing mandate

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Written by Andy Metzger

GLOUCESTER — Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday excoriated an upcoming federal mandate that will force fishermen to pay for environmental observers on their boats.

“This is about the most perfect example of an unfunded mandate,” Baker said on the Gloucester shoreline, calling the policy “ridiculous” and “outrageous.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has communicated to the fishing industry that it will stop footing the cost of the observers, who periodically join skippers and their crew to measure the fish hauled up from the seafloor.

New England Fisheries Management Council Executive Director Tom Nies told the News Service the policy, which is expected to go into effect in October, would affect most groundfish boats, which scrape cod and flounder and other fish from the seafloor.

NOAA had long planned to make fishermen cover the cost of the observers when changes were made to the way fishing is regulated in the area, Nies told the News Service. He said there is concern about the ability of the fishing industry to now cover the roughly $700 per day cost of bringing an observer onboard.

“That’s the problem. The monitors are expensive and the fishery right now is in somewhat of a depressed state,” Nies said.

Nies said NOAA had planned to implement the requirement in August, but it was pushed back to October.

“If they want to send observers out on the boats they should pay for them with their own money,” said Baker, who said he is working on a letter to send to the U.S. Commerce Department.

Baker made his comments at an event with the Gloucester Fishermen’s Wives Association, which the governor presented with a $5,000 check from his inaugural account.

Baker was hounded in the final days of his successful 2014 campaign about an emotional story he told at the final gubernatorial debate about meeting an unnamed fisherman remorseful that his sons might follow him into the business. Angela Sanfilippo, the president of the association, made clear that Baker’s interest in one of the Bay State’s oldest industries predated the froth of last October.

Sanfilippo said when Baker first ran for governor in 2010 he spent two hours with her seeking knowledge about the industry.

“He said, ‘I want to know all about the fishing industry and the fishermen,’ ” Sanfilippo told the crowd, as a trawler heading out from Gloucester Harbor plied the waves behind her.

Baker also said he wants NOAA to expand the data it takes into account when setting catch limits, and he said he is supported in that effort by the state’s Democratic delegation to Congress.

The state’s groundfish industry, which has been entwined with its identity for centuries, is in dire straits as federal forecasts of cod and other fish have led to sharp declines in catch limits, according to industry officials and practitioners.

“At some point it’s going to be too late,” said Baker, a Swampscott Republican who said his town was a fishing town. Baker said his administration will bring “a sense of urgency and a sense of focus” to the issue and work on a bipartisan basis “on behalf of truth.”

Commissioner of Fish and Game George Peterson, a former fisherman and former state representative, said the situation for the Massachusetts fishing industry has grown worse in recent years.

“It’s gotten worse and there’s a big hammer coming down right now,” Peterson told the News Service, referring to the mandate that fishermen cover the cost of observers. Peterson said the anticipation that NOAA would transfer those costs was made “under a pretense that the stocks would be rebuilt.”

Peterson said stocks of Gulf of Maine codfish are estimated at 2 percent to 3 percent of the amount federal officials believe necessary for the species numbers to rebuild. He said the mandate would put fishermen “out of business.”

This fall state researchers plan to use their own methods to gauge fish stocks, differing from the approach used by NOAA, though it is an open question whether federal fishery regulators will take the state’s data into consideration, according to Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton and Peterson.

Those employed in the fishing industry have claimed that the federal measurements dramatically underestimate the amount of fish off the shores of Massachusetts.

“I’ve been reading this stuff that NOAA’s been putting out for a long time and all I do is end up with more questions when I’m done reading it than I had when I began,” Baker told reporters. He said the state should leverage its educational institutions – some of which are already engaged on the subject – to provide more information to federal regulators.

An aide to Congressman Bill Keating, who represents the fishing communities in southeastern Massachusetts, said NOAA was able to delay the cost-shift of fishing monitors because fewer fishing trips have been made so far this season.

An additional $10 million is available in previously approved federal disaster money for the area’s fishing industry, and some have suggested that money be used to cover the cost of observers, according to officials.

Nies said the idea that the federal disaster money fund the observers mandated by NOAA has not been well received by the fishing industry.

Gloucester Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken expressed her gratitude to Baker as the governor was presented with a special tray, a book and a bag on Thursday.

“Everything you said you were going to do you’re doing and exceeding it, so thank you,” Romeo Theken said as she fastened a pin onto the governor’s suit. A former city councilor, Romeo Theken was appointed by the council to be mayor after the former mayor, Carolyn Kirk, joined the Baker administration.

Romeo Theken is vice president of the Fishermen’s Wives Association, and she said her first husband was a commercial dragger who trawled for cod and flounder.

Copyright State House News Service