Thursday, October 13, 2011
Coakley presses to revise fish limits

State lawmakers and Attorney General Martha Coakley pledged yesterday to continue putting pressure on the federal government to revise catch share limits imposed on the fishing industry, and give fishermen relief from the severe fines levied by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Coakley told lawmakers serving on a subcommittee on catch shares and fisheries management that she plans to “stay involved in this fight.’’

The attorney general said there was a better way for the federal government to accomplish environmental goals without affecting the fishing industry so negatively. Last week, members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation ripped NOAA officials for regulations they described as overzealous and verge on making small fishing businesses in the state extinct.

During a field hearing of the US Senate Commerce Committee, US Senators John F. Kerry and Scott Brown said the regulations are having a devastating impact on an already struggling fishing industry and described the relationship between fishermen and the federal government as “beyond repair.’’

Jane Lubchenco, an administrator at NOAA, said during the hearing that the agency was working to repair frayed relationships with the fishing industry.

Coakley said yesterday morning that the regulations are “taking the ability of people to make a fair living away.’’ The attorney general said she is demanding more transparency from the agency.

Coakley recently filed a request with the Department of Commerce. the department that oversees NOAA, for documentation on how it investigates enforcement of regulations and disciplines those involved. She also said she wants the federal government to reimburse the legal fees of fishermen who were unfairly penalized, as well as provide restitution for lost business costs incurred due to “overzealous enforcement.’’

State officials doubt NOAA’s ability to fairly enforce the regulations, Coakley said. Accusations of targeted, unfair prosecutions of Massachusetts fishermen by NOAA have been raised for years, she said.

State Representative Christopher Markey, Democrat of Dartmouth and cochairman of the subcommittee, said it is not right that the agency acts as the investigator, the prosecutor, and the judge in these cases.

State Senator Daniel Wolf, Democrat of Harwich and the other committee chairman, asked Coakley if there was any precedent for the federal government refunding legal fees.

“It is a little unusual; it is not unprecedented,’’ Coakley said.

The catch shares, implemented in May 2010, were aimed at preventing overfishing with a system that limits the total number of certain species of fish that may be caught in one season. The catch share system replaced the old system of monitoring days at sea.

“Unfortunately, the transition during the last two years to a catch share system, known as Amendment 16, has only renewed our concerns,’’ Coakley said. “Once again, the federal government has failed to properly consider the interests of the majority of our fishermen.’’

Attorneys who represent fishermen told subcommittee members they have several clients who were put out of business by the regulations and stiff fines.

“We have an underproductive fishery, yet NOAA is doing more and more to shut down small businesses,’’ Stephen Ouellette, an attorney in Gloucester, said. “We are losing hundreds of millions of dollars every year.’’

Ouellette said NOAA does very little to understand the social and economic impact of its regulations, which in turn are destroying a historic industry in many communities.