Court Upholds New England’s Landmark Fishing Law

Peter Shelley | @peashell47

This week, the federal First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston dashed the hopes of the cities of New Bedford and Gloucester to throw out the management structure that has been in place since May 2010 for harvesting cod, haddock, flounder and other groundfish. The court upheld a prior decision by the district court in favor of the government and CLF, which intervened on the side of federal agencies. The carefully written and thoroughly considered 68-page opinion demolished every claim brought by New Bedford, calling New Bedford’s views in one case “misguided,” in another “inaccurate”, and in a third as having “no textual basis for the argument.”

At stake was the validity of the significant new management plan that was adopted by the regional fishery management council in 2010 and approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service that same year.

The judicial review of this plan bordered on frivolous. The 60,000+ page administrative record memorializing the decision to approve the new program provides extensive documentation on each and every decision made. New Bedford and Gloucester barely participated in that public process but nevertheless felt at liberty to drag the issue into court for two years. As the Court concluded: “the record demonstrates that the [National Marine Fisheries Service] engaged in reasoned decision-making and reached rational outcomes to hard choices.” That is what good fisheries management is all about. It’s never easy and there are always winners and losers, but decisions have to be made.

In this case, an overhaul was desperately needed. As the First Circuit said in its decision, “[t]wo decades of [a different form of fishing limits on the industry] has left the [f]ishery’s stocks on the brink of collapse.”

The new plan, created by Amendment 16 to the Northeast Multispecies Fishery Management Plan, accomplished two goals. First and most importantly from a conservation perspective, scientific opinion became paramount in setting catch levels, removing the politics that had previously trivialized scientists’ warnings about the risks of overharvesting. As a result of using scientifically-set fishing limits, the amount of groundfish that was available to the fleet at the beginning of the fishing year on May 1, 2010 was drastically reduced.

The second accomplishment of the new plan was the expansion of the “sector program,” an approach that had been pioneered in the region by the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association. The sector program allowed fishermen to form voluntary organizations in which they could pool their catch allotment and re-distribute it amongst themselves in any way that made the most economic sense to them. Since they were guaranteed a set amount of fish, they could choose when to fish, freeing them up to wait for high wholesale prices or good weather or to reserve some quota for late season holidays like Easter, which always brought strong prices. In return for forming the sectors and agreeing to be bound by the “hard” quota of fish, other regulations were relaxed, further increasing the potential for efficient operations.

It is a mystery to me why New Bedford and Gloucester, and their Congressional allies U.S. Representatives Frank and Tierney, tried to blow this new scheme up in court. None of their publicly stated reasons hold much water, and the Massachusetts representatives, including those from New Bedford, overwhelmingly approved the plan in 2010.

Perhaps the best explanation is that the lawsuit provided a handful of political demagogues with an opportunity to decry federal oversight of the public’s fisheries. In doing so, they diverted scarce federal management resources away from solving fisheries problems, no doubt spent significant municipal dollars on a fruitless goose chase, and intentionally destabilized and attacked a new management system in the front pages of their local papers. Now that the challenge to Amendment 16 is behind us, we can better focus our efforts on restoring the prosperity of this region’s fisheries.

New Bedford v. Locke Opinion – First Circuit Court of Appeals

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