Gloucester Daily Times takes stand for local fishing industry

Editorial: NMFS' use of false data to set catch limits can't stand this time

It would be one thing to establish rules and regulations for commercial fishing based on credible statistics or other data.

Bill Amaru, a trawler fisherman on Cape Cod, "found over 100,000 pounds of errors and omissions" in NMFS records.

It is something else entirely to establish them based on demonstrably, admittedly flawed data.

Yet that is what the National Marine Fisheries Service intends to do - again.

The agency concedes that its information on catch histories of various fishermen is wrong. The minutes of a March 1, 2006 NMFS committee meeting readily admit the agency had "no expertise or time for correcting these errors."

Yet, it intends to impose an entirely new regulatory regime known as "catch shares," based on those erroneous catch histories, starting next May - with the critical, decisive data use to set fishermen's limits based on documentation NMFS' officials concede is inaccurate.

Shocked? You shouldn't be. That's because NMFS exuded this same level of arrogance in the wake of the infamous "Trawlgate" fiasco, when, at the turn of the new century, regulators conceded the trawling tactics used to "scientifically" assess fish stocks used the wrong-size nets - yet still used the flawed data to support regulatory rules that have already driven far too many fishermen right out of business.

Using false records for fishermen's landings this time around would wrongly drive down their allowable catch limits - and thus artificially, once again, limit their ability to earn a living. And it is yet another example of a rogue agency that must not be allowed to trample on the livelihoods of commercial fishermen with any means necessary - yes, even admittedly false premises.

This should bring the city's congressional delegation out in force, to demand regulations that are fair and well founded. Sen. John Kerry and Congressman John Tierney have spoken frequently about their support for the fishing industry; now is the time to turn that talk into action.

Indeed, it is almost beyond comprehension that NMFS thinks its impending regulations are justifiable.

Maine fisherman Bill Doughty told Times reporter Richard Gaines that NMFS failed to credit him with about 40 percent of his catch one year and 25 percent of it in another.

Bill Amaru, a trawler fisherman on Cape Cod, said he "found over 100,000 pounds of errors and omissions" in NMFS records. Geir Monson, owner of Seafreeze Ltd. in North Kingstown, R.I., called the statistics, "some of the worst workmanship I ever have seen of any type of work." And he made another good point:

"If this record-keeping was in a commercial company," he said, "the company would be bankrupt and the people in charge of the record-keeping would be in jail for falsifying records."

It's not, of course, And no one is calling for NMFS' top regulators to be sent to the slammer. This is the government, of course, so not only is nobody in trouble for such shoddy work, but that shoddy work is about to be accepted.

Even more absurd, NMFS spokeswoman Maggie Mooney-Seus said that, while the agency acknowledges the problem, it cannot make corrections before next May, yet still intends to use it to set catch quotas. And any fisherman who wants to make a complaint about faulty data, in hopes of a correction in time for the 2011 season - 20 months away - has only until Oct. 31 to file the complaint.

Simply put, this should be NMFS' last straw. Federal legislators simply cannot accept the approach and conduct on the part of an agency that indeed seems to have no sense of accountability whatsoever - no sense of the need to back up its business-killing tactics with viable data, and no sense of the need to hold off on any regulatory changes until it at least validates the records used to put these new limits in place.

That must change, and it's time our government leaders on all levels recognized this renegade agency's downright incompetence, irresponsibility and misconduct.

NMFS must get its house and data in order before making wholesale changes in the regulation of the New England fishery - and any move to fishermen's catch shares must be held until there's a sense they are based on true and credible data.

There's sure no reason to think NMFS could ever deliver that.

 

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